By Ada Brownell
The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad’s main line lay between me and school when I was a kid, and I had to cross those tracks. When a steam engine whistled a warning in the distance, no crossing arms barred me from danger--only noisy clanging and big red eyeballs flashing. Then every hoof of the massive engine’s horsepower pounded by and the swaying cars followed.
I hated trains. Somebody told me if you stand too close, you’ll be sucked under.
Then I grew up. In 1953, an agent-telegrapher chose me for his wife and I had to make friends with the monsters.
In Avon, Colo., near Vail, we lived in the depot only a few feet from the tracks. Les’s office had a bay window where he could see both ways down the rails.
Often the clicks of the telegraph “bug” echoed into our living room carrying an urgent message in dots and dashes. Trains approached from the East and West on the one set of rails. The crew followed too closely, needed to go into a siding to allow another train to pass, or a rock slide or other trouble lay ahead.
Les quickly transcribed the Morse message, tied it in twine, attached it to a long Y stick, and ran outside.
A few minutes later, a massive behemoth clothed in tons of steel and the gold and black Rio Grande cape, whistled still going a pretty high speed, spit steam, and thundered toward the depot. Les stood beside the tracks, his clothes flapping in the breeze as he extended the Y stick up to a small high window in the engine.
The engineer leaned out, stuck his arm through the loop, pulled the twine inside, read the message, and usually guided the train into the next siding.
We resided in the beautiful Avon valley when it was us in the depot, the couple in the general store, and the rancher and his family. About 10,000 people live in Avon today. A statue in the middle of town of the rancher and his horse remind everyone of the man who used to own that property.
We lived in a log cabin at Pando, on top of Colorado’s Tennessee Pass, across the highway from Camp Hale. One soldier jumped off the train with his duffle bag and checked out the place.
“Mountains this way. Mountains that way. Mountains over there and over here. The only way out of this place is up!”
“Cabin” accurately described our dwelling. We used the restroom in the depot, probably about 500 feet from where we lived. We had a sink with running water in the kitchen, but the water pipe only went through the wall and had no receptacle. To make sure the water didn’t freeze when we left for the weekend, the faucet was kept running. When we returned, no fire in the coal stove, the water had frozen from the faucet’s mouth, through the drain, and became a huge icicle outside.
When we moved to Minturn, our house rested in a mountain’s niche above the depot. Les worked evenings, so near suppertime I jumped on a sled, hiked up the canyon, slid all the way to the depot and delivered his full lunch pail.
In Malta, a smelter town near Leadville, Colo., a boxcar with a “lean-to” became our home. Relatives visited overnight and after lights were out, my little niece shakily asked, “Is a train going to come in the night and take us away?”
Because he kept getting “bumped,” Les’s job caused us to roam Colorado like the trains, and we moved 12 times the first three years of our marriage. Making a shack, a depot, or a railroad car into a home challenged my work-a-holic nature. The living situations, especially having no bathrooms, no hot water or other conveniences, fit right into Paul’s example to be content in whatever situation I found myself.
Everywhere we went, we found a church, wonderful people, and made friends,
The first years—before children—were an adventure. But then we landed in Thompson, Utah: population 100, no church, four taverns, and we had to buy groceries in a bar. The nearest church was 38 miles away, but we traveled the distance to Moab and back every Sunday evening.
We lived in Thompson a short time once and had a house with a bathroom that didn’t work, probably because the pipes froze and the owner wouldn’t fix them. We left and came back to Thompson months later and the only house available in town was a tar paper shack with an outhouse, a faucet, but no sink.
By then we had nice furniture so I polished up that shack making the worn linoleum floors and the windows gleam. I decorated kitchen shelves with colorful paper with pretty edging, hung curtains. But the roof leaked, mice skittered everywhere, and I had no friends and our oldest son was a toddler.
My home-builder uncle stopped by to see us there. Embarrassment colored my cheeks, especially when he looked around and said, “I could build a place like this for about fifty dollars.”
Then with a grin he added, “Tell you what. Take a picture of this and when your kids grow up and want to borrow money, tell them, ‘We started out the hard way.’”
Finally, we bought a beautiful ten-by-fifty mobile home and brought it to Thompson. Hot and cold running water, bathroom, gorgeous new everything. But it didn’t solve all our problems.
The railroad allowed us to park the home without charge on railroad land, but Les had to bring in the water and build a cess pool. We planted a beautiful lawn, flowers, shrubs, and using discarded materials left in railroad cars, we built a white fence around it.
Only thing, we lived maybe 15 feet from a vacant building that was about to fall in. Being in the middle of the Utah desert, I knew rattlesnakes might hang out there. The Lord and I had many intense conversations as I pled with Him to keep the snakes away from our two children when they were out playing on the swings in our yard. Our doctor was 90 miles away in Grand Junction, Colo.
We were not far from the tracks and one day sparks from a “hot box,” a boxcar with a stuck wheel, ignited a nearby trestle bridge. Sparks from the fire burned a large hole in our awning, but didn’t burn the mobile home, praise the Lord.
God did a work in me and I learned to love Thompson and the people there. God sent a wonderful Christian woman my age to town and we started a Sunday school in the one-room schoolhouse. Many children had never heard the name of Jesus other than a curse word.
Our mobile house ended up in two-mile-high Leadville and winter snows showed no mercy. Before Les left for a temporary job in Texas creek, he said, “Leave the bathtub water running to prevent freezing.”
One frosty night, I took a relaxing bath. I was tucked in bed when my mother-in-law, who lived with us, flushed the toilet. I woke to a sucking sound and remembered I turned the water off.
Fearing broken pipes and not wanting my mother-in-law to know I hadn’t turned the faucet back on, I threw my fake-fur coat over my nightie, pulled on snow boots, grabbed a fusee-torch, matches, a broom and ventured into the darkness.
I swept a path, then I tunneled through the deep snow and crawled, pulling myself with my elbows to the pipes.
Bummer! I got the matches wet!
I backed out and headed for the door. My bare hand stuck to the frosty knob. When I got my hand free, the door wouldn’t open. The deep snow on the roof was melting from the warmth inside, dribbled down, and the door froze shut.
I knew no one. The tavern over the fence had just closed and drunks wandered about.
I rang the doorbell. My mother-in-law woke up, pushed and I pulled until with a crunch the door opened.
Next time, I dressed warmly, left the door open a crack, kept my matches dry and succeeded in my mission. The next day, I discovered the temperature was 30 degrees below zero.
Soon Centralized Traffic Control, where dispatchers govern train movement with traffic lights, closed many depots. Teletype and later, computers, nudged telegraph into history.
But the monsters, now diesel powered, scurry over our nation, still whistling, bringing food, fuel and merchandise. I hope the handsome creatures never become extinct. After all, because of them I learned contentment whether in the beautiful homes in which we lived, a depot, or a tar paper shack.