Came to the Rio Grande 56 Years Ago
a reminder, this article was written in 1959)
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
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.
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
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
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.