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How Air-Braking Came to the Rio Grande 56 Years Ago

(Just a reminder, this article was written in 1959)

Brave engineers refused to take their trains over Marshall Pass and brakemen at Salida went out on strike in protest when the Rio Grande adopted automatic air brakes as standard equipment in 1903.

When the first train was equipped with automatic air, the regular engineer refused to handle the train. The road foreman had to take over, and coming down Marshall Pass quickly he picked up too much speed for the peace of mind of the Westinghouse man who was supervising the operation. He was assured, however, that there was a very high snow drift around the next curve which would slow the train down to a safe speed. The road foreman was right, and in a few minutes the resist-ance of the snow had reduced train speed to 10 miles an hour.

Reliable Engines

Even the Westinghouse man had to admit that the little narrow gauge engines were incomparable when it came to holding the rails in deep snow.

A short time later, though, the road foreman had again picked up too much speed for the airman's comfort. He protested. This time the road foreman got off the seat and said, "There she is." The balance of the trip into Salida was sedately negotiated at a speed not exceeding 12 miles per hour.

Out on the road the brakes on heavily-laden ore trains, screaming in protest as they became red hot on 4% grades, would fail with sickening regularity. Nevertheless the men thought that was safer that relying on Mr. Westinghouse's impractical device.

If they were lucky they bailed out in time. If they were unlucky they were carried home in baskets. "Casey Jones," "My Daddy is the Engineer," "Asleep at the Switch," and "The Wreck of the Old Ninety-Seven" were known to every admiring schoolboy. Trainmen were the glamorous and daring rocket space men of the day.

In fact it was just such spectacular incidents which triggered the Rio Grande's decision to give automatic air brakes a tryout on Marshall Pass. Nine miles west of Salida the brakes had given away on a heavy ore train, and in no time at all, she was thundering down a 4% grade at lightning speed.

On a sharp curve she took off into space and tumbled a thousand feet down into the canyon below before coming to a stop. After surveying the wreckage, the conductor, who had managed to cut his caboose loose in time, trudged into Poncha Junction to report the smashup. He got back to the scene in time to break up a pack of hungry coyotes.

This incident caused consternation in Denver, but failed to convince the train-men that a better way of stopping trains had to be found. Mr. Westinghouse's new invention had been successfully applied on the Duluth and Iron Range, and the Rio Grande borrowed Frank W. Ainsworth and G. H. "Red" McDonald's father to try it out on Marshall, Monarch, Tennessee, Cumbres and Soldier Summit.

These and many other fascinating details of how the Rio Grande was introduced to life-saving automatic air brakes are contained in the heretofore unpublished reminiscences of the Rio Grande's first straight air man, Frank W. Ainsworth, dictated shortly before his death just ten years ago.

The manuscript is now the treasured possession of G. H. "Red" MacDonald, Division Locomotive Foreman at Burnham. Needless to say, both Ainsworth and the elder MacDonald liked the Company and the Colorado country so well that they never went hack to Minnesota. Mr. Ainsworth was foreman of the air room at Burnham for many years before his retirement and Mr. MacDonald left the Company after twenty years to go into politics.

The psychological battle that broke the back of the underground employee resistance to automatic air brakes was fought on Soldier Summit, according to Ainsworth, and finally won on Marshall.

Switched to Spur

A test was ordered, down a six-mile stretch of 4% grade west of Soldier Summit with a train of loaded coal cars. Halt way down the hill the Company maintained a spur track into which runaway trains could be switched at a moment's notice. The switch was tended night and day, and if an approaching train failed to whistle a "go ahead" signal it was switched up the mountain side to slow her down. According to Ainsworth, the switch was not infrequently used. On the first eight test runs down Soldier Summit all went well. But on the ninth the crisis occurred which convinced the non-believers of the virtues of automatic air brakes.

On a later test down Marshall Pass in Colorado, the train parted and only the emergency action of the automatic air brakes saved the crew from probable extermination. Ainsworth's victory was complete.

On arrival at SaIida, the conductor came to Ainsworth, stating that he had been a "d…" fool and that this break-in-two had taught him the value and safety of the new air brake.
 

Denver & Rio Grande Western Logos used with the permission of Union Pacific Railroad

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