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
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
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
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
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
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
Everett L. Rohrer, 2898 South Grant St., Englewood, Colorado
Dee Brown, Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow, Bantam Books, New
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.