The Express Messenger, and Other Tales of the Rail/The Story of Engine 107

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The Story of Engine 107


SOME fifteen years ago "Baldwins" received an order from a Western road for two locomotives of a peculiar type. They were for a narrow-gauge line which at that time connected the East and West, and by which the tourist travelled across the Rocky Mountains. They were to be compact, short, strong, and swift, capable of pulling like a mule on a heavy grade and running like a scared wolf in the valley.

At that time the concern was turning out a locomotive complete every twenty-four hours. Look at the workmen as they begin to erect the two "Rockaways," as they were afterward called, probably because they rolled and rocked when running at a high rate of speed through the crooked canons of Colorado. On the floor of the shop are two boilers, two sets of frames, cylinders, eccentrics,—in short, all the parts of a locomotive in duplicate; and from this heap the helpers bring one of each of the duplicate parts, and the machinists put them together until one locomotive is completed and rolled out to be painted. Out of what is left the second engine is made. There is no culling or sorting, and as the separate parts of each are made by one and the same pattern, there is no good reason why these two locomotives should not ride, run, and steam equally well. When the two engines were completed, painted, and numbered, they were loaded on a standard gauge flat car and shipped to the road for which they were built. When they arrived and had taken stalls in the round-house at Pueblo, they became engines 107 and 109, and attracted a great deal of attention from the engine-men of the division.

"She's a scary-lookin' devil," said Baldy Hooten, as he stood in front of the 107; and she really did look a bit top heavy with her long legs, short body, and "feet" so close together that they could almost run on one rail.

"Take her, you fellows that are lookin' for fly runs; I do' want her." And with that Baldy walked out of the round-house and over to the "Place of the Triangle," and shook the man there for a cigar.

When the two engines had been raced around the yards a few days and "limbered up," the 109 was coupled on to the Pacific express one night and introduced to the curves and corners of the Grand Cañon. The road then was not what it is now. The next time you go through there, if you sit on the rear platform, you will notice that the crumbling grade that marks the route of the old narrow gauge, crosses the present standard track one hundred times in fifty miles. It was so crooked, Baldy said, that a new runner was sure, at some of the corners, to shut off for his own headlight. However, the 109 held the rail and made a good record; so good, in fact, that, notwithstanding it was Friday, the 107 was sent out on the following night. She left the house an hour before leaving time, and it was lucky she did, for she ran off the track at the water tank and was got back barely in time to take her train out.

"No man can call me superstitious," said the engineer. "But they ain't no sense in temptin' Providence by takin a new engine out on a Friday."

"It 'll be midnight before you reach the cañon," said the night foreman, "and there is no danger this side."

"There's danger in bed ef it's down that way," was the sullen response of the driver, as he backed down and coupled on to the express.

It was one of those clear moonlight nights that make every peak and pinnacle on the mountain ranges stand out as clear and distinct against the cold sky as they do in the daytime; a moon that shames the headlight, and shows the twin threads of steel running away off yonder and meeting and going on together where the darkness begins. Being new, with a clean boiler, the 107 steamed like a burning house, and the fireman, not being affected by the fact of its still being Friday, found time to hang out the open window, and watch the silvery ripples that were romping on the cold, white bosom of the winding river along whose banks the road lay.

Not a word had passed between the engineer and fireman since they started out, and now they were swinging round the curves at a good express gait. The new engine was rocking like a light boat on a rough sea, but otherwise she was riding as easily as a coach. It was 11:50 when they passed Good-night, and two minutes later the fireman was startled by that dreadful word which almost every fireman has heard at some time or another: "Jump!"

It is as natural for an engineer to call to his fireman to jump and save himself for he is of no use on a locomotive about to be wrecked—as it is for the engineer to remain at his post.

"Jump!" shouted the driver; and the fire man glancing ahead saw a confused mingling of horns, hoofs, and tails between him and the track. He jumped and came down on a bunch of sage brush amid a shower of steers, and saw the 107 leave the track, plough along the side of the low bank, and finally stop without turning over. The train—the engineer having set the air—stopped with all the cars, save the mail car, still on the track.

