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Looking Back: Planes drop food to 10 marooned on rail bus in Colorado Rockies

Editor’s note: Information on the article has been furnished by Wendy Usher Wheaton, daughter of Rollin Usher and by Sharon Van Dusen, great niece of Walter Virden. Without their assistance, the article would not have been written. The account of the incident was dated Wednesday, March 15, 1944, from Telluride.

By Montezuma County Historical Society

Towering snowdrifts closing in around them left 10 persons marooned on a winding narrow-gauge railroad in Southwestern Colorado’s storm-swept Rockies. The spot is midway between Montrose and Durango.

Six of the persons had been isolated since Monday afternoon (March 13), but fear for the safety of all lessened after two small airplanes today dropped several days food and medical supplies which the snowbound folk retrieved from the hummocks on 10,200 Lizard Head Pass.

Fred Johnson, the Penny store manager at Montrose, his wife and their three-year-old grandson left Dolores Monday for Telluride in the Rio Grande Southern Railway’s Galloping Goose with Jimmy Cooper of Ridgway as driver of the automobile converted into a rail car. The Johnsons had been advised not to attempt the trip but decided to chance it anyway.

Engine clears way

Snowdrifts had piled to a height of 15 feet, so railroad officials sent a locomotive ahead of the Goose to the clear the tracks. Fifteen miles north of Rico, the engine and rail car stalled. Deep snow cut off a return. Aboard the locomotive were Walter Virden of Rico, engineer, and Mike Smith of Ridgway, fireman.

A second locomotive left Rico yesterday to affect a rescue, but it too, became marooned. Its four occupants were Engineer W. G. Laube, Firemen Steve Conners, C.R. Rhodes, a Rio Grande Southern fireman, all of Durango; and Alex Vigil of Dolores, a section foreman. These four were reported to have reached the six other persons on snowshoes. All were understood to have sufficient fuel to keep warm despite near-zero temperatures and high winds. They were without food until today, however.

Mercy pilots

The mercy plane flights were made by Rollin N. Usher and Joe Piccone, both Civil Air Patrol pilots from Cortez. They dropped six packages. The Johnsons’ grandson was understood to require medicine. The pilots said men reached the parcels and dragged them to the snowbound bus.

Additional slides today on the narrow gauge railroad, which runs from Durango to Ridgway, made it impossible to determine when the 10 persons would be rescued.

A caterpillar roared out of Rico, south of Lizard Head Pass, today with a crew of seven or eight men while another attempt to cut through was being made from the north by a railroad rotary snow plow from Vance Junction near Telluride and 11 miles from the peak.

Dan Hunter covers Galloping Goose

Dan Hunter, Dove Creek editor, is widely known for his unique manner of writing. The following story relative to recent blockade of the Galloping Goose is typical of the literary gems that come from his editorial quilt.

“The fiercest snow storm of the centuries” swept across the Lizard Head Pass, marooning Mr. and Mrs. Fred Johnson and 3-year-old grandson. The Johnsons live at Montrose; the grandson hails from Wyoming.

The bus, which is called the Galloping Goose, pulled out of Rico early Monday morning. The Goose was being towed by a Durango and Rio Grande Southern engine, which stalled about 4 miles west of Lizard Head snow sheds. The engineer, fireman and the Goose herder, realizing their dangerous and precarious condition used portable telephone to hello Rico for food supplies and other relief. Men mounted snowshoes and slowly threaded their trailing up the snow-covered pass knowing that a crack of the whip might trigger an avalanche of snow and ice that might bury them beneath a thousand pounds of mountain debris. Nothing daunted these bold mountaineers, and about 9 p.m. Monday, the weary, laden mountain climbers deposited food at the feet of the famishing Galloping Goose.” My, what a spread and such a feast!

Wednesday morning, reports came that the rotary snowplow had not reached the marooned parties. Rollin Usher of Cortez and Milton Morgan nosed the Usher plane toward the stars in their dangerous mercy flight to bring further relief to those who were asunder upon a drift of snow and ice.

Ed Hunter and Joe Piccone, flying aces of Cortez, flew within the wake of the Usher plane as each phantom ship circled the snow-capped summit of old Lizard Head, dropping their heavenly parcel into the lap of the Galloping Goose.

“The monster Leviathan of the mountains, the rotary snowplow, is supposed to open the road today (Wednesday) should it fail to reach the unfortunate maroons who have fire in abundance. Our surmise is that the Cortez armada of the skies will once again hover above the Galloping Goose with its broken wing and frozen toe.

March 15, 1944

It has been reported by Usher that both planes flew low over the bus about 11 o’clock that morning, practically dropping six sacks of food and medicine on the bus doorstep, so there is no doubt the supplies reached the storm victims. Incidentally, the provisions turned out to be mostly canned baby food. Those in the plane were Milton Morgan flying with Usher and Ed Hunter, with Joe Piccone.

Word also has been received there is coal on the bus. The bus, converted to run on rails, is equipped with a small stove, and coal could be taken from the engine so they did not suffer from cold. Mail sacks had to serve as beds.

It was also reported that 10 people are trapped now as two engines were marooned in addition to the bus. One engine was pulling the bus when it became stalled. Engineer Walter Virden of Rico and Fireman C.A. Rusher of Durango are the crew on the stalled lead engine, making six people in all that are trapped with the bus. Four miles behind on the rescue engine, which was marooned, are Engineer W. G. Laube of Durango and Fireman Steve Cannon of Durango. Accompanying them yesterday were C.R. Rhodes, RGS bridge foreman of Durango, and Alex Vigil, section foreman at Dolores. When their engine became stalled, Rhodes and Vigil took some sandwiches and other supplies and attempted to walk to the stranded bus. It is believed the two men, realizing they couldn’t walk to the bus but fortified with plenty of food and matches, took shelter in one of the cabins along the way.

Another source reported that Cooper attached his telegraphone to a wire and notified the office of their predicament. The company procured the services of Roy Pettingill of Rico and his truck to go to their relief. Three section men along with Pettingill took along a toboggan, snowshoes, shovels, blankets, overshoes and lunches. Pettingill found several small slides had run, but he managed with bucking and shoveling to get through them. They got within 1½ miles of the bus when they could go no farther. Pettingill and one of the men took to snowshoes and got to the stranded passengers about dark.

The Johnsons refused to leave as they were afraid of snowslides on the road and because they had been told an engine would reach them the next day. Virden and Rusher went to the truck and brought back the three lunches that had been left there.

The railroad had, the day before, made arrangements with Pettingill to go again to the rescue of the passengers. More slides had run, so the county bulldozer preceded the truck. They started out on the morning of the 15th. It was late when they reached the Coke Ovens, 6 miles from Rico. They started out again but didn’t get as far this time, so had farther to walk to the bus. Pettingill, Louis Jones and Buck Lill, on snowshoes, pulled the toboggan loaded with blankets and food and arrived at the bus about dark. The passengers had no objection to leaving this time, so the woman and child rode the toboggan, and the man walked.

Now the Johnsons were stranded in Rico, but they talked to Mr. Pettingill and asked him to try to get them out by truck. They started out about 8 o’clock the morning of March 17, and after bucking miles of mud and having to drive on the railroad track because of big rocks on the road, they arrived at Dolores at 4 o’clock.

On March 22, the stranded bus and engine returned to Rico.

June Head, historian of the Montezuma County Historical Society, can be contacted at 970-565-3880 for comments or corrections.

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