Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The last train through Alpine Tunnel? 110 year anniversary

 110 years ago on this day, November 10, 1910, the last train went through the historic Alpine Tunnel...or was there another?  I explored this questionable date in the below article previously found in The Bogies & the Loop. 

Mysteries of Alpine - part 6

On the afternoon of August 16th, 1977, Elvis Presley was found dead in his Memphis home. Or was he? A long-standing mystery suggests that the King of Rock and Roll may have faked his death and has been sighted numerous times since that fateful day. 

The King of South Park Lore, the route of the Alpine Tunnel, also has a curious ending. To be sure, the bell tolled for the majestic route over "the hill" late in 1910. But unlike the final scheduled narrow gauge movement on the C&S in Leadville on August 23rd, 1943, the date of the funeral train on the Gunnison division lacks an equivalent Time magazine-covered event.

November 10th, 1910 is the most common date given for the last run through the bore. It is based on Dow Helmer's interview with a South Park fireman named Zed Scott. Recorded in Helmer's 1963 Historic Alpine Tunnel book, Scott claims decisively, "I remember distinctly, the last train through Alpine Tunnel. The date was November 10, 1910....it was a mixed train, eastbound for Como."

Scott's definitive claim flies in the face, however, of C&S company announcements. On approximately October 10th, one month prior to Scott's date, a minor cave-in occurred in the tunnel. Mac Poor in his iconic DSP&P book states that, "the management inferred that the damage was beyond repair." On October 14th a Gunnison newspaper reported to "have positive information that the C.&S. has decided to close the railroad to Denver for the winter, perhaps permanently" and by October 24th the railroad's management "announced that all through service to Gunnison would be discontinued."

While most agree that the cave-in was simply a good excuse to justify killing the expensive line, few deny that it occurred in actuality. (See note at bottom for a correction on this) If Scott is right, though, they must have cleaned it up enough to continue running trains. Yet, if the management was using the cave-in as a motive for abandonment, why would they clean it up?  Apparently, that cave-in was not "beyond repair." 

One way or another trains kept running into November 1910. The Gunnison News Champion commented on November 4th that the railroad "still runs a train every other day but probably will stop that shortly." Could the 10th, then, have been that final funeral train? 

One source suggests that it was not. A. A. Brownie Anderson, a C&S trainman, kept meticulous notes on his C&S trips, recording in his time book nearly every train he worked on. He fired several trains over Altman Pass, the last of which were recorded as November 12th & 13th, 1910 with engine 55. Both of these dates exceed Zed Scott's "distinct" conviction that the 10th was the final run.

I have several theories concerning the inconsistencies between our principal defendants. First, it is clear that the management's statements were conjecture. Plus, they had a motive: to bury this money-drain of a line. Plus, at least two separate trainmen without a motive mention runs in November.

Zed Scott is closer to the truth, but we have reason to question his accuracy. He was speaking on memory roughly fifty years after the event in question. On the other hand, he may have been on the last scheduled run. Maybe Anderson's trains were specials as the line wrapped up for the winter. This year, as so many others, they probably figured the line would open again in the spring.

A. A. Brownie Anderson's dates, then, are the most accurate we have. He does not have a motive, and he recorded the dates on their actual occurrence. Was then, the last run through the tunnel on November 13th, 1910? It was Anderson's final run through the bore, for sure, but we may never know how many or if any followed after that day.

To those whose coffers the tunnel was draining, the line's death could not have come soon enough, but for those of us who love this route lined with ghostly debris like the city of Rome, it was laid in its grave all too soon. Still, the grand mysteries draw us ever more to it, because our spirits long to know the details of the final stand of this mighty hero who stared Mother Nature in the face for so many years. While we may never know the exact date that it was finally brought low, in its short life, this line, like its name, Alpine, rose to great heights that still inspire us today.


So now I have to discredit my own article. I wrote it a few years ago before I had access to Daniel W. Edwards Documentary History of the South Park series. Having just checked that book now, I found more facts. In Daniel W. Edwards' Vol. 1, he quotes from a Nov. 20, 1910 letter from the James D. Welsh, C&S General Superintendent, where Welsh wrote, "This leaves our Gunnison district west of Hancock so it can be closed as soon as we are able to move 48 coal and one box car to that territory." Daniel W. Edwards, the editor, then inserts a comment "This suggests that several freight trains hauling empty coal cars to Gunnison passed through Alpine Tunnel after November 20 and that probably the last engines, running light or going east-bound with a few cars, had gone through Alpine Tunnel by December 1."

Note on the cave-in:

It has come to my attention that there is good reason to believe that the cave-in may never have actually occurred, or was so minor that it was easily patched up.  The fact that quite a few trains traveled through the tunnel afterwards is one case against its existence.  Daniel Edwards (mentioned in the update above) also wrote, ""the so-called flood in Trout Creek Canon in the summer of 1910 was used later as a reason to justify why the South Park abandoned that stretch of line, just as the 'cave in' at Alpine Tunnel was cited for abandonment of the line from Hancock to Quartz."

1 comment:

williwalla said...

Almost all abandonments were followed by one or more clean-up trains which gathered all rolling stock left in yards and on sidings and any miscellaneous property which the railroad wanted to retain.