Thus, the 107 on her first trip made a bad record and got herself talked about. Of course she was put back on the run as soon as a few slight injuries were repaired, for it was no unusual thing in those days, where the track was not fenced in, to plough up a herd of cattle on a run like this. In fact, a railroad track seems to be a favorite place for cattle to sleep and deaf people to walk. The 107 went along for a week or more and her crew had begun to think well of her, when she disgraced herself by breaking both parallel rods,—those bars of steel that tie the wheels together,—and with the broken ends whipped her cab into splinters before the fireman could crawl over her high boiler-head and shut her off; for the engineer had both legs broken, and from the ripped and riddled deck was unable to reach the throttle, though the fireman said he tried, standing on the two stubs of his broken legs.

When the "scary-lookin devil," as Baldy Hooten had called her, had gone to the shops and her driver to the hospital, the trainmen and enginemen began to discuss her from a super stitious standpoint. Not one railroad employee in a dozen will admit that he is the least little bit superstitious, but watch them when they see a new moon, and if nine out of every ten don't go down in their clothes and "turn over silver," it's because they are "broke;" and in the left breast pocket of three out of every five switchmen you meet, sandwiched in between a lead pencil and a toothbrush, you will find the fuzzy foot of a graveyard rabbit, killed in the dark of the moon.

For the third time within three months from the day she left the Baldwin shops, the 107 was limbered up and put onto the regular night run from Pueblo to Leadville; and on the second trip she left the track at a switch and turned over, killed the engineer and fireman, and crippled the mail agent. The switch, upon examination, was found to be all right, and in fact no one seemed able to give any good reason why the engine should have left the rail; only her old driver, turning over in his little iron bed, said "Friday," and went to sleep again.

Of course, the railway officers simply laughed at the foolish talk of the men about the Rockaway being "unlucky" because she went out on Friday, but when she was rebuilt she was transferred and put on a less important run, with not so many people behind her.

"It's all poppycock," said Mclvor, oiling the engine, "this Friday talk is all child's talk;" then he stopped short, looked at the new moon, and made a wish.

"Of course it is," said Paymaster O'Connor, who, noticing Mclvor's play at the moon, worked his fingers in his trousers pocket and made riot with the silver there.

The unlucky engine was taking out the pay train, consisting of two light cars. The first day was uneventful, but at the close of the second day, while they were rolling down the Black Cañon trying to make Cimarron for the superintendent's special, they turned a corner and came suddenly upon a big rock in the middle of the track. Mclvor made a desperate attempt to stop, but before he could do so, the 107 had her belly on the bowlder and hung there, her wheels still revolving as though she were trying to claw the rock to pieces.

"What is to be will be, if it neveh comes to pass," said Mclvor as he climbed out of the cab. "I neveh did believe that I was bo'n to be killed on an engine."

For a long time after that, the 107 stood out in the field at the company's shops near Denver, where all the old relics were side tracked, and the employees began to hope that she might be allowed to remain there; but the company, if for no other reason than to prevent the employees from becoming hopelessly superstitious, put her into the shops, rebuilt and repainted her, so that when she came out again to be limbered up she looked better than ever before. When she had "found herself" again, as Mr. Kipling would say, she was sent back to the mountain division, the scene of her last escapade. Her coming was not regarded as a joyful event by the trainmen and enginemen of the fourth division, and the division master mechanic knew it, and for some time she stood in the round-house with the dust and ashes on her jacket, until her rods rusted and her bell began to corrode. Then, for the same reason that she had been brought out of the field at Denver, she was taken from the round-house and put in order.

One of the regular engines on what in the early days had been called "The Death Run" having been disabled, the Rockaway was ordered out in her place. While every man on the road dreaded her and hated the sight of her, there was not one among them who would shun the responsibility of handling her if it fell to him; so when Engineer Ryan and Fireman North were called to take the night run with the 107 they made nothing of it, but signed the book, said good-by to their families, and went away. It may be that each lingered at the door a little longer than usual, and took an extra kiss or two from their wives and little ones, but that was all. They did not mention the fact to their wives that the engine on the call book was the fatal 107. To do that would have been to increase the anxiety of the women folks without diminishing the danger of the trip.

Ryan, though usually cheerful and entertaining with his delightfully musical Irish accent, was silent as he went about oiling and inspecting the machinery, and North looked like a man going to his own funeral.

