35 Pueblitos Road Belen, New Mexico 87002
It was at the '87 Bird City Show that I met the man, Everett Rohrer. I had just built a fire in the Russell and was waiting for her to warm up as the morning sun was just over the Kansas horizon. He was on the platform of his Nichols and Shepard as I approached. As both my hands were busy rolling a cigarette, I pointed at his watch pocket in the bib of his overalls with my chin and asked, 'Is that a 992B?'
Everett gave me a quizzical glance as he squinted toward me into the rising sun. 'Why, yes it is,' he replied, as he pulled the Hamilton Railroad Watch from its pocket. It glistened in the cool yellow rays as he pointed to the dent in back of the case, and began a tale of a train wreck on Sherman Hill, where the Transcontinental Railroad crosses its greatest obstacle, the Great Divide, over the Rockies.
Heading west out of Cheyenne the roadbed begins rising gently towards the Laramie Mountains. A sign along the nearby interstate explains that the traveler is passing on top of a geological formation of pre-Cambrian granite called the 'Gang Plank', so named because it is an uninterrupted narrow shelf of the solid pink rock inclined toward the west from Cheyenne to the Continental Divide. The first siding along the track is Otto, then Granite Canyon where the steepest portion lies, about seven miles further is the wye at Buford, and five miles beyond is Sherman Summit.
In the early days the railroaders referred to it as the 'Sherman Climb.' This was the stretch of track on the Transcontinental Railroad where they had to work the hardest. I can't think about Sherman Hill without it reminding me of the poem 'I Like To See It Lap The Miles,' by Emily Dickinson' stop to feed itself at tanks; And then, prodigious, step Around a pile of mountains, 'It took more water and more coal to get up this grade than any other section on the line. Helper engines were placed in front of the trains at Cheyenne and removed at the wye at Sherman to return trainless down the hill. A 'wye' is a configuration of track used to turn an engine around facing the opposite direction. By the time a train reached its stop at Sherman, the locomotive tenders were nearly void of water, and coal was low. The water tank gave the necessary drink to continue the journey into Laramie on the other side of the mountains.
Everybody, as well as the engines, needed a break. Some passengers experienced nose bleed from the altitude and most were glad for a chance to stretch their legs, enjoy the view, and take a deep breath of that Rocky Mountain air. Still others found the wind to be too chilly and remained onboard. The stop would be longer than usual, not only because the helpers were removed, but the clinkers in the fire box required breaking up, the fire rebuilt, and the tender filled before the engineer and fireman could slack off a bit from their toil.
Everett says that in the days he engineered for the Union Pacific over that hill he was known as 'High Water Rohrer,' because he kept the water level in the sight gauge higher than most, not only to keep a large reserve of steam, but for an extra safety precaution with the fire hotter than usual.
Filling the water tank was tricky in the winter. Sherman Summit sits in a saddle along the mountains' ridge causing the west wind to blow at outrageous speeds almost continuously through the cut. January temperatures of 15° or 20° below zero are the rule in Wyoming. Everett explains that a man had to lay flat on the tender with his feet toward the wind and watch carefully not to over-fill the tank because the wind chill would freeze a man to death tight to the tender if the water were allowed to splash over and get him wet.
The Sherman tank was underground to prevent the water from freezing. A small shack was built over it to house a pump and the spout was of the standpipe type. If a fireman had a problem getting the pump started, a few blasts of the whistle would bring a section hand running from one of the houses clustered about the station.
At Sherman, snow fences guard the tracks from the blowing drifts. The sign in the center of the cut reads, 'Sherman, elevation 8015. Highest point on the Transcontinental Railroad.'
Everett bought the new model watch from the U. P. time inspector at Denver in 1940 when the railroad required it to be carried by all personnel involved with train movement. The Hamilton 992B differs from the older 992 in that it has a solid balance wheel of special alloy without the customary little slits that, along with its hairspring, is not affected by heat or cold. The design of the cap jewels is slightly different allowing for better regulation and less friction variations as the watch is tipped from side to side.
It was the winter of 1942, the country was at war, traffic over Sherman Hill was at its heaviest when Everett waited with a loaded freight train at the Buford siding for clearance to proceed. It was eleven o'clock at night, and the temperature was 10° below zero. The train was pointed down hill, headed east. Unaware of any problems, Everett was going about his usual chores, and while reaching for the oil can the train was hit from behind. A 77-car freight train was coming down the hill on the mainline when it lost its air pressure. It had no brakes. The engineer on the speeding train hit his emergency brakes, his train buckled and several cars derailed. One of the derailed cars hit Everett's tender sending the coal into the cab and burying Everett against the hot boiler. When Everett dug himself out of the coal he was bruised, badly burned and the watch was smashed. Crews worked frantically clearing the track throughout the frigid night and the mainline was open for traffic by five o'clock the next morning.
Everett recovered, returned to work, and the watch was repaired. 'High Water Rohrer' had instructed the time inspector to leave the dent in the case when repairing the watch. 'I want that dent to always remind me of the time the Good Lord wrapped his arms around me, held me tight, and saved my life.'
Sherman got its name from the Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman, who in the post war era was a major advocate of the Transcontinental Railroad, and was instrumental in getting Congress to allocate funds for its building. The General received a great deal of publicity during the war and the promoters of the Union Pacific Railroad believed that General Sherman would boost sales of U. P. stock. When the railroad officials invited General Sherman to Omaha for a party on July 10th 1865, they rode the fifteen miles of completed track with the General's name painted on Union Pacific Locomotive No. 1.
In the spring of '66 General John S. Casement and his brother, Daniel, received the track laying contract from the U. P. Besides running the company that built the railroad, they ran a rolling town that moved with the crews in order that the brothers could repocket the wages that were paid to their men. This little town that consisted mostly of barrooms, gambling halls, and bawdy houses was aptly known as 'Hell On Wheels'. It was spring 1868 when the 80-car work train moved west from Cheyenne, and on April 16th the iron rails reached Sherman Summit, the highest point on the Transcontinental Railroad, named in honor of the tallest general in the army. Sherman, Wyoming then had a temporary population of 3,000. Sherman soon settled down to a town consisting of a station, water tank, a few permanent dwellings for a handfull of section hands, and 'Hell On Wheels' rolled on down the western slope. My 1901 Crams' Atlas lists Shermans' population at 11.
Later the giant 4-8-8-4 Big Boy locomotives would make the run over the mountains without either helpers or water stops at Sherman. Everett says the main precaution before the climb was taken at Cheyenne. The engineer and fireman would adjust the nozzles on the automatic stoker to make sure the grates in the long fire box were evenly covered, because if a hole were left in the fire then the cold draft would gush through it and the resulting power loss would slow or stall the engine.
During another winter run, Everett was waiting at the Granite Canyon siding with a west-bound freight. The wartime traffic was heavy with passenger trains, special and troop trains. He waited some five hours in the 10° below weather for more than 25 priority trains to wave past him. Finally, the lantern waved, and the train being pulled by two Challenger Mallets eased out onto the mainline. Well, that cold wind got to those journal boxes and that bearing grease got a bit too cold for the boxcar wheels to turn freely. He was still pulling the slack out of the couplings when the lurch pulled a car in two. The steel support straps busted about 15 feet from one end ripping a wooden gondola apart, and dumping its contents of way maintenance parts onto the siding. Kegs of spikes, track bolts, piles of fish plates, the plates and frog parts lay in a heap between the ends of the ruptured car.
The front of the train had to be uncoupled and pulled up to the wye at Buford. They then backed the engines all the way down to Otto, the first place where they could cross over to the siding, then forward up the hill to the rear of the train. After abandoning the gondola, they pulled the train backwards down to Otto, and pushed it up the hill to the waiting front half at Buford. Using the siding at Buford they were able to reposition the engines to the front of the train and proceed over Sherman to Laramie. It took all night to finally top the hill, but, it probably wasn't the first time and certainly won't be the last.
Now, it's diesels that pull the trains over Sherman Summit. When I was last there a coal train destined for a power plant passed from the west being pulled by four of the modern units. On the last car was the little electronic red box above the coupling that has replaced the caboose and the tail crew.
In 1980 a passenger on the train #104, the 'City of Los Angeles', recalls passing over the Sherman Summit and waving at the town's only inhabitant, an antelope.
Everett still reminisces about Sherman. Nothing much is left of the little town. The houses are gone. The station is gone. The water tower is gone. All that's left of the former town is a broken Heming Ray insulator here, a lantern fragment there, pieces of broken brick and timbers scattered about, but, the hill is still there, the pink granite is still there, and, of course, the never ending wind.
Everett L. Rohrer, 2898 South Grant St., Englewood, Colorado 80110.
Dee Brown, Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow, Bantam Books, New York.
B.A. Botkin & Allen F. Harlow, A Treasury of Railroad Folklore, Bonanza Books, New York.
Louis Untermeyer, Modern American Poetry, Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York.