The Lonesome Whistle
There’s something otherworldly about a train. A mysterious power beyond ordinary horsepower. As a kid I would lay in my bed listening for the deep rumble of the midnight freights, a sound that I felt long before I could hear it. Then the whistle would echo across the frozen valley, a mournful cry in the night. It was a soothing sound. Often unnoticed but always there, 40,000 tons of steel hissing and clanking through town at ongoing intervals — like a clock tower striking the hour.
Some of my earliest memories involve trains. Or songs about trains anyway, first heard as my mother played the piano and channeled the Great American Songbook that lay at the core of her being. Her voice was as bright as the California sun shining through our dining room window, the songs were catchy, and soon I was asking if she could play Atchatookapeeka”…a three year old’s clumsy attempt at saying “Atchison Topeka”, as in the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe, a 1944 ode to a railroad of yore.
Other train songs followed. Some from the piano, others from the radio perpetually tuned to the equivalent of an “oldies” station, which in 1975 meant the 1940’s and Broadway show tunes or big bands cranking out the likes of Chattanooga Choo Choo or Take the A Train. Most emanated from the family record player and the country and folk records lined up beneath it, and by the age for four I knew some railroad tales. Johnny Cash riding the Orange Blossom Special towards some southern sandy beach. Hank Snow warning me about the dangers of runaway trains. Jimmie Rodgers sleeping in the rain and waiting to catch out. And Hank Williams getting melancholy whenever he heard an old freight coming down the line.
In 1977, we left California for the shelter of my mother’s hometown of Fraser, Colorado. Everything was different. There were big snowy mountains and extended family all around me. It was quiet and cold. There were horses to ride and a ditch to wade in.
There were also trains. 1970’s Fraser was inching towards the modern Colorado of full blown skiing and condominiums, but it held stubbornly to its roots as a ranching, logging and railroad town, and signs of all three were everywhere: hay stacks in the golden meadows, the smell of fresh lumber and the whine of saws at the mill, and train tracks passing right through the middle of town. Indeed, Fraser itself was a product of the railroad, and the first buildings — a hotel and a mercantile — had sprung up in late 1904 in anticipation of the rails, which arrived in June of 1905.
Before railroad: A bitterly cold and isolated valley with a few dozen residents spread across scattered ranches, a couple of lonely stagecoach stops along the rutted road, and a pine green sea of virgin timber.
After railroad: Still bitterly cold, but suddenly home to a couple thousand people, three towns, and sawmills that began transforming old growth forest into boards, boxes, telegraph poles and mine props that were loaded on trains and shipped over the mountains to big city markets.
“I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They’re probably drinking coffee and smoking big cigars.”
The first grade classroom sat atop the old, brick schoolhouse — the tallest building in the valley. This made for frightening fire drills across a snowy roof and down steep wooden stairs to safety. It also made for the best views in town. Good for experiencing the solar eclipse of 1978. Good for watching blizzards swoop in from the north. And especially good for watching the Rio Grande Zephyr as it flowed past the school en route to Chicago or San Francisco, gracing us with streamlined locomotives and a string of glassy silver dome cars, an amazing blend of Art Deco curves and Space Age momentum. It didn’t stop in Fraser anymore, but it hinted at a bygone era and far off places, and marked the passage of another day.
Fraser was possible because of the railroad, and the railroad was possible because of Rollins Pass, a low spot in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains 11,676 feet high. Known simply to engineers as “The Hill”, the route across that pass consisted of an elaborate series of wooden trestles, long looping turns, and dozens of tunnels and snow sheds designed navigate chasms and crags and get trains up and over the granite wall of the Continental Divide on a more or less year round basis. There was even a station and hotel right at the top. Despite the hardships — tunnel fires, hurricane force winds, 40 foot snowdrifts, avalanches that buried trains or even swept them away — the system was remarkably efficient, delivering newspapers, mail, passengers, fresh bread and all manner of hardware to a long string of small mountain towns. During the winter, which is to say between November and June, only the train or a pair of snowshoes could get you in our out of the snowbound valley. Catch the eastbound at 2 am and if all went well you’d be in Denver by 8:30 that morning.
