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The Last Watchman: The lost story of Colorado’s worst train wreck

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The only reminder of one of the worst train wrecks in Colorado history is a weathered post with a small white sign that stands sentinel at the edge of an unassuming arroyo. It is cracked, and wrapped in barbed wire so you must stand very close to make out the fading words. “This historical marker is a tribute to author-historian Dow Helmers (1906-1976), author of THE TRAGEDY AT EDEN the story of Colorado’s most disastrous train wreck… ’” it begins.

In 1904, dirt roads may have been the main mode of travel, but they made going long distances impractical and often unpleasant, so the idea that a train could smoothly and quickly get you to your destination seemed an attractive choice for the regular traveler to take advantage of the special weekend rates.

The arroyo today. It was near bushes that probably looked a lot like this that Mayfield found the deceased Engineer Hinman after more searching. Many others were not as lucky to have been found. The Gartlands from Denver suffered profound losses. Kate Gartland and 4 of her 5 children were on the train. None survived and 9-year-old Walter was never found. (C.D. Prescott)

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary on that Sunday the 7th of August in 1904. A few scattered rain showers and even cloudbursts were often expected that time of year. The passenger train from Denver to Pueblo was running on schedule and ticket holders were gathering on the platform for their return trip home from their weekend jaunts.

The train was the No. 12 that had just made the trip from St. Louis to Pueblo where it picked up the dining car from the last southbound train and headed to Denver where it would be stocked, cleaned and staffed in preparation for the trip to Pueblo. Now that it would be heading south, it was redubbed the No. 11.

The No. 11 had seven cars including the engine. There was also a baggage car, a coach car, a chair car, two Pullman sleepers and the dining car. The well-regarded Henry Hinman would be the Engineer and his fireman would be David Mayfield. Both men were from Denver.

Passengers boarded and the No. 11 left the Denver station for its date with destiny on time at 5pm. It was in Colorado Springs that Hinman was given a bulletin order to use caution and watch for standing water. At least 50 more passengers also boarded. Many were headed for Pueblo but there were others that would be continuing on to further destinations.

Leaving the station about 5 minutes after the scheduled departure, Hinman carefully followed his orders and would eventually be running at least 15 minutes late. They were due in Pueblo at 8:15pm but were crossing Bridge 110-B over Hogan’s Gulch at almost 8:20pm at no more than 20 miles per hour.

The engine swayed to the sound of cracking timbers as Hinman eased the throttle forward hoping to quickly get to solid ground. The front had just reached the bank when it suddenly stopped, lurched backwards and began to slide into the churning waters below.

A panicked Mayfield managed to jump clear of the falling engine but after being struck by a timber from the bridge, he was washed downstream just far enough that when he crawled ashore, he was still able to see the train’s headlight shining into the sky. After searching and yelling for Hinman, to no avail, he made his way to the Eden Station for help.

Passengers that got out to investigate were immediately stunned to find that the engine, baggage, coach (smoker), and chair cars were gone. The bridge wasn’t simply empty as it was immediately apparent that it had also met the same fate. It was only the automatic air brakes that had kept the remaining cars from following suit.

Being the heaviest, the engine sank like a stone but the other three missing cars and their inhabitants tumbled in the rushing waters towards Fountain Creek. The angry waters smashed through glass and took lives quickly as they violently twisted the cars in an ultimate test of their very structure.

It was in this act of destruction that a few lucky survivors managed to find their escape. John Killin had to hold his breath as the car filled with water and it rolled with the current. He had just broken a window when the car collided with something and a large piece of the roof tore away.

Using the new exit, he was able to get out of the car and attempt a swim to shore. He was struck by a railroad tie and grabbed it for use as a floatation device. Falling from it a few times, he managed to find it again until he reached water shallow enough to wade to shore. Later, he would display the tie in his Pueblo store as he credited it to saving his life.

Henry Gilbert and Tony Fisher also managed to navigate their escape and the treacherous waters to find their way to shore where they met and immediately received medical attention. Rescue efforts started immediately as the water had already begun to recede and the first relief train took the survivors and the passengers from the remaining section of the train to Pueblo.

Men with lanterns rushed to try to find any other survivors. They lit fires along the shore for heat and light, but the searchers would have to wait for dawn before any real progress was made. Their rescue mission quickly became one of recovery and while they found most, they didn’t find everyone.

