Category Archives: Denver & Rio Grande railroad history

Busting Through Snowdrifts: the Ghost Train of Marshall Pass, Colorado

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in Colorado Central magazine.

At 10,846’ in elevation, Marshall Pass remains among one of Colorado’s most precarious roads. The pass, located in the Sawatch Range between Salida and Gunnison, was discovered by Lieutenant William Marshall in 1873 as he was making a mad dash in search of a Denver dentist for a bad toothache. But Marshall’s painful trip was nothing compared to the wild ride experienced by Denver & Rio Grande Railroad engineer Nelson Edwards, and engine fireman Charles Whitehead.

The D & RG was built over Marshall Pass during 1880-1881. Shortly after the rails reached Gunnison, however, stories began circulating of a “ghost train” on the pass, the sight of which had caused other engineers to quit out of fright. Nelson and Whitehead had paid no heed to the tales, making several trips over the pass over a two month period without incident. One evening, however, Nelson guided a passenger train towards the pass with a feeling of foreboding. Perhaps it was because of a weakened bridge and a defective rail, both of which lay ahead on this snowy night. Others would later say that Nelson’s heightened sense of danger was due to the hair-raising specter he was about to see.

The train had just passed through a snowshed when the men heard the warning whistle of another train. The signals continued as the unseen train came nearer, and when Nelson heard the conductor’s signal to stop, he brought his train to a stand-still. Next, the conductor appeared, demanding to know why Nelson stopped. “What did you pull the bell cord for?” the engineer responded. “You’re crazy,” the conductor answered, “now pull her wide open, there’s a wild train a-climbing up on us!”

Edwards opened the throttle as the wheels struggled for a purchase on the rails and Whitehead shoveled coal madly into the fire. Over the next several minutes, the men listened in terror as warning blasts came from the approaching runaway. The D & RG cars were now rocking precariously, awakening panicked passengers and breaking through icy snowdrifts as they sped down the tracks. As the runaway came into view, Edwards was horrified to see a “white figure” atop one of the cars, waving wildly. A short distance later, the engineer vainly veered onto a side track as the runaway train came up on his side. Glancing over, Edwards saw “two extremely white figures in the cab. The specter engineer turned a face to him like dough and laughed.”

Alas, Edwards was going so fast that the runaway could not pass. As he guided the train back in front, the “ghostly fireman” in the other engine maniacally sounded the whistle. Now, the D & RG train was approaching the damaged bridge, but miraculously sailed right over it. A minute later, Edwards sighted a dozen or so section workers, toiling over the broken rail ahead. There was no time to slow down; when the man applied the brakes, he felt the wheels stopping even as the train continued gliding along the icy rails. The train ran right through the workers, whose forms parted like wisps of powdery snow. Edwards looked back just in time to see the runaway hit the broken rail, jump the track, and plunge over the embankment.

When their hearts ceased pounding, Edwards and Whitehead puzzled over what they were sure was the phantom train so many had spoken of before. The men’s hearts thudded again, however, when they spotted a cryptic and badly-spelled note etched in the frost of the fireman’s window: “Yeers ago a frate train was recked as yu saw—now that yu saw it, we will never make another run. The enjine was not ounder control and four sexshun men wore killed. If you ever ran on this road again yu will be wrecked.”

To date, no documentation supports the death of four section workers on Marshall Pass, although a wreck in November of 1888 did kill two men on the train, including the fireman. As for Nelson Edwards, the engineer quit his job the minute the train reached Green River, Utah, and went to work for the safer, and ghost-free, Union Pacific Railroad out of Denver.

Pictured: A Denver & Rio Grande Train on Marshall Pass, as captured by William Henry Jackson.

Cleora, Colorado: Victim of a Railroad War

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in Colorado Central magazine.

In the great rush to settle Colorado, it was not unusual to see railroad companies vying for the quickest and most profitable routes across Colorado. The settlement of Cleora was a perfect example of the sacrifices made when one company won and another one lost.

Cleora’s history begins with William Bale, and early-day settler who purchased a ranch on the north side of the Arkansas River near today’s Salida in the early 1870’s. The ranch, located along the Barlow and Sanderson State Road running between Leadville and Cañon City, became known as the South Arkansas stage stop.

Bale, his wife Sarah, and their three daughters became well known at South Arkansas. According to local newspapers, overnight accommodations were provided in the family’s “big, rambling” log house, and “liquid libations” were served to thirsty travelers. By 1875 there also was a cemetery. The first burial is said to have been Charles Harding, a victim of the infamous Lake County War of 1874-1875.

In the summer of 1876, the Colorado Daily Chieftain predicted that South Arkansas was “bound to become a popular resort of pleasure seekers.” In December, Bale duly applied for a post office. The name South Arkansas was already in use at the site of today’s Poncha Springs. Bale decided to name his new mail stop after his youngest daughter, Cleora.

