Colorado railroad lore comes to life in Carbondale author’s latest
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A chance meeting in the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool gave author Mary Peace Finley the finishing touch for a story that had been floating around in her head for several years.
A part-time Carbondale resident, Finley is the author of several books geared toward young readers, including a recent Colorado Book Award winner, “Meadow Wood,” which is the third in her Santa Fe Trail Trilogy.
Her latest book, “The Midnight Ride of Blackwell Station,” released earlier this month, is a fictional account of a true story in Colorado’s railroading history that ultimately led to the birth of the town of Lamar, where Finley herself grew up.
Finley first started weaving her own story around the story of a town got its start with a stolen train station after a tour through southeastern Colorado about 15 years ago with her husband, Wally Finley.
The Blackwell Station was a railroad outpost that sat on land owned by cattle baron Amos Black – that is, until the night of May 22, 1886.
“Many of the homesteaders who’d come to the area wanted to develop a town, with schools and stores and all, but Amos wants nothing to do with it,” explains Finley.
So there’s a conspiracy to send a fake telegram to Black, requesting he take the next train west for an important meeting in Pueblo.
Later that night, another train arrives at Blackwell Station with two flatbed cars and several dozen workers hired by the railroad company to load the station and its outbuildings onto the train for a quick four-mile trip down the track to its new home.
As the legend holds, the station was quickly unloaded and the telegraph lines reconnected before dawn. Within two days, $45,000 worth of lots were sold and families were already taking up residence in what would become Lamar, Colo.
Black returns and is surprised when the train rolls right through his ranch and pulls in to the newly relocated Blackwell Station. He hops off the train, six-shooter drawn, but by then there’s little he can do about it.
“That’s the true story behind the story,” Finley says. “I tell the same story, but through the eyes of 9-year-old Raephy McDowell.”
Raephy was one of four children who lived in the cramped quarters on the second floor of the Blackwell Station with their parents, John McDowell, who was the ranch foreman for Mr. Black, and Emily McDowell, who was the telegraph operator at the train station.
The name, Blackwell Station, in fact comes from combining the two names, Black and McDowell.
“Raephy is quite the snoop and is always peaking through knot holes and eavesdropping trying to find out what’s going on,” Finley said of her own account of the young girl.
Raephy overhears a conversation between her parents who have learned of the secret plan to move the station, and is more than willing to help things along so she can have a real town to call home.
Her mother also wants development, but her father is reluctant because of his job with Mr. Black – until he’s convinced otherwise by the railroad.
Finley had researched the facts of the incident through museum archives and an old newspaper interview with a then 90-year-old surviving witness to the train station larceny.
But it wasn’t until she met longtime former Glenwood Springs resident Ted Applegate that her story of the Blackwell Station became complete.
Wally Finley also grew up in southeastern Colorado and was drafted into the service during the Korean conflict. It was on the train from Lamar to report to Fort Riley that he first met Applegate, and they became friends.
Three years ago, the Finleys were enjoying a soak in the Glenwood Hot Springs when Wally recognized Applegate sitting in the pool nearby.
“They got to talking when the story of the Blackwell Station came up. Well, of course my ears perked up,” Mary Finley recalls.
Turned out Applegate had a whole file on the historic incident. She asked if she could see it some time, but at the time she didn’t know the whole story. A clue came while she was in Lamar doing research at the Big Timbers Book Store.
“I found all kinds of information, including a picture of Ted Applegate,” Finley said.
It looked like the same Ted Applegate, she said, but it was actually Ted Applegate Sr.
“Turns out he’s the third, so I set out to find him again so I could research his files,” she said.
Again, they happened upon each other at the Hot Springs Pool one day, so she inquired about the photo of his grandfather.
“Lo and behold, I learn that Ted is my main character Raephy McDowell’s grandson,” Finley said. “So, his file contains all these intimations of the event which came down through the family.”
A retired real estate appraiser, Applegate spends most of his time these days RV’ing with his wife.
Applegate said he didn’t have a problem with Finley bending the story a bit to make for a fun children’s book.
“It’s a great story,” he said. “I told about it a long time ago to the Rotary Club there in Glenwood.”
He recalled that, in 1986, there was a 100th anniversary re-enactment of the event, and Applegate’s father got to ride the train.
Applegate hopes to be on hand for this Saturday’s book signing.
Finley’s book is published by Filter Press Books out of Palmer Lake, Colo. The 100-page chapter book is illustrated by Judith Hunt, including the cover image of young Raephy riding atop the train with a lantern helping to watch for cows on the tracks.
“The Midnight Ride of Blackwell Station” is available in area bookstores, and may also be ordered via the author’s website at http://www.marypeacefinley.com.
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