Blizzard wreaked havoc on railway

A Shay engine hauls a passenger train down the east side of Baxter Pass early in the last century. Photo courtesy of the Museums of Western Colorado.



The author stands near the top of Baxter Pass, looking southeast toward Mack. Parts of the old Uintah Railway grade, now a road, are visible in the background. Photo by Mike Perry.



Mike Perry stands near an old piece of iron believed to have come from the wreck of Shay Engine No. 3. Photo by Mike Perry.



A look at one of the few fragments of iron believed to remain from Shay Engine No. 3, which was wrecked in a snowstorm on Feb. 10, 1909. Photo by Mike Perry.



There’s not much evidence of Shay No. 3 these days. A few scattered pieces of iron and one very large chunk of steel that may have come from the locomotive’s boiler lie in heavy oak brush along an old wagon road below the top of Baxter Pass.

Shay Engine No. 3 was a locomotive on the old Uintah Railway, which ran between Mack and Dragon, Utah, from 1904 until 1939.

No. 3 went off the tracks on the north side near the top of Baxter Pass during a snowstorm on Feb. 10, 1909. Engineer Joseph E. “Doc” Lane was killed in the wreck, along with an unnamed Greek workman.

“Another horrible railroad tragedy is to be added to the fearful calendar of tragedies that has been unfolding in this section since the first of the year,” The Daily Sentinel wrote.

Late last month, Mike Perry and I went looking for remains of Shay No. 3, and we found a few fragments that may be from the old engine. Perry, the former executive director of the Museums of Western Colorado, had visited the site about 25 years ago with other historians and archaeologists and was able to find some of the larger pieces again.

Weather had created problems throughout early February 1909. On Feb. 7, a fireman and brakeman on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad were killed when their freight train hit a rockslide between Ruby Canyon in Colorado and Westwater, Utah.

The wreck of Shay No. 3 occurred just three days later. And two days after that, the continuing blizzard created a snowdrift about two miles long and up to 20 feet high on Baxter Pass. It halted railroad traffic for a week.

During that week, no mail reached Vernal, Utah, because at the time mail was routed through Mack on the Uintah Railway, then by wagon from Dragon to Vernal.

A decade later, regular truck service was established between Craig and Vernal, providing a different mail route.

In addition to searching for wreck remnants, our trip last month was an opportunity to travel on the old Uintah Railway grade over Baxter Pass. There’s little doubt it was a unique bit of railroad engineering.

There were 37 trestles in the 28 miles between Mack and the railroad community of Atchee, built at the edge of the Book Cliffs. And that was the easy section.

In the 12 miles from Atchee to Lake McAndrews on the north side of the pass, there were 233 curves, some so tight that conventional locomotives couldn’t maneuver around them.

The rail grade also gained 2,012 feet in elevation in the 5.8 miles from Atchee to the top of the pass.

The Uintah Railway was created out of desperation. Samuel Henry Gilson and his partner, Bert Seaboldt, had discovered the only commercially recoverable deposits of what became known as gilsonite in northeastern Utah. They knew the substance could be used in varnishes, inks and paints. Later it would have a variety of uses in the automotive industry, oil drilling, and in asphalt.

But the isolated deposits could be reached only by wagon, which was too slow and expensive.

The partners approached the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad about extending a spur from its line near Grand Junction to Dragon. But D&RG officials said no.

By then, the company had been sold to a group in St. Louis headed by Charles O. Baxter, for whom the mountain pass was later named.

Baxter and his group, which became the General Asphalt Co., decided to build their own railroad.

To do so, they had to build a new community in western Colorado, where their narrow-gauge railroad could connect with the standard-gauge D&RG. They decided to name the town after the president of the General Asphalt Co., John M. Mack.

Because of the steep grades and tight curves from Atchee, over Baxter and into Dragon, special machinery was required.

That’s where the Shay engines came in. Produced in Lima, Ohio, the Shays had side-mounted pistons and gear-driven axles. Also, both the front wheels and rear ones swiveled. And they produced large amounts of power for their size.

Initially, the Uintah Railway ran conventional Baldwin narrow-gauge locomotives on the first half of the trip, from Mack to Atchee. There, the engines were switched to Shays to power over the worst section of the route.

In the mid-1920s, the Shays were replaced by specially designed, articulated Baldwin locomotives that had the power and turning ability to handle the most difficult parts of Baxter Pass.

Although the Uintah Railway was created primarily to haul gilsonite, it also carried mail, passengers and some other kinds of freight.

It hauled out most of the fossils excavated in the early decades of work at Dinosaur National Monument.

But trucks, better roads and, eventually, a pipeline all made the Uintah Railway superfluous. So, in May of 1939, the last train made the trip from Mack to Dragon.

But in 1909, the Uintah Railway was a busy line, carrying gilsonite, mail and passengers between Dragon and Mack each day.

The rail crews fought the weather constantly. Flash floods often damaged trestles on the lower part of the route, and heavy snowfall required special plowing runs up high.

That’s what Shay No. 3 and Engineer J.E. Lane and his crew were doing that February day in 1909.

“The engine got from under the control of the engineer in some way and shot down the mountain side at a fearful rate of speed,” the Vernal Express reported on Feb. 12, 1909. “It rolled over and over many times, and when it stopped there was nothing left but scrap iron.”

Information for this column came The Daily Sentinel and Vernal Express newspapers, the Museums of Western Colorado, archaeological reports of Sally Crum and the books, “Uintah Railroad: The Gilsonite Route,” by Henry E. Bender Jr. and “Uintah Railway Pictorial, Volume I — Mack to Atchee” by Rodger Polley.

Email Bob Silbernagel at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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