Durango’s ghost train: A car with a history of blood, love, and murder

by Patty Templeton

There’s a ghost that lives at the rear of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum. Kate, a forlorn haint with a history of woe and ruin, resides in an unrestored sleeper car built in 1883. It ain’t smart to go tromping willy-nilly through the spirit world, thus, the D&SNG keeps Kate’s passenger car roped off from the general public, at the back of the museum. Jeff Ellingson, the museum’s curator and local history buff, is willing to give tours of the haunted train car, but you better have a fortitude for foreboding and courtesy toward the incorporeal. Ellingson has dealt with a fair number of paranormal investigators and he doesn’t take kindly to people who are abusive or brusque with Kate.

Kate’s car is dark green, and the century-plus paint job is exhausted. Inside, the lights are dim against beige, wooden walls. Shadows lurk. The air feels thick. The lower sleeping berths are out for seating and the upper berths tucked away. A doorway cuts the car in half, separating the sleeping space from the living area. A small cook stove, a table, shelving, and minor seating occupy the back half of the train car.

Leaning against the doorframe in low light, Ellingson unveiled a tale of a young prostitute, a gory train fight, and a bloody mishap that led to a brutal suicide. Here is his account of the story:

The sleeper car where Kate livesThis is the last of its kind. This car was taken out of service in 1900. It was built in 1883. It was an immigrant car. It transported people that didn’t have much money that were trying to get to the gold fields of Colorado. It was part of a train that, during the day, you would ride in a regular passenger car. At night, this is where you would sleep. You would cook your own meals. There are sinks and space to prepare your food. That’s where you would eat and you’d probably share this car with another family.

In 1900, Pullmans came out. They were much fancier. They tucked you in at night. You didn’t have to cook for yourself anymore. You didn’t have to bring your own bedding. They did everything for you. Pullmans made this car obsolete.

In Salida, a huge railroad town right in the middle of Colorado, they dealt with a lot of train wrecks. This car was part of a 10-car train that was used in dealing with train wrecks. Whenever there was an accident, they could put 60 men on a train that was already made up. They’d hook a locomotive on it. These 60 men were roundhouse guys and car shop guys, going to the wreck. Part of their job was to rescue the survivors and part was grizzlier; it was getting the people that had died back to town.

This car was used because it was like a cabin on wheels with a cook here to make meals for all the men on the train.

A fireman wants to impress his young loverWhat happened in 1937 was really sad. In Salida, across from the railyard, there was a red light district called “Laura’s.” Laura was a madam of the highest caliber, an amazing lady who had a lot of beautiful girls that worked for her. There was a girl who was 15 and her name was Kate. Kate was in love with a fireman who worked in the railyard.

The train was about to go out of Salida to a wreck. The fireman was like, “How cool would it be to take my girlfriend along?” He sneaks Kate onto the engine to impress her – hides her there until the train gets out of town and it’s dark. But the fireman is busy. Coal won’t shovel itself. He is buddies with the cook, so the fireman says, “Kate, I’m going to take you back to the car where the cook is. I have to work.” So the fireman brings Kate back here, where we are.

Kate is not alone with the cook. There’s railroad men in here. They’re playing cards. They’re drinking. Sixty guys and one beautiful lady is a bad combination on a moving train in the wilderness. A lot of the guys recognized Kate. They knew her job – that she worked for Laura.

Crimson pandemonium in a moving passenger carThe men get bad ideas. The fireman gets word and rushes back to Kate. Kate’s hiding behind the cook.

The fireman and a brakeman – a big, burly, drunk guy – get in a fight right in this doorway.

The conductor, even from a few cars back, can hear all this shouting. He rushes here and sees two men on the floor, rolling around, fighting.

Do you see this framing here? [points to the left side of the car] There used to be a sliding service door, right here. The conductor comes in, he sees these guys on the floor. He grabs the guy on top, trying to break it up, but the conductor’s adrenaline is flowing and the train is moving and he throws the man on top of the pile off the train, in the middle of the night, through that service door, right there.

