Bad Day at Big Rock by L.E. Trump

The date was August 6 1963. I remember it well as it was the day A made my first pay trip east out of Durango, Colorado towards Chama, NM, having just transferred over to the "west end" from Alamosa. On this particular trip, I was called to work as head brakeman. We were a "made up" crew for the extra 492 east. The engineer was Virgil Hedrick (since deceased) and the fireman was Richard Thate (pronounced "Totty"). I believe the conductor was Harold "Punk" Blackstone and the rear brakeman was Al Stevenson, another young feller about my age. The regular "freight crew" had been assigned that day to the second section of the Silverton passenger run, which had just been put on and men off the extra board were used for the freight extra east.

Use of extra board firemen as brakemen and extra board brakemen as firemen was common practice at the time in Durango when an extra crew was needed, and we all were crosstrained so we could work either job. We were all railroaders and sort of a happy family and there wasnt much trouble with the unions for "crosscrafting".

We left Durango several hours before noon and by early afternoon we were proceeding eastward after taking water at Gato tank (old Pagosa Jct). We were just west of a siding called Lumberton. Our speed was about 15 mph which was the limit on that part of the road. The fireman was a young feller about my age (20) just off the ranch and making his first or second pay trip on a 490 series K-37 class engine. These were fairly heavy power, hand fired, and would burn about as much coal as you could shovel in, although that was not the easy way to keep one hot, as we eventually learned.

Richard was tired and had been having some trouble with his fire. I could tell this by the amount of smoke that was coming back over the tank where the brakeman's doghouse was located, and after a while I got tired of sitting there choking on the smoke watching the train follow along and climbed down into the cab to give him a hand and help get his fire into shape for the coming pull up the hill eastward out of Dulce, NM I had made several dozen trips by then on the big 490 class engines and had figured out how to keep one hot with a minimum of shoveling. The trick was to "heel" the fire good in the back corners of the firebox on both sides of the firedoor ring, and then scatter about two good scoops along each side sheet, letting the working draft level the fire toward the center. This trick was shown me by one of the "old heads" over on the Alamosa end when I "broke in" some months earlier. With this method of firing and a bit of practice, you could keep one of those engines right up against the pops, and the stack would clear between "fires" making much less smoke.

Richard apparently hadn't been shown this by anyone yet, and was shoveling away for all he was worth and was about worn out by this time. I was down on the deck putting in the fire, and Richard was riding his seat on the left side of the cab as the rules required on a left hand curve. Next thing I remember is Richard jumping up and down and hollering "whoa, you big sonofabitch, whoa,whoa]]]" virgil woke up and yanked the whistle wide open, horsed her over into back motion, and slapped the brake lever into the big hole all in one motion, then shut her off. The deck began to buck under my feet and then "wham", we smacked into something that stopped us up short with a hell of a jolt. We were down over half our coal, and the upper coal gates were open so what was left of the coal in the tank came showering forward, burying me to the knees and throwing me against the boilerhead among all the hot pipes and oilcans.

After a minute or two, we figured out that we were still right side up, not dead yet, and only bruised a little. I had some minor burns on my arms from the steam pipes and the boiler, but was all right albeit completely covered with coal dust. Old Virgil was white as a sheet and was mumbling something about what we had hit. He couldnt see anything but the side of a huge rock in front of the engine, and I dont think it dawned on him for a while that we had actually hit the thing. Out the left side, we could see smaller rocks and boulders piled almost even with the gangway.

We climbed out of the cab over the rocks just as the rearend crew were walking forward to see what had dumped them on their butts. I looked to the rear and could see a huge pile of splintered wood which had been three or four empty flatcars, now telescoped into a pile of kindling wood. Both the guys from the rear were also white as sheets, probably expecting to find us all dead and mashed under the engine somewhere.

After we decided nobody was hurt badly, we looked over the damage. It was obvious that we would require the wrecker to get the mess straightened out. What we had run into was a huge rock about fifteen feet square and over 20 feet high that had broken loose from the caprock on top of the hill to the left north of the tracks and rolled several hundred feet down, coming to rest squarely on top of the rails. The rails and ties were completely out of sight under it and punched several feet below grade. The tracks make a left hand curve approaching the spot from the west, and brush obscured the view somewhat. Since the fireman was new, he did not notice anything unusual until we were too close to get stopped.

Damage to engine 492 was surprisingly light. The headlight was demolished, and the upper third of the smokebox was smashed back and the smokebox front was caved in. The contours of the rock were such that the headlight and upper edge of the smokebox bore the brunt of the collision, and by the time the front coupler and pilot beam hit anything, we were almost completely stopped. Smaller rocks had derailed the engine before we actually hit the big one and this also contributed to minimizing the damage. Back in the train, about five cars behind the engine, three or four empty flats had telescoped and were all completely destroyed. Numerous other cars in the train were also derailed due to the sudden stop.

After a while, the section men from Arboles came along on a motor car to see what all the commotion was about. They had heard the whistle when we hit and also heard Virgil whistle out a flag, so they knew something was wrong. In an hour or two the trainmaster and road foreman were on the scene from durango and we were deadheaded back to Arboles on the section car to be driven to Durango. The fireman stayed with the engine to keep steam up so the engine could help rerail herself.

I was called to fire the wreck train to the scene at daylight the next day. After the wrecked cars were bulldozed away, and the other cars rerailed and pulled back to the nearest siding, engine 492 was jacked up, rerailed, and inspected. As soon as the track was rebuilt out around the big rock, the 492 proceeded eastward under her own power, doubleheaded with another engine, pulling what was left of the train on into Chama. After further minor repairs, she was used to pull a train on into Alamosa where she was backshopped for repairs. A section was cut from the smokebox of a deadlined sister engine and welded in, and a new smokebox front and headlight fitted. This engine is still on the roster of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad out of Chama, NM, though not currently in service. You can see the repairs if you look closely.

I shudder to think what might have happened if that rock had waited just a little longer to tumble down the hillside, or what might have happened if we had been going a little faster and smashed the superheater header in the smokebox. That would have turned superheated steam back through the boiler flues into the firebox and out the firedoor into the cab, scalding us all to death instantly. I guess it just wasnt our time to go.

The big rock, by the way, is still sitting right were it landed. The railroad has been torn up along there now, but you can still see the ends of the rails jutting out from under it on each side. We unofficially christened it "Hedrick's Rock".


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