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Visit the ghosts on Rollins Pass


August is a great month to go

By Forrest Whitman

August is a popular month to take a trip up above Rollinsville and wander through Tolland and on up the Giant’s Ladder to Rollins Pass. The best way to do it is on a bike or in a jeep, but folks take all sorts of other devices. Some even hike it. August is a prime flower month and there are said to be fish in Yankee Doodle Lake ready to be caught. The road bed itself is fascinating as the journey follows it closely. A nice leisurely trip with your lunch all packed is the best way to experience it. It’s fun to take time and think of the ghost trains and the ghost inhabitants along the way. I like to imagine how it all looked in about 1930.

When trains stopped in Tolland

The local train stopped at about 10:30 every morning in Tolland. There was a brick station, and mail was taken off and put on. It’s always good to go slow through Tolland today, but even better if you want to imagine the local train pulling to a stop and folks lining the platform. This was before the Denver and Rio Grande bought “Mr. Moffat’s line,” the Denver and Salt Lake (for a time The Denver Northwestern and Pacific). Of course Moffat himself never saw his dream come true. He was riding the last westbound before the tunnel heard any engine noise in 1927. Still his ghost must be riding out there somewhere.

The ghost trains of the D&SLR were quite regular in 1930. They ran three passenger consists a day. A friend of mine liked to ride The Yampa Valley Mail on the D&R&GW. It supplanted the local in 1954 and ran till 1968. Since my buddy George had a mom who worked for the D&RG, he could always get a pass or just a friendly “get on kid.” He liked to lean out the coach window in places like Rollinsville, or even as the train crept up the grade toward the tunnel. Everybody had time to wave in those days. George and I were recently comparing dining car notes. I’d just taken the AMTRAK Southwest Chief from Colorado south to the Santa Fe junction. That’s still a great train and one I’ll write about at some point. He remembers fried chicken and steaks for lunch. My burger and fries and coleslaw were okay, but nothing like what they had on the old Yampa Mail. George liked to fantasize about the past too as the Yampa Mail pulled through Boulder Park and on to the tunnel.

The 8 year old Tolland Operator

Tolland was an important message point. The operator would stand by the track with his bamboo hoop up. It held a yellow string on the prongs with the train orders for the rest of the trip to Hot Sulfur Springs and west knotted in the middle. There might be slow orders if an area was just cleared after a mud slide. There could be watch orders if following a slow freight. Freight train crews even got detailed orders about putting on or off cars. One of the “ghosts” was a girl no older than my eight year old granddaughter. She bravely stood by the track while the engineer put his arm out and snagged the line on the bamboo wye. Of course they were going about 5 mph, but it was still something of a skill for a little kid. If it was a freight, the rear brakeman (the flagman technically) was holding his arm out for his set of orders from the caboose. She might have to wait a bit for those. Margaret Logan (now deceased) told me that little girl was the daughter of the operator in Tolland, and that she sometime let her little girl friends do the job. Dad was always close by to supervise.

Kids and troops never change

During wartime there would always be troop trains heading west. If the troop train got sided in Tolland or Rollinsville local kids would ride their bikes alongside to wave at the soldiers. Sometimes the soldiers would have the biggest prize of all, chocolates. They’d toss them out to the kids. I know about that practice first hand. My sister used to put me in her bicycle basket and ride us down to track side. That must have been around 1947. She was older than me and was always quite a looker even in her middle school years. We got lots and lots of whistles and candy. A bitter childhood memory is being forced to share the bounty. Somehow she always got more. I guess because she looked so good on the bike with her long tanned legs. Those troop train ghosts are pretty happy ones all along any rail line.

Stopping in Baltimore

The buildings in Baltimore, just below Tolland, are all private property, but you can stop by the bridge and see what’s left of the town. In the 1930s Baltimore was a happening place. There’s nothing left of the opera house now, but the Baltimore Club Building is still intact. The famous black walnut bar in the club was moved to Central City in the 1940s. With a little imagination you can hear the piano in the Baltimore Club and think of the performances in the Opera House. One of the half dozen cabins is what’s left of the summer getaway spot for Rae Laird, editor of this very newspaper for a time.

One ghost you might think of is the ghost of John Hatfield. He was proprietor of the bar in Baltimore. Prohibition was a good thing for John. He was able to increase his prices and business picked up. Alas, he was visited by some type of police from Central City. They asked if he knew it was now illegal to sell whiskey. John said he’d read something about that, but held that you can’t believe anything you read in the Post. The upshot was they arrested John and took most of his whiskey to the Central City Court house as evidence. He wasn’t there long since the very good whiskey “evaporated” quite soon. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

On up the Devil’s Ladder

These days the Forest Service and various county commissioners are meeting to talk about re-opening the Needle’s Eye Tunnel and the old road bed on Rollins Pass. One can still go up to the tunnel and then walk around to scare yourself walking across the trestles. There’s not much left of the Corona hotel and train stop today, but you can spare a thought for the men who pushed the trains over the “top of the world” there.

Folks from Tolland had good friends who died in one of the most spectacular accidents. In those days each engine had a helper to help push the freight up that 4% grade (a grade hardly possible today). One crew out of Tolland met its fate up there on Rollins Pass. The little mallet engine they were on was hard pressed to keep the rotary going and the second engine was flagging too. They were soon out of water so the fireman, Patton, had to shovel snow into the tender. When the big slide came it pushed the whole outfit over the side and down almost to Jenny Lake. While the crew was all killed one voice was still to be heard. Patton was down in the tender shoveling the snow and so he did survive. That’s a spooky story to tell, but it will be a hot August day and those huge snows of the past are best remembered on this kind of a trip.

August is the right month

Most of the snow will be melted on the right of way by now. But that snow will be back again soon. So, this is the month to wander out of Rollinsville and head on up all the way to the pass. Don’t rush, though. Spare a few thoughts for the ghosts along the way.

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