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CDOT plans to dispose of land where famous train wreck happened

Right of first refusal will be given to entities who receive tax revenue for the land
One of the two locomotives involved in the 1958 Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad train derailment that led to the death of a 21-year-old firefighter. (Courtesy of the La Plata County Historical Society Photo Collections)

On a late September afternoon in 1958, a doubleheader Denver & Rio Grand Western Railroad train was moving east through the Grandview area when it abruptly rolled down a short incline.

The train derailment left a clutter of steam and metal that trapped and killed 21-year-old fireman Paul Mayer, who had been railroading with the company for about three years.

At the time, it had been the worst train wreck railroad officials had seen in 25 years.

Fast forward almost 65 years, and the Colorado Department of Transportation is attempting to dispose of a 4.4-acre parcel of land near Three Springs Boulevard where the accident occurred.

Animas Museum historian Charles DiFerdinando said the exact cause of the infamous train accident remains unknown.

The engineer, W.H. Holt, amazingly escaped the wreckage of steam and metal with minor bruises and scratches.

Two 2-8-2 locomotives were pulling 26 rail cars when one of them started to slide off the tracks, causing the train to roll into a soft spot in the roadbed.

One engineer told The Durango-Cortez Herald at the time that he couldn’t tell what had happened, but saw the track slip under the front of the locomotive.

Bob Newland, who lived about 250 feet from where the crash happened told the Herald that steam inundated the entire area with such force and density that it was difficult to tell what happened.

The Colorado Department of Transportation is discussing selling a 4.4-acre parcel of land located at the northeast corner of U.S. Highway 160 and Three Springs Boulevard where a train derailment in 1958 involving the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad led to the death of a 21-year-old trail fireman. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Around 30 minutes after the crash, rescue workers from the Durango Fire Department arrived on scene, and La Plata County Sheriff’s Office deputies began its five-hour search for Mayer, who was trapped in the wreckage.

His body was found pinned between the deck, the boiler and the superstructure, and rescue workers were able to free him. The responders had to torch through metal braces and sheets to attempt to rescue Mayer.

DiFerdinando said that from World War II to around 1969, many railroads used heavy trains because of the size of the freight they would be carrying.

“They still had a branch line to Farmington so all of that oil and gas drilling equipment, came through the Durango yard and then was sent down to Aztec and Farmington,” he said.

The parcel was obtained by CDOT in 2006 as a protective buy-in anticipation that the intersection would require reconstruction to an interchange to accommodate future traffic volumes and movements.

However, because the intersection is signalized with dedicated acceleration and deceleration lanes, as well as a two-way turn lane, recent traffic safety analysis done by CDOT indicated an interchange would not be warranted, making the property unnecessary.

A public meeting was held June 8 to address the disposal of the property.

“The public meeting was just to let the community and any stakeholders know that we are going to dispose of that parcel. It's important not to read too much into the word disposal, that does not mean an outright sale,” said CDOT Environmental Project Manager Mark Lawler, who is heading the disposal project.

Lawler said an outright purchase could be the case, but CDOT will also look at other options such as a land swap.

He said entities with the right of first refusal will be given first preference for its purchase. This would include any entity that receives taxes from the parcel like La Plata County, Durango Fire Protection District or Durango School District 9-R.

City of Durango Housing Innovation Program Manager Eva Henson was in attendance at the June 8 meeting. She said anytime there’s state underutilized land available, the city is interested in pursuing it for housing purposes.

The Colorado Department of Transportation is discussing selling the 4.4-acre parcel of land located at the northeast corner of U.S. Highway 160 and Three Springs Boulevard where two locomotives involved in the 1958 Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad train derailment which led to the death of a 21-year-old firefighter. Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

“The city limit is just across Three Springs Boulevard, so this would be eligible for annexation into city limits,” Henson said during the meeting.

Lawler said the train crash was not specifically mentioned when CDOT’s historian conducted an investigation of the land, but the department did evaluate the impacts the train had on the land.

“The railroad grade was documented as a historic resource out there. We also called out any hazardous material concerns, the habitats our parcel provides, wetlands, and an archaeological clearance was provided,” Lawler said.

Lawler said there were no lasting environmental impacts from when the train ran on the parcel.

“The disposal just means we plan to do something with the land and we no longer needed it as part of the transportation facility,” he said.

tbrown@durangoherald.com



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