Bill May: Bridges of Routt County
December 3, 2006
Have you counted the number of cars in a freight train? Waved to the engineer? Or maybe to the conductor or brakeman on the caboose? I suppose most kids do.
Freight trains out of the Yampa Valley on the Denver and Salt Lake Railroad (the old Moffat Line) seldom had over 40 cars, and 50 cars was really a big one. Out on the plains, the Union Pacific, the Northern Pacific and the Southern Pacific and all those many other lines running east pulled trains with as many as 100 cars.
Of course, the coal cars they used in those days only held about 50 tons just half the amount of the coal cars of today. And the railroads in the old days hauled everything “from soup to nuts,” so when you saw a D & SL train with 50 cars, not more than 40 were coal cars, as that was about the maximum number of coal cars they pulled on the Moffat. The other cars might have held grain, lumber, wool, livestock or just about anything else.
Practically all the livestock from this area was shipped to market by train, and the livestock owners or their agents rode on the caboose to look after the stock en route to Denver or other markets. We cowboys surely had some “big ole times” on those freight trains.
The train stopped to pick up cars of coal, cattle, lumber or whatever at all the shipping points along the line. I was on the caboose once when we had 20 cars of cattle and 40 of coal; it took three of those big mallies (steam engines) to pull that one. But even that large of a train scarcely caused the old wooden bridges on the line to vibrate.
Things had really changed by 1976. The Moffat had long since become a branch line of the Denver & Rio Grande Western and had quit hauling livestock. Steam engines had been replaced with diesel. More coal was being mined from three strip mines by 200 miners than 2,000 miners dug from 20 underground mines 40 years ago; and 100-car trains of 100-ton coal cars were leaving the valley. Those wooden bridges really trembled.
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Pat O’Brian was in charge of bridge construction for the D & RG, and was he ever busy replacing the old wooden bridges with new steel ones. Meanwhile, I had a bridge problem, too.
Dad had owned our present Headquarters Ranch on Elk River for a long while before he acquired satisfactory material to put in a bridge. His chance came in 1938 with his purchase of the old Sarvis Timber Co. Sawmill. This mill was built of 36-foot Oregon fir timbers shipped in on the Moffat Railroad soon after it arrived here in 1909; Dad placed three piers in the river so that four trussed spans (each 34 feet long) would span the stream.
Our original bridge was quite serviceable for many years and was one of the most picturesque bridges in the country; photos of it appeared in innumerable magazines and newspapers. After 36 years use, however, the old bridge had “had the course” and I was mighty glad to make a deal with O’Brian for the material from two of the old wooden railroad bridges he was replacing.
The railroad approaches Steamboat from the east, on the north side of the river – the same side as the town. Just above town, a bridge takes the railroad across half the river by crossing onto a long island; at the west end of the island another bridge crosses to the south side so that the railroad continues downstream on the opposite side of the river from town.
It was these two bridges that I helped Pat take out, and in so doing I found a beautiful Indian metate (food-grinding stone) which had been thrown up in the fill at the end of one bridge. Of course I already knew that this island had been a favorite campsite for the Utes. With the finding of this artifact, a whole rash of the romantic Indian stories I’d heard in my younger years – from those who had lived here when the Indians were here – flooded my mind. But, I’ll save the Indian tales for another time.