Cleora prospered. An 1877 article in the Saguache Chronicle commented that “no better accommodations can be found on any routes of travel.” The Salida Mail would later recall that “the place fairly hummed with business, the house usually being filled to its capacity and often more people camped outside than there were inside. Many of the leading men of America, and most of the leading men of Colorado in that day, were guests of the Bale house at one time or another.”

When officials of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) railroad purchased some of Bale’s land in the summer of 1878 to layout a town, Cleora’s future seemed set in stone. Lot sales totaled $3,800 on the first day they were offered as 200 people migrated to the new community. By 1879, Bale was “one of the best known and highly respected citizens” in Chaffee County, which was officially formed in February. Early merchants included dry goods dealer John Blake. “Old Uncle Billy Bale’s” hotel, as it was called, underwent renovations. Dr. L. C. McKinney’s Cleora Journal reported the goings-on around town as the population climbed to nearly 600 people. In August, residents gathered at Mayor W.A. Hawkins’ newly opened Grand View Hotel to vote for incorporation of their new town.

At the same time the vote was made, an article in the Rocky Mountain News announced that the Denver & Rio Grande was attempting a takeover and had managed to stop the AT&SF’s progress. “Cleora is doomed for the present to inactivity,” the News warned. Still, Hawkins and the others remained optimistic, appointing a treasurer, marshal, police judge, and corporate attorney that October. Three lumber yards supplied building materials as buildings flew up and businesses opened throughout the winter of 1879-1880. Pioneer Thomas Penrose remembered trying to cash a payroll check for $1,250 at Wilson’s Saloon in February. When the proprietor said he didn’t have enough money on hand, Penrose and his partner rode to Cañon City, cashed the check, and returned to Cleora to drink at Wilson’s. “They told us that the whiskey was in the back room,” Penrose remembered, “and that there was a siphon there and for us to go ahead and take a drink, and pay 25 cents for a drink.”

The railroad war was finally settled in April when the D&RG won the battle against the AT&SF and continued laying tracks along the north bank of the Arkansas. At Cleora, citizens watched eagerly as the D&RG line approached—and then passed them right by! D&RG officials made it painfully clear that they had no use for Cleora. Instead, they platted their own new town just 1 ½ miles away, and named it for the South Arkansas post office. Disheartened citizens of Cleora pondered what to do as the board of trustees met for the last time on May 27.

In the end, D&RG officials were not so heartless. Officials soon announced that anyone owning a lot with a house or business on it in Cleora (the exception being saloonkeepers) would receive a free lot in the new town if they moved their building over to South Arkansas. By June, dozens of structures were being heaved onto rollers and guided over the rough road to South Arkansas. The Cleora Journal hauled its printing equipment over and became the Mountain Mail. Meyer & Dale, E.H. Webb and Peter Mulvaney relocated their mercantile buildings. “The business men of Cleora are all settling with us,” the Mountain Mail announced importantly. “They see that South Arkansas is to be the town and are governing themselves accordingly.”

Not everyone chose to leave Cleora. The June, 1880 census recorded 183 residents, including William, Sarah and Cleora Bale. Still, the Mountain Mail noted in August that “buildings keep coming up here from Cleora. It will not be long until they are all here.” In November, former territorial governor and D&RG official Alexander Hunt purchased the Grand View Hotel and also moved it to the new town. “The Hawkins house has finally succumbed and gone with the rest of Cleora up to South Arkansas,” reported the Rocky Mountain News. “It was the last building to go.”

Cleora’s post office closed in 1882 as South Arkansas adopted a new name, Salida. At last there remained but one asset of value at Cleora which nobody seemed inclined to move: the cemetery. Salida’s town founders showed no interest in establishing a new graveyard. “What would be the use of one?” the Salida Mail quipped in January 1883. “People don’t seem to die here at any alarming extent.”

For a time, Cleora’s cemetery remained the only burial ground in the area—a less than ideal situation to some. “It’s a mockery to call the present burying ground ‘a cemetery’”, declared the Salida Mail in 1887. The article further lectured that Salidans should be “aroused to a sense of their duty toward a fit place to bury our dead.” It was not until 1889 that Salida at last established its own cemetery, Woodlawn (Fairview Cemetery would be established in 1891).

Cleora’s cemetery was not forgotten: Knights of Pythias, the Grand Army of the Republic, and Woodmen of the World continued hosting annual Memorial Day activities there for many years before the graveyard was deeded to Chaffee County in 1921. The last burial took place in 1948. The cemetery eventually fell victim to vandalism and the elements, cared for only by the families of those buried there.

Thankfully, Cleora Cemetery was successfully listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. Today, Four Seasons RV Park and Rocky Mountain Livestock Sales mark the site of Cleora on the north side of Highway 50. The cemetery is across the highway, an ironic reminder of the days when Cleora was full of life.