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Rio Grande Glory Days by Gilbert A. Lathrop

Rio Grande Glory Days

by Gilbert A. Lathrop

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One night about 6, everybody except Sport and I had gone home. We’d finished all of our work which consisted of shoveling out the cinder pit and banking the fires of the engines that would be on call first thing in the morning. Cowan’s switch engine #283 was parked on the sand track and Copeland’s #455 was parked on the cinder-pit track. The tracks from the pit ran parallel to the sand track and the two came together at a stub switch. I had washed up in scalding water from an injector overflow and I had changed into my town clothes. I was just getting ready to leave when Sport came in and wanted to know where I was going. When I told him he asked me to wait and go with him over to the dispatcher’s office to deliver a message for the Old Man. It was about a half mile and I didn’t want to walk.

“Who said anything about walking?” He gestured to #283. “What’s the matter with her?” Well, this threw a different light on the matter – I wouldn’t mind a ride to the dispatcher’s office – but I wanted to run her. Sport thought a moment and then agreed.

Feeling like Casey Jones the second, I scrambled into the right side of the engine and Sport got on the fireman’s side. The boiler extended back through the cab so we couldn’t see each other. Proceeding with utmost caution (since I was just a day laborer) I gingerly opened the throttle. No. 283 hissed and began to slowly waddle ahead. We had gone perhaps 50 feet when Sport came over to my side and said, “For the lova Mike, we could walk there and back faster than this. Let me show ya how to run.” I was already nervous about running the engine so I got out of the seat and let Sport run her. He yanked the throttle wide open and the surprised 283 began spinning her wheels on the rail. Sport shut the throttle so she could catch her footing, then he opened it again. Away we went down the sandhouse track. It was only when we passed #455 that I remembered the stub switch ahead and the fact that it wasn’t lined for us. I yelled a warning but I was bout 100 feet too late. Even as I yelled our pony wheels hit the rail ends. Talk about a rough ride! We slammed across the open switch and crashed across the ties. When we stopped everything was on the ground except the rear tender truck wheels.

We stood there in shock – the engine was on the ground, the bridle irons on the stub switch were broken and the ties were deeply cut. We waited for the evening hostler to report to work, and told him of our little problem. He got #421 out of the roundhouse and backed her up to couple to #283. Luck was with us and #283 rode back on the rails at the first pull. Then we hightailed it over to Old Charley, the night yard section man, for new bridle irons. He brought some out and we helped him install them (we also made sure both the hostler and Old Charley got a new box of cigars). Once the irons were in Sport and I filled the cuts in the ties with dirt and cinders. After we finished, there was not a trace of evidence.

The next morning Cowan reported for work, oiled around, and took #283 out for her morning work. Sport and I watched him ease her down to the yard to go to work. We returned to our morning duties and out in the yard we could hear the pleasing thump of exhausts as #283 started pushing cars. About an hour later, #283 suddenly stopped shunting cars and headed back to the roundhouse. We were in the roundhouse when Cowan swung off of #283 and went to Herman the roundhouse foreman. Without preamble he asked, “What in hell did you do to my engine last night?” When the foreman asked him what he meant Cowan said, “When I tied up last evening, everything was okay. This morning I find every spring hanger on her broken. She’s riding on her frame, cutting the mud rings. She’ll have to be taken in, jacked up, and new spring hangers installed before I can use her.”

Sport and I made ourselves scarce and worked furiously at our respective morning chores. I was right in the middle of punching flues with my auger when the foreman came over, fixed me with an accusing eye and asked me if I knew anything about the broken spring hangers. I told him I didn’t even know they were broken. He cross-examined Sport too but my pal said nothing. In the end, Herman shook his head, turned, and walked off, muttering. “It’s damned funny. Something’s wrong and I’d like to know just what it is.”

In the summer of 1946 when Herman was retired I paid him a visit and in the course of our conversation I told him the truth about how #283 acquired those broken spring hangers way back in the summer of 1914
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