Word spread quickly that there had been an accident and it drew crowds wanting to help in the rescue efforts. It also brought looters that were willing to hunt for any bodies but only to relieve them of anything that they might be carrying of value. The macabre also arrived to spread blankets to picnic nearby as they watched the rescuers like they were attending a theater production.

The engine proved to be harder to recover than had been anticipated. The crane from Pueblo couldn’t handle the weight so a replacement from Salida had to be retrieved and that would take a little time. The bents from the new bridge were put in place while the engine still remained engulfed in the mud below.

The final death count had been 96. It would have been 97 if they had included Tony Fisher who survived the wreck but would die almost a month later from tetanus on September 1st from injuries related to the crash and his time in the water. The bridge was in place in time for the passenger train to run on schedule the next day.

At least 80 square miles of land used to drain through that arroyo but a better understanding of engineering and drainage improvements has changed that. Now water rarely flows through the dry ditch that was Hogan’s Gulch and when the sign was erected it wasn’t even called that anymore. It had been changed to Porter’s Draw as arroyos are usually named for the landowner.

Aside from what is left of the sign, there are no visible remnants of that fateful night. Even the replacement bridge has given way to the newer stronger, sleeker version to the east. The Eden train station has been moved and was used as a personal residence for a bit. Only the sign remains, but local lore claims that on cloudy nights, the lights from long gone lanterns bob in the distance along the banks searching for the lost to at last bring them home.

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History

Inmate number 19845 has officially served his sentence: The Story of Joe Arridy

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A mentally challenged Pueblo man gets tried and convicted for a murder under suspicious circumstances and his name isn’t cleared until 72 years after his execution.

In Cañon City, Colorado, just beyond the rows of generic metal plate markers on Woodpecker Hill in the Greenwood Cemetery sits only one large headstone adorned with the picture of a grown man playing with a toy train. There are plastic flowers stuck into the ground around the base that don’t seem dusty enough to have been exposed to the elements for long and toy trains sit on the ledge.

Joe Arridy, left, listens to warden Roy Best read his death sentence. (Denver Public Library / Western History Collection.)

While it is not necessarily unusual for gravestones to display personal portraits or to be decorated by regular visitors, this particular stretch of graves just happens to be the final resting place for convicts.

Joe Arridy was born in Pueblo, Colorado to Henry and Mary Arridy. Shortly after starting school, it was decided that he could not learn and that it would not be necessary or desired for him to attend with the other children. He would eventually be sent to the State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction with an IQ of 46. At that time it was a score that would get him classified as an “imbecile” by the professional community.

He spent the majority of his life at the state home where he was described as a quiet boy who could only be assigned simple chores, having to be closely supervised to be kept on task. Often bullied by the other children, he tended to prefer his own company, uninteresting in forming close friends.

Arridy’s father was able to petition for his release for a brief span somewhere between his tenth to fourteenth years which enabled him to stay at his family home in Pueblo, where he could often be found walking aimlessly around town. It didn’t take long before it would be determined that he was to return to the institutional setting where he would remain until 1936.

Back in Grand Junction, Arridy was known to occasionally leave the state home where he had often observed people riding on the tops of trains. He always seemed to make his way back to the institution until the evening of August 13, 1936 when he and at least one other resident had decided to catch a train of their own.

Gifts and mementos adorn Joe Arridy’s gravesite still today. (Photo C.D. Prescott)

In Pueblo, the small, yellow house is still standing where on August 15, 1936, the Drain sisters Dorothy, 15, and her sister Barbara, 12, were fast asleep in the bed they shared when sometime between ten and midnight, an intruder entered their room and violently bludgeoned the girls, sexually assaulting Dorothy and leaving them for dead.

Dorothy did not survive the attack, but Barbara managed to recover and would later identify Frank Aguilar as the perpetrator. Barbara’s father had previously been Aguilar’s supervisor when he had been employed with Works Progress Administration (WPA) designed to employ mostly unskilled men to work on public projects. They were also able to find an axe that belonged to Aguilar with blade irregularities that were concluded to match the wounds on the girls.

