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Trestle tragedy

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
USGS photo The Denver and Rio Grande railroad trestle near Hallam Lake in Aspen.
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Trains traveled on two railroad trestles near downtown Aspen when I was a child. One trestle bridged the Roaring Fork upstream from Hallam Lake. Denver and Rio Grande freight trains could cross from the north side of the river to the train station, sidings and yards that occupied the land below the present-day Pitkin County Library.

Trains delivered freight of all weights. A lumberyard, coal bins and warehousing sheds surrounded the station. Lift towers, bricks, cement ” all the materials needed for local construction ” passed through that distribution hub.

The other trestle, a much longer and higher structure, crossed the river near where the current footbridge is located. Throughout a gradual turn, the trestle gained elevation from station level to the higher elevation of the Smuggler area. Pedestrians carefully picked their way along that trestle to cross the Roaring Fork on their way to town from Smuggler neighborhoods.

The trains whistled into town on Tuesdays: an engine, a few boxcars, coal or flat cars, and always a caboose. Climbing into the caboose was summer entertainment of the highest order. Even more exciting, you might be allowed to ride with the conductor while the train crew rearranged the freight cars.

Walking the tracks occupied the idle hours of my youth. Seeing how far you could walk on a rail without falling off was great sport. If you wanted to use the railroad right of way to get from point A to point B, and in a hurry, you attempted a stride that placed your toes squarely on every third or fourth tie, thereby avoiding twisted ankles.

It took a double-dare to motivate me to cross the trestles. If I slipped, my young body could easily slide between railroad ties into the cold, rushing Roaring Fork. It’s a good thing my mother didn’t know what I was doing. Even though I knew the train only came once a week, there was always the fear, when I reached the midpoint on a trestle, that maybe there might be an unexpected train barreling down the tracks.

Old Aspen residents may remember Cassie Herron and her two surviving sons, John and Bill. During my trestle-testing days Cassie, a feisty 5-foot widow with a rich Irish brogue, lived in one of Aspen’s largest Victorian houses on Main Street. To conserve heat she lived on the ground floor. The furnishings of the upper floors gathered dust.

John Herron, my uncle, reluctantly told me of his family tragedy. It was the only time I heard him discuss the subject. He offered few details and no editorializing.

John said that in his youth he and his brothers also liked to walk the railroad tracks. At that time, the early 1900s, Aspen’s two railroads ran trains every day. The brothers’ ultimate challenge was to cross the towering Midland Railroad trestle that spanned Castle Creek near the west end of Main Street.

One day while John and his two younger brothers crossed the trestle they saw smoke down the line. At mid-trestle, with no place to climb out of the way of the approaching train, their only chance was to make a mad dash for the end of the trestle. They all turned and ran, but John’s youngest brother tripped and fell to his death before the oncoming train.

Accidents frequently occurred during the days of steam locomotives: derailings, collisions with other trains, collisions with livestock, fires in passenger cars and other mishaps. Although several generations of Aspen’s youth tempted fate by walking the tracks, I identified with no other tragedy as strongly as I did that of Cassie Herron’s son.


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