By the time of my childhood, thanks to the rise of internal combustion engines and paved highways, local passenger and freight service no longer existed. Groceries and hardware were delivered (and lumber and cattle hauled away) by trucks, not trains, but there were still remnants of the glory days, such as the old stockyards along the track siding. During the early part of the century, these wooden corrals had gathered and funneled thousands of locally raised sheep and cows onto cattle cars each autumn for the unfortunate journey to slaughter houses and meat packing plants in Denver and, probably, Chicago. In 1980, the pens and ramps were still standing but slowly returning to the manure-rich earth. My mom warned me away from the place, insisting that it was old and rickety when she was a kid in the 50’s, but four generations of Fraser youth passed time there, swinging on the creaky gates, mostly avoiding the rusty nails, and balancing atop the splintered railings, right up until they were finally demolished in the late 1980s.
The stockyards were fading, but the rails themselves were as enduring as the mountains, and easily accessible. In an era before curfews, before No Trespassing, before constant fences and armed security and mass shootings and worries about the child molester around every corner, the train tracks — a long swath of unfenced open space that ran straight through town — drew kids of all ages. We dutifully walked the tracks to school each morning, and sauntered home along them in the afternoons, sometimes slowing for a tightrope walk along a rail, or pausing to watch a fistfight or gaze at a Playboy magazine someone had found atop the curly slide. By the age of 5, following the morning session of kindergarten, we were smearing gobs of tar on the rails with sticks in hopes of causing the next train’s wheels to spin to a stop or maybe even jump the rails, but all we did was ruin our clothes — only gasoline would get the tar out. As we aged, we experimented by putting rocks on the tracks to see what might happen, or tubes of toothpaste, beer bottles, pennies, an old bike and, at least once, live .22 ammunition right in the middle of town…each of us secretly relieved when no wrecks actually occurred and nobody got shot.
“The Devil’s Train is long and black
It rides on rails of fear.”
Our childhoods unfolded during the Cold War, and once a month or so we were reminded of this when a military train would pass through town with jeeps, troop transports, fuel trucks, trailers and artillery, all of it painted up in jungle camouflage or olive drab — the age of desert wars and sand colored paint had not yet arrived. It was a strategic shuffling of war implements, conjuring apocalyptic images of doom, frightening and intriguing all at once.
The first track side fort I ever saw was on the other side of the tracks where a trio of cousins had hidden a rail tie bulwark in some willows to protect them from the buckshot and salt pellets that caboose men were rumored to blast at anyone who dared to throw rocks at the trains. Soon we on the east side had our own forts, starting with some hay bales next to the old train station, but this was right on the road, much too close to adult supervision, so we moved up the tracks to a spot where willows and marsh grass provided some cover. It also provided easy access to my grandfather’s tool shed and the shovels and axes necessary to turn track side wetlands into a stronghold, as well as my grandmother’s fridge and cans of strawberry pop.
The building of a good fort could take days, but once completed we would gather rocks for ammunition, and then we would wait.
And wait some more, now and then putting an ear to the tracks or peering into the switch lights for color, red or green, for either meant that something was on the line. Soon the tell tale rumble began — the train still a mile or more away — and we rushed to our fort. Anticipation built as the locomotives got closer, and eventually the diesel thunder was upon us, prompting a barrage of cinders and stones, each of us certain that our efforts would draw buckshot, or railroad police, or even a county Sheriff.
But the rocks bounced harmlessly off 100 ton coal cars like gnats against a brick wall, and nobody ever noticed.
“I love to see the towns passing by
And to ride these rails beneath God’s blue sky.”