Eleven days after the murder Arridy was found in the rail yards in Cheyenne, Wyoming where he would be arrested for vagrancy. When Sheriff George Carroll (who had gained some notoriety from his dealings with the Ma Barker Gang) heard that Arridy was from Pueblo, he came to the conclusion that this, in fact, might be the man responsible for the vicious attack on the Drain sisters. After interviewing Arridy and calling the press, Carroll contacted Pueblo police stating that he had caught the true killer, possessing a full confession of how Arridy had bludgeoned the girls with a club.

Officials were more than a little surprised given that Frank Aguilar was already in custody for the murder, not to mention a completely different weapon was already in evidence.

With this discovery, Carroll claimed that Arridy had actually said that he had been with Frank on the night of the murder and the club suddenly became an axe. After personally delivering Arridy to Pueblo authorities, Carroll also managed to find time in his busy schedule to attempt to acquire another confession and to be in attendance as Arridy was to reenact the crime at the scene for police.

Both men would be tried for the murder separately and Barbara Drain would attend only Aguilar’s trial to point him out as the man that had attacked her and her sister.

There was another murder that Aguilar had been implicated in but never charged with committing. R.O. McMurtree (48) had identified Frank Aguilar as the man who entered her home two weeks prior to the Drain tragedy, only a few blocks from the Drain residence. McMurtree and her visiting Aunt Sally Crumply (72) had also been bludgeoned with an axe. Crumply did not survive the attack. Aguilar also fit the description of a man who had reportedly attempted to grab another woman off the street. For the Drain murder however, Aguilar was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Arridy’s trial went a little differently. Carroll testified to an extremely detailed confession that he claimed to have gotten from Arridy without ever referencing notes of any kind. It was never explained how a man with such a limited vocabulary and documented perception errors could so accurately describe a scene and readily admit guilt. Arridy had problems differentiating certain colors and could rarely repeat more than four numbers in a sequence.

It was also never explained how Aguilar would meet a mentally challenged man getting off of the top of a train and within just a few days develop a trust that would result in Arridy accompanying him in a complicated and risky crime.

Arridy would also be found guilty and sentenced to death with a defense mounted entirely on mental capacity rather than the likelihood that he wasn’t even in town on that night and that Barbara Drain had never implicated him in the attack.

Joe Arridy would spend the rest of his short life on death row. Warden Roy Best, who was known to prefer the physical punishment of paddling over solitary confinement and for requiring inmates to cross their arms when they moved from one place to another within the prison, developed an almost paternal relationship with Arridy even gifting him the toy train that would become his favorite pastime.

Frank Aguilar was put to death in the gas chamber in 1937 and after exhausting all of his appeals; Arridy would follow him on January 6, 1939.

Before his death, Arridy had often responded to questions from the press about his pending execution by looking confused or denying that he would die. After ice cream and posing in oddly staged looking photos for articles of the paper, (awkwardly hugging his mother goodbye and giving his toy train to another inmate), a smiling Arridy would be led to his final destination. There would be no call from the governor to stay his execution.

Arridy would be strapped into one of the chairs of gas chamber that was the preferred method of satisfying death sentences at that time. Cyanide pellets were then dropped into an acid creating a toxic gas that would fill the airtight tank. After only a few breaths he went still. A doctor would declare Arridy dead and it was over.  Inmate number 19845 had officially served his sentence.

Since the execution a quiet swell rose to defend a man wronged and at least for posterity correct a false and careless conviction of the Colorado legal system. A group called Friends of Joe Arridy managed to get the funds to purchase the large headstone. When the stone was first erected, the group was not allowed to inscribe it with any declarative statements.

In 2011, after years of hard work by volunteers and Denver attorney David Martinez, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter issued an unconditional pardon for Arridy 72 years after his death.

Now, to the left of Joe’s grave stands a framed copy of his posthumous pardon tasked with etching in history the very words carved into his tombstone. “Here lies an innocent man.”

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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History

The Baby Bandits: A 1920s crime spree, a shootout in downtown Pueblo and a father’s revenge.

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The near-lifeless body lay sprawled at the corner of 5th and Court, near W.H. Holmboe Loans and a Goodrich tire store. Five bullets hit their mark, striking the small frame of a boy. A dozen gawkers, including newspaper carriers on bicycles, stood just a few feet in front of the gruesome discovery, as a photographