Pick and Sledge

Curious Stories from the American West

100 Years Ago Today: Two Men Killed in Boiler Explosion

Steamboat Pilot, January 29, 1919

Railroading was so incredibly dangerous 100 years ago. One of the reasons why these old pictures and stories of railroad routes through the Rockies leave me shaking my head in awe is just how much risk there was in building, maintaining, and operating these lines.

Engine No. 100, pre boiler explosion, near summit of Moffat Road
Photo Courtesy of Western History and Genealogy Dept., Denver Public Library

I’m especially fascinated by the Moffat Road, aka Rollins Pass Road, aka The Hill Route, aka Corona Pass Road. I’ve run it, I’ve skied it, I’ve seen people snowmobiling, driving, and biking it. The 100+ year old route is alive and semi-well today, despite the Needles Eye tunnel being caved in since 1990, the Devil’s Slide trestles in disrepair, and the iconic Riflesight Notch hanging on by some decrepit ties. But still it persists over the Continental Divide.

The “road” was originally a path used by Utes and Arapahoes for thousands of years. In the mid-1800s it became a wagon route to Middle Park and points north. At the turn of the century, millionaire David Moffat incorporated the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railroad and secured the funding to make it into a railroad route, and construction began in 1903-1904.

Moffat Road map from Tolland to Tabernash
Moffat Tunnel (completed 1928) the dashed line

At the time, Moffat Road was the most direct railroad from Denver to Middle Park, but it was incredibly costly to maintain, especially during the winter, when giant rotary snow plows were necessary to move the many feet of snow on the track. The road’s 2%-4% grade was also very difficult for engines to complete, and in 1928 the opening of the 6.2 mile Moffat Tunnel, which allowed the railroad to traverse under 13er, James Peak, made the Moffat Road obsolete.

Image result for rotary snow plow moffat road
Rotary Snow Plow on Moffat Road

In 1919, the Moffat Road was still in regular use, and terrible accidents like derailments, forest fires caused by engine sparks, and rarer events like the boiler exploding in today’s article, were unfortunate occurrences in railroad life.

The Routt County Sentinel ran an article on this boiler accident on Jan 24th, with more details about the explosion. They said it was the “first accident of [its] kind in history on Moffat Road.” They also reported that the boiler cylinder blasted forward 225 feet, and an ejector valve flew backward 200 feet. I can’t even imagine the concussive sound of such an explosion.

According to the Routt County article, the explosion took place not so much near Tolland, which is at the eastern base of the hill climb, but farther up the road on Brogan’s Cut, near Dixie Lake, which is right at treeline, a few miles after the road is more consistently at the steeper 4% grade. Dixie Lake is now known as Jenny Lake, which is about 1/2 mile past Yankee Doodle Lake.

Jenny Lake (bottom right) and Needles Eye Tunnel (center right) as seen from high above and long ago

The Routt article refers to the Dixie Lake “siding,” which is where a track splits off from the main line, and in this case there was a water tower fed by Dixie Lake at the siding. Did the boiler explode because it was low on water? If the train had made it to the siding to re-fill the boiler would this tragedy have been avoided? I couldn’t find anything more than speculation about the cause of the catastrophe.

Maybe they shouldn’t have put Engine No. 100 on this Moffat Road auto tour brochure for motorists produced sometime in the 1960s-1970s

100 years ago today, reports of a boiler exploding on the (possibly cursed “hoodoo”) Engine No. 100 while ascending Moffat Road near the Continental Divide, killing two men, Engineer Carlin and Fireman Proctor, while injuring another, Brakeman Behringer.

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