Mining in the Sky, Published 10 March 1937You and I were riding in Mr. Mclnnis motor car at about 8,000 feet above sea level, when the last column ended. It turned out we were riding on the old Colorado and Southern Railroad right-of-way, the tracks having long since been torn up and the road abandoned. Colorado for a young state has a great many evidences. more apparent than real, of great age. Again I cite the comparison of Mary Queen of Scots, whose most romantic years were over at the beginning of life, before most people really begin to live at all. Colorado got the glamor out of Its system early, and is now operating on a saner if less spectacular basis in enticing tourists.
Anyway we plugged up this pass till we struck the snow, and for the next 10 miles or so we wound in among mountains, not one of which was under 10,000 feet altitude. Mr. Mclnnis told an interesting story about an old friend of his, who operated an engine through the Busk Ivanhoe Tunnel on the defunct and torn-up Colorado Midland. The engineer had been making the trip for some time, and the road was getting worse and worse. The locomotive smoke-stacks were tall, and the tunnel was shallow. That meant the smoke was belched against the root and shot right back into the open engine cab. This day, it was worse than ever. The steep grade through the tunnel was bad enough. The dank drip didn't help a bit. It was no use to put a rag over one's face, because even that did not stop the all but asphyxiating fumes.
"I promised God," said Mr. McGinnis' friend the engineer, "that if He got me safely out of this tunnel, I'd never go in it again."
"My friend got through, and kept his promise he never went in it again," said Trainmaster McGinnis.
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I found out that later, when the Colorado Midland went out of business, this Busk Ivanhoe Tunnel became a motor highway. But it was only a one-way highway, and it had to be on alternating schedule. That is, you could go through westbound for half-an-hour, and then east-bound for half-an-hour, or some such time. But the tunnel is long, water and slime drip down, the bottom is muddy and bouncy and unpaved, and a stalled car would mean a terrible experience. Then too, the last car through each trip would get all the gas fumes and monoxide gas of the front cars.
"I did it once for the experience, but never again for me," said a chap I later met who had motored through this clammy bore in the mountain.
We got talking about grades, and I found out that while a little over three per cent is all they will stand even at the steepest place on the Canadian Pacific, the Rio Grande narrow gauge thinks nothing of four. But the record is not held, even by some five per cent grades, and I think there were several that went that high. Nor did the figure stop at six. The Rio Grande I believe had and has a seven per cent grade up into a mine at Kenilworth. On these grades they use what they call Shays or Jays some of you boys down at the roundhouse can help me out on the name. These Shays or Jays have special wheels on the wheels to control the speed of the trains.
I was later to learn from Trainmaster Moriarity at Grand Junction that there's a railway at Uintah, Utah, which has a seven per cent grade. The engines go up a mountain to get gilsonite. I had never heard of gilsonite before, but this same substance, hitherto unknown to me, is being shipped from Utah all the time to Japan and Czechoslovakia, not to mention a few American spots, and I believe the gilsonite is used in the making of telephones.
"The fact is," said Mr. Moriarity, who really does not come into the picture till two days from now, but who put the situation completely, "that in this crazy country, all our minerals are up on the mountain tops."
"All your mines are a mile in the air?" I asked.
"Just about," he summed up. So that's why you hear of these ridiculous grades, and of mines two miles above the sea and a mile above the ground level away up in the blue. And in order to get the minerals out, these sky-going railways have to be built. About once a year, I understand, a locomotive gets out of control and starts to run away. The engineer and fireman know enough to jump and so do the crew. They hop. The boys down below know what is coming, and they get out of the way. The engine smashes itself to smithereens, and the cars pile up into junk and matchwood. Then they order out another locomotive and go back to work again as if they had just been driven indoors five minutes by a passing shower.
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Well, here's St. Elmo, the ghost town. Fifty years ago, this was a roaring, tooting, hell town of sorts, but now a mule wanders around the main street, and the place is all but deserted. I said all but deserted, but not quite. From nowhere emerged the postmaster, an overalled chap who seemed almost childishly delighted to see company, and nothing would do but we'd go into his store. I went in, and I give you the key to the place when I tell you they are still selling postcards of President William Howard Taft's visit to Colorado. Taft, you remember, was defeated in 1912. The postmaster has all kinds of postcards for sale, taken by himself. They consist of winter scenes, and they sell well in summer. The P.M. also keeps a book in which he wants you to register, and you would be surprised how many people over the past 20 years have drifted into this most out-of-the-way place. I recall the signature of Mary Miles Minter, cute cinema caperer of 20 years ago, and Conrad Nagel, and an English lord; how the noble ever got there I don't know.
Then there are comic pictures of the village mule, and some other unintentionally funny postcards, and of course, the grocery store is almost a caricature. I am not so sure the postmaster doesn't know this, and keeps on his funny stock to amuse the tourists.
St. Elmo is a wan, sad town now, not so much for its deserted houses, but for the fact that winter comes early in the late afternoon to this snowbound, frozen - in ghost of a silver boom, and while Salida down in the valley at 7,050 feet has mild nights, this place sees the thermometer drop to 20 below. I think the postmaster was sorry to see us leave. I took a last picture long after the sun had dropped below the sable slopes above me, my hope of success pinned on the fact that the sky betokened the fact the old haymaker wouldn't be quite below the rim of the world, if I were out in the open. Then we picked our way back through the slippery. snowy trail of the dead railroad, and when we struck the bare ground and open country, there was. the golden full moon to meet us.
We rushed home over paved roads to Salida, Mr. McGinnis kindly fed me, and then asked me what I wanted to see next. I said "Bed" and so dived for the sheets about 7 p.m. The rare mountain air was slowly but surely anesthetizing me.
I'll see you up the Marshall Pass on the morrow.