Mountains, Men & Memories: Death and destruction in Dotsero
The phrase “mass tragedy” is rarely associated with Eagle County. But 109 years ago, it happened.
A catastrophic train wreck at Dotsero on the freezing night of Jan. 15, 1909, stunned this mountain community and generated headlines throughout the country. The story is one of human mistakes with terrible consequences. It is also a story of people mustering courage out of a horrible situation and rising to the needs of others.
The riders on the Denver & Rio Grand Railroad’s westbound passenger train that Friday evening had no reason for worry. The train was making good time, rolling at an estimated 60 miles per hour. Engineer Gustav Olson, one of the most trusted men in the D&RG system, had a clean safety record.
Olson and conductor Albert McCurdy had been notified at Red Cliff that an eastbound, double-header (two engine) freight train would steam out of Glenwood about the same time their train headed into the canyon. The trainmen were instructed to move the passenger train to a siding at Dotsero until 9:55 p.m., allowing the freight train to pass.
When the passenger train neared Dotsero, Olson glanced at his watch, misread the time by 10 minutes, and determined that he could make the next siding to the west, 5 miles distant. When the train failed to slow at the Dotsero siding, an alarmed McCurdy, riding in the caboose, signaled the engineer to stop. Seconds later, the headlight of the eastbound freight train came into view.
The trains collided on a deep curve near the Glenwood Canyon entrance. The section of track was sandwiched between the Colorado River and a steep rock wall. The engineers and some crew members of all three engines jumped out seconds before the thunderous crash.
The collision compacted the three locomotives into a single piece of twisted steel and iron. Passenger cars telescoped into one another. The “chair” car, popular with tourists, shattered into small pieces. Passengers were thrown from the train or crushed by the debris. The injuries were horrific.
The passengers in the rear cars responded quickly. Some grabbed shovels and threw snow on the engines, snuffing a potential fire. With only two railroad lanterns for light, guided by the anguished cries of the injured, they hurried to help the victims.
A calm young doctor on board commandeered the dining car as a makeshift hospital. Passengers tore sheets and pillowcases into bandages. Travelers raided their suitcases, donating whiskey and camphor for the injured. The doctor administered morphine shots. Blood rendered the floor sticky.
The mutilated bodies of the dead were covered with sheets and laid in the snow alongside the tracks. The ultimate toll was 21 deaths, including two entire families with small children; and 30-35 people seriously injured. No victims were from Eagle County. Some speculated that the freezing weather killed some people who might have survived.
With the train wreckage blocking the tracks, it was morning before a relief train arrived to carry the survivors into Glenwood. The Glenwood hospitals and morgues overflowed. Engineer Olson, hospitalized with his own serious injuries, was reportedly suffering from “brain fever” caused by his anguish over the accident.
The next morning, Eagle County coroner Joseph Gilpin and sheriff Frank Farnum arrived by train from Red Cliff. Gilpin impaneled a coroner’s jury of local men, most from Gypsum, to inspect the calamitous scene.
On Jan. 23, more than 100 people jammed the coroner’s inquest hearing in Red Cliff. The jury deliberated 51 minutes before delivering the verdict that engineer Olson had caused the deaths of 21 people by “disobeying orders through negligence or some unknown cause.” The district attorney, citing a lack of conclusive evidence and a concern about wasting taxpayer’s money, declined to prosecute.
Engineer Olson immediately relocated to Los Angeles, to recover from injuries and escape the post-tragedy spotlight. McCurdy quit the railroad altogether. Newspaper editorials called for greater safety measures from the railroad. And that doomed section of track near Dotsero earned the local nickname, “Rio Grande Graveyard.”
Kathy Heicher, president of the Eagle County Historical Society, lives in Eagle. She can often be found in the Eagle Public Library archives, searching out stories of the past. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.