The train came in on time, drawn by the 109, and she stood with calm dignity on the siding, while her wild, wayward, and disreputable sister, all gaudy in her new paint, with clanging bell and blowing steam, with polished headlight and new flags fluttering at her shoulders, glided backward, like a gay girl on roller skates, to take her place. She had a helper up the hill, one of those heavy-mounted climbers, and when they came to the steep grade, and the powerful mogul with steady step marked perfect time, the Rockaway chafed and fretted like a spoiled colt. At every curve her feet would fly from under her, and her wheels go round so fast that it seemed she would strip herself; and when the driver shut off and dropped sand to allow her to get her footing again, she blew off steam and wasted the water which is so precious on a heavy grade. Between stations she would foam and throw water out of her stack, and when shut off show dry blue steam in her gauges; so when they stopped the driver had to hold her on the centre, with her valves closed and throttle wide open, for that keeps the boiler strained and holds the water up over the flues and crown sheet. In good time the mogul dragged her and her train to the top, 10,050 feet above the sea, and left her to fall down the western slope.

Ryan smiled at "Noah" North and he smiled back over the boiler head as they whistled for Gunnison, but their smiles soon changed to sadness, for the despatcher came out with an order for them to continue over another division. This took them through the Black Cañon, which was then to trainmen what the Black Sea is to sailors. A new road in a mountain country is always dangerous until the scenery gets settled, and the loosened rocks roll down and the cuts are properly sloped; and this piece of track through the Black Cañon was then especially so, though not now.

They were nearing the place where Mclvor had found the rock. The night was clear, the rail good, the grade easy, and they were turning the curves gracefully, while now and then the steam—for she was always hot—escaping from the dome of the Rockaway screamed in the cañon, and startled a lion or caused a band of elk or deer to scamper away up a side cañon.

An excursion party, in heavy wraps, sat in an open observation car at the rear of the train, viewing the wonderful scenery, made weird by the stillness of the night. How wild the walls looked with their white faces where the moon light fell and dark recesses where the shadows were. To the right, beyond the river, the falls of Chipeta leaped from the rocks five hundred feet above the roadbed and tumbled into the water below; while to the left Curicanti's needle stood up among the stars.

It was not the time of year for rocks to fall, for rocks only fall in the spring, and this was summer, but the unexpected is hardest to avoid; and now, for some unaccountable reason, a great rock, whose wake was afterward followed for more than a mile up the mountains, came down with the speed of a cannon ball, and striking the Rockaway just forward of the air pump, cut her clear from her tank and shot her into the river with poor "Noah" North underneath her. The swift current brought the lucky Irish engineer out of the cab, however, and at the next bend of the river threw him out on a rock. The parting of the air hose set the automatic brakes, which, as the train was on a down grade, were already applied lightly, and—the track being uninjured—the train stopped before the second car had passed the point where the engine left the rail. The murderous rock, standing in the middle of the deep stream, showed still three or four feet above the surface of the river.

The roadmaster, another Irishman, whose name, I think, was Hickey, came from the smoking car, took in the situation at a glance, and being used to such wrecks, ran along the bank below to be at hand if either of the engine-men came to the surface.

Hickey, overjoyed at finding Ryan, dazed and dripping, seated upon a rock, caught the wet driver in his arms,—for they were very dear friends,—and, turning the pale face up to the moon, asked anxiously: "Tom, are yez hurted? I say, Tom, spake to me. Tom, tell me, are yez hurted?"

Tom, upon hearing the voice of his friend, realized that he was really alive, and said coolly: "Hurted, now why the devil should I be hurted?"

"That's so," said Hickey, whose wit was as handy as was that of his friend. "That's so, I wonder yez got wetted."

They worked for two days and nights before the Rockaway could be lifted, then she came up slowly, and "Noah's" body floated to the surface and was taken back to Salida and buried. It would be absurd to say that the railroad company was in any way responsible for the accident, but it gave Mrs. North five hundred dollars to start in business for herself.

Engine the 107 was not rebuilt for a long time and was never again employed in passenger service. The foreman in one of the repair shops wrote to Philadelphia and learned that the 109 was completed on Thursday and the 107 on Friday. As I said a while ago, railroad employees are not superstitious,—they will all tell you so,—much less railway officers; but it is a fact to-day that a new locomotive or a locomotive that has been rebuilt is never taken out on the Denver and Rio Grande on Friday. No order was ever issued forbidding it, but it came to be one of the unwritten rules of the road,—a sort of Monroe doctrine that is always respected.

And now after a dozen years,—after all that has been related here, which includes only what the writer remembers,—the tank and cylinders of the 107 are rusting in the scrap heap at Salida, while her boiler, stripped of its bright jacket, is made to boil water for a pump at Roubideau. But every Thursday night at midnight, the fire is drawn, on Friday the boiler is washed out, and at midnight she is fired up again.