Each Spring, the Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey Circus train passed through town en route to Denver. For days before its appearance, each locomotive whistle would divert every school kid’s attention from the chalkboard as we peered out of our classrooms for a glimpse of what just might be the circus train. Somehow, it always came in the evening just before sunset. We parked near the main crossing alongside other families in the know and waited. The growl of the engines getting louder, the single light in the distance growing brighter, the crossing bars lowering and the warning bells ringing, and for 30 glorious seconds the brightly painted train clickety-clacked right past us, chock full of trapeze artists, clowns, elephants and mystery: THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.
During my childhood, the rails were owned and operated by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad and the locomotives were black with yellow lettering, sometimes 10 or more engines at a time, pulling slow up the grade towards the tunnel or rattling fast on the downhill run, with an orange caboose and waving conductor bringing up the rear. In between were a hundred coal hoppers, or tankers full of crude oil or chemicals or (we guessed) chocolate milk — black or white but always stained with mysterious grime; open gondolas laden with scrap metal or wood chips; auto carriers gleaming with fresh Detroit iron and glass; semi truck trailers riding “piggy back” on flat cars (with the UPS and postal service trailers always at the very end), and, of course, boxcars revealing the fading logos of vanished railroads with names that rang like poems: Cotton Belt…Great Northern…Chesapeake and Ohio…Pacific Fruit Express…Northern Pacific…Rock Island.
There were still plenty of hobos on the rails back then, riding towards everywhere via one of the prettiest stretches of railroad anywhere in America: from the high plains of Denver, over the Rocky Mountains and along the canyons of the Colorado River, across the Utah desert, and, finally, through the Wasatch Mountains to the Great Salt Lake. We’d spot them from our forts or the seats of our BMX bikes as we waited at the crossing; tough looking men and the occasional woman leaning in the doorways of open boxcars and taking in the high country scenery, all of them friendly enough to wave back to us. One fellow is forever etched into my memory: A tattooed giant, shirtless with a shaved head and handlebar mustache, perched dangerously between coal cars. His skin was gray with diesel soot from the long journey beneath the mountains, and he smiled and nodded at me as I walked the summer tracks to baseball practice, both of us, for our own good reasons, feeling free and glad to be alive.
“All I hate about lining track,
These old bars about to break my back.”
The steel rails and heavy wooden cross ties seemed everlasting, but they weren’t. Frost and thaw, wind and rain, and the weight of millions upon millions of tons of coal and freight took a toll, and every so often the infrastructure needed repair and replacement. Once or twice each decade, construction crews — the gandy dancers of yore — arrived in town along with an array of bizarre looking machinery unique to the railroad. They slept in bunkhouse train cars along the old stockyards siding, and spent a mountain summer bending rails, pounding spikes, and keeping time and the elements at bay.
In 1928, after a quarter century of epic man versus nature, the tortuous route over Rollins Pass was bypassed by the completion of the six-mile long Moffat Tunnel, a short cut beneath the Great Divide. Fifty years later, my mother packed a picnic lunch and we piled into a green Buick Skylark for a drive up the old railroad grade. Through the ghost town of Arrow — once a whiskey soaked boom town of hotels and high hopes, now just an open spot in the woods. Around the bend at Ranch Creek, where locomotives once took on water for the final stretch of the big climb. Through narrow road cuts still black with cinder dust and lined with raspberries. Past the graceful span of the Rifle Sight Notch trestle. Slow and bumpy in the family car — the bumps caused by old, half buried cross ties — and up, up, up until the trees disappeared. Up to the Continental Divide.
The world itself fell away on all sides. Snow fields shimmered in the sun. Lakes mirrored the blue sky. Cliffs dropped into unseen oblivion. Everywhere was sky or the sweep of treeless tundra rolling towards mountain peaks I recognized but which felt forbidding from this close vantage point. Far below, down in the heart of the valley, lay the town of Fraser, a tiny outpost ringed by dark forest.
