Recently, a woman came up to me saying, “We just stopped at Cimarron and saw the engine and train on the bridge there. It looks like a shiny new penny. You know, when the copper is so clean and fresh, the light just springs right off of it.” She said Engine 278 has that gleam which emanates straight out to you. You can just feel it.
The locomotive that we call 278 was forged specifically for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in 1882 intending to pull trains on the rails that extended from Crested Butte to Montrose. It’s been around for almost 140 years.
Recently restored, it returned to the bridge in the canyon last fall. The locomotive underwent moderate changes over its lifetime, but it is largely the same engine that went to work in the late 19th Century. Even with restoration, some 85 percent is still original material.
Some might look at this engine and think – huh? – it’s just a hunk of iron and steel from days long gone. But Engine 278 reflects the lives of people who lived and worked at Cimarron, alongside locomotives like this one. They made a living, raised families and built a community not only here, or in Colorado, but around our country.
Here is a look at two of those people.
Joe Heard moved to Cimarron in 1915. He worked in the roundhouse, at the Black Canyon Hotel and restaurant, and on the section crew. He and the other laborers repaired the tracks to make sure the trains ran on time, both on the stretch up to Cerro Summit and the line down into the canyon.
U.S. Highway 50 buckles and slumps the same way today as the railroad bed shuffled and shifted back then. They had to re-align tracks, replace cinders in the road bed, fix ties and replace broken rails.
Workhorse engines like 278 were significant to his exertion down in the canyon, as well. Smaller engines cleared rock and debris slides that covered the tracks. On one occasion, there was an enormous boulder that blocked the way. They rode into the canyon down by Deadman’s Curve to clear the line.
The locomotive pulled on the rock, with railroaders’ help, but the wheels skidded and spun. Heard and others packed a case of dynamite on it; a whole case of dynamite. The rock was easier to move after it was blasted to pieces.
Frank Cavaliere was a boy when he came to Cimarron in 1937, 20 years after Heard. Frank’s dad was section boss and young Cavaliere filled his summer days exploring the wilds around the community. He watched ranchers load sheep and cattle onto rail cars, and hiked up to Soda Spring to drink the effervescent waters. They also checked into prospector holes to see what was inside (they had been instructed not to go in those). They found a snarling badger in one of them — it chased them out.
One summer, they built a treehouse and added to it through the season. You can still see a few boards nailed to the tree over in the campground. And they went into the canyon with his dad to fish and explore while his dad worked.
Locomotives like 278 were constant companions for Cavaliere. He understood that the engines contributed to our nation’s effort that focused on winning World War II; that they pulled trains for supplies and livestock that fed soldiers scattered around the globe.
Engine 278 spans some seven generations — generations that held thousands of people of different ages like Heard and Cavaliere. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, but deciding to restore and protect these cars has to be based on more than feeling.
We collectively choose to undertake this effort because by its longevity, Engine 278 confirms the lives of people who lived and worked to build their lives, their communities, and their nation. They struggled through their own day-to-day worries and concerns along with anxiety and fear for their communities and country.
It’s a short drive over to Cimarron. It’s worth the trip to look at the gleam on the sides of the engine. Like people long gone, we too have day-to-day worries along with anxiety for our communities and country. Look closely at the sparkle on the old locomotive. You can see their world with their spirit reflected back to you; from their generation to ours.
Paul Zaenger has been a supervisory park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park since 1993. Other park assignments include Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.