Meanwhile, the fireman is on the floor. He’s been stabbed. He’s bleeding out.

Kate is screaming for her lover. The cook is holding her back. The fireman’s unconscious and dying.

The conductor stops the train. Gets everybody off. Questions everyone, asks, “What in the hell is going on here? What happened? What’s she doing on the train?”

The fireman dies.

The train goes back to find the brakeman – he’s wanted for murder. The brakeman is found along the tracks with a broke shoulder. He was pretty beat up, but not at risk of dying.

But the fireman isn’t the ghost on the train …Kate never recovers from the trauma. She blames herself. Thinks, “If I hadn’t of gone on the train, I would still have my fireman and none of this would have happened.” She ends up killing herself – committing suicide. Carbaulic acid. Women would choose that in the 1930s, and it was a really agonizing way to die.

Getting back to present, this car sat in the lower yard for a lot of years.

The D&SNG owner saved it, realizing how rare it was, a 1900 car not restored. He didn’t realize its other history. I didn’t know the story of Kate then, either. It came from researching the history of the car. The thing of it was, people would come in here with their cameras and take pictures and see things.

I had some travel writers in here a couple of weeks ago and a lady with her phone was recording me telling the story. She said, “I’m getting orbs.” There were these little balls of light cruising around in here when I was talking, on her phone.

We had a paranormal investigation done in here by folks who claimed to be professionals who had special equipment and they lasted until about 2 a.m. then they wanted the heck out. They got locked in the car. I’ll never allow it ever again. What they did was try to antagonize to get a reaction out of Kate. And they got one. They got locked in. That door [points to front entryway] has a wooden wedge under it and it slammed shut and locked.

They called me up and wanted the heck out of here and I was like, “You know what, climb through a window; you brought it on yourself.” I was kind of mad about that. One of the reasons why this car is back here and we don’t let people go tromping through and only bring in little tours is out of respect.

How can the D&SNG be certain this is the muder train car?It is a small world. The D&SNG hired Avery Martinez [in the operations department]. I had heard some stories from some folks in Salida, but Avery came in here and had the whole story. Avery’s [great-grandfather] was hired by the Rio Grande in the 1930s and moved here from Illinois. He didn’t have a place to stay when he first arrived in Salida. This car was sitting empty in the railyard and they said, “OK, you can live on this car.” The murder hadn’t happened yet. This was his house. He was a heavy equipment operator. The railroad hired him to work in wrecking service.

Avery said, “I heard that the 460 is in here.” I said, “Yeah, it is.” He said, “Well, my [great-grandfather] used to live on that car.” I go, “Really? There’s an interesting story about that car.” He said, “Yes, there is.” And, in fact, his [great-grandfather] was on the train the night that the murder happened.

There have been people who have walked in here, without me telling the story, who are just sensitive and they’ll be like, “Did you know there is a lady that is in that car? You have a female ghost back there.” And I’ll go, “Really?” They’re like, “Yeah, her name is Kate or something.” I’m like, “How do you know that?”

Information is hard to come by about Kate and her firemanI mentioned Laura’s, the red light district in Salida, a little earlier. Well, the Rio Grande was this huge company and there were a lot of married guys that worked for the railroad that were sneaking over to Laura’s and having affairs. The railroad was worried about their reputation. The Mountain Mail was the newspaper over in Salida. Still is today. The Mountain Mail was going to publish the murder story and the railroad went traipsing into their office and said, “If you print this story, we’ll make it so you’ll never print anything ever again.” So the murder was reported as an accident in official documents. Out in the middle of nowhere, the railroad could make up any story it wanted.

Our investigation was at the courthouse in Salida and looking at the death records in 1937. There were murders in Salida that year, but none listed as on this car. There were two accidental deaths listed at the railroad in 1937. One was a fireman. There isn’t direct correlation so I can’t say for sure, but it makes you think …

Maybe that’s why Kate is the one here, her energy still attached to this car – her lover had an unsolved or unstated murder.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Correction: It was Avery Martinez’s great-grandfather, Dick Shake, who witnessed the murder on the train car, not his great-uncle. Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer


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