BY FRANK GIBBARD
Today New Castle, Colorado is a growing and vibrant mountain community with a lively tourist industry. But when it emerged as a mining town and railroad hub in the 1880s, it was a grittier, more industrial place. Like many towns of the Old West, New Castle enjoyed quick and dramatic economic growth. By the end of its first decade, it boasted newspapers, shops, an opera house, and a jail, along with a number of saloons and houses of ill repute. But the town’s early boom times were also marred by a series of disasters.
A Fiery Past
New Castle is situated near a highly productive soft coal seam. The high-quality coal burns easily and proved ideal for railroad and smelter operations.1 But the seam also contains unusually high levels of flammable methane gas mixed in with the high-grade coal. The presence of this gas helps explain why, within a few decades of their opening, the New Castle mines suffered from a series of deadly explosions and fires.2
The first and worst of the New Castle mine explosions occurred on February 19, 1896, when the town’s principal mine, the Vulcan, exploded, killing 49 miners.3 The mine later reopened under new management, but exploded again in 1913, killing 37 more miners. After another explosion in 1918 killed three more miners, the Vulcan mine closed for good. But despite the closure, an underground fire ignited by the explosions has continued to burn in the town’s abandoned coal mines for over 100 years.4 It has been called the longest-burning underground coal fire in the United States.5
If that wasn’t enough for the history books, a different form of fiery tragedy struck New Castle about a year and a half after the first mine explosion: a railroad collision that killed roughly 20 people. Although the death toll did not reach that of the Vulcan mine explosions, the inability to determine exactly who perished in the collision intensified the tragedy for a town still reeling from the mine disaster. Denizens learned about the victims, including unidentified human remains, through grisly accounts published in local newspapers. One unidentifiable young woman became the subject of a wrongful death case that progressed all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court.
A Shared Stretch of Track
New Castle served as a transportation hub for two railroads: the Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG) and the Colorado Midland. The railroad lines that stopped in New Castle were conveniently located for transporting coal up to mountain smelters. But the trains also carried passengers and freight that headed east and west across Colorado.
Between New Castle and Grand Junction, the Midland and the D&RG shared a joint track. The Midland ran freight trains carrying livestock and fruit east from Grand Junction through New Castle. The D&RG ran westbound passenger trains over the same tracks. Careful timing was required to avoid collisions between freight and passenger trains. Unfortunately, the conductors’ timing was not always precise.
To avoid collisions, eastbound trains were required to stop and register at New Castle.6 This allowed the railroads to coordinate layovers down the line, when eastbound freight trains would be shunted to a side track to allow westbound passenger trains to pass. This protocol was especially important in the fall, when Colorado Midland ran a large number of eastbound trains containing fruit and livestock.7
Just after midnight on September 10, 1897, a Colorado Midland extra freight stock train was running at high speed, trying to reach New Castle.8 The early newspaper reports stated that the conductor, a man named Frank Burbank, was trying to avoid a layover at Silt, a few miles west of New Castle. Ordinarily, Burbank would have waited on a side track at Silt for the westbound D&RG passenger train to pass.9 But later accounts say he was trying to beat the D&RG train to the switch at Gramid, closer to New Castle.10
Either way, Burbank had information that the D&RG No. 1, the westbound passenger train, was running an hour late, and he saw a chance to jump the gun.11He hoped to beat the D&RG train to the usual layover point before stopping for the mandatory registration at New Castle. Burbank’s plan almost worked. Unfortunately, the D&RG was not running quite as far behind as he thought. By 12:15 a.m., it had already passed through New Castle and was headed west toward Grand Junction. A mile and a half west of New Castle, the Colorado Midland stock train met the D&RG passenger train head-on.
The Explosive Aftermath
The collision was catastrophic. The two train engines crumpled like accordions, their huge pistons smashed together.12 Many passengers and crewmen died or were seriously injured in the crash. But the worst was yet to come.
Trains in this era carried gas used to light and heat the passenger compartments. When the two trains collided, the gas tank exploded, turning both trains into a faming mass. Rescuers could not reach the victims, some of whom had survived the wreck with relatively minor injuries but were then pinned in the wreckage and burned to death.13
Afterward, some of the bodies were so badly charred that they were unrecognizable. Police attempted to identify the victims by their belongings, such as a shaving mug or a gold watch inscribed “From mother to Mamie.” The newspaper accounts spared their readers few of the hideous details of the scene.15 They...