It felt lonesome, and to a 6-year old kid, it seemed like the very edge of the world. Yet this remote place, chilly even at midsummer, had once been the pride of the Denver and Salt Lake Railroad: Corona Station — The Crown. Here was the mile long snow shed that sheltered trains from storms, supplies and refuge for work crews, a full blown train station where passengers dined or purchased a postcard before posing for a photo atop a summer snowbank, and a somewhat fancy, if stolid, hotel perched right at the edge of a precipice.
Then the tunnel was built, and overnight the storied, hard fought passage over the Rocky Mountains was rendered obsolete. Mammoth rotary snow plows were scrapped. Barrels and buckets and steel cables were abandoned amidst tiny tundra flowers. The snowshed collapsed then burned. Mile upon mile of rails and thousands of spikes began to rust. Birds nested in the quiet trestles. Telegraph poles leaned then toppled. The snows fell and the winds blew, and Corona Station was sacrificed to King Winter.
“He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle,
scalded to death by the steam.”
As time passed the railroad changed. Coal gave way to diesel. Safety bars and warning lights were installed at the crossings. 40 foot wooden boxcars morphed into 50 foot steel boxcars. The Zephyr became Amtrak. The railroad itself was bought and sold as industry titans consolidated, and new engines with new colors appeared — the gray of the Southern Pacific, the bright yellow of the Union Pacific — and cabooses vanished forever. Meanwhile, the trains chugged endlessly through town as generations of Fraser folk held babies, stood solemn at gravesides, and nailed new calendars to kitchen walls. Day and night. Winter and Summer. Sickness and health. The rumble and the whistle were part of daily life, and, every so often, they ended a life.
Local lore abounded: kids getting sucked under a fast moving freight, or kidnapped by hobos, or getting a foot stuck between ties and barely escaping in time. Those tales were taken on faith, but one was true: One winter night in 1985, a coal train smashed into a car at a ranch road crossing just outside of town. They looked everywhere for the body, assuming that it had been jettisoned from the vehicle upon impact, but they simply couldn’t find it. Turns out she was still in the mangled remains of the automobile, dead silent in the midst of a frantic search effort.
A few months after moving to Fraser, just before my 5th birthday, I went on a summer walk on the tracks with my Grandma. We strolled between the silver rails toward the pine trees and cemetery just south of town. I held my grandmother’s hand and felt the crunch of black cinders underfoot, glimpsed the old spikes scattered about, breathed in the mountain air and pungent railroad creosote. The train tracks were dirty and fun and a little bit dangerous. Try to balance on a rail. Use the smooth cross ties as steps. Avoid the globs of tar. Listen for a train.
My grandmother was born in a log cabin on the north edge of town. She spent a life running a cafe and raising children in that same town, and had retired to a small house a half mile from her birthing bed. All of it, every moment, had unfolded within 100 yards of the railroad. She remembered the chorus of train whistles and church bells marking the end of World War One, and trains bringing home soldiers from that same war. She recalled deadly train wrecks, rain dances by Navajo track crews, riding in a caboose over Rollins Pass, and depression era drifters jumping off boxcars to beg for bread. Before her 94 years were spent, a quarter million trains would pass through her life.
We stopped at the trestle. Frogs croaked in the track side swamp. White faced calves grazed in the meadows and occasionally bawled for their mothers. Other than that, the silence was complete, with no sign of a train. Just ahead, the rails turned and disappeared into the forest, hinting at some mystery just beyond, maybe wild strawberries or deer, but we turned back. You never knew what might come around the bend.
“A long steel rail and a short cross tie
I’m on my way back home.”
The low rumble in the distance.
The wail of the whistle.
The deep chug getting closer.
The clanging bells of the crossing gate.
The earth shaking as the locomotives pass.
The rails sinking and flexing beneath loaded coal cars.
The hiss of the rails right after the last car passes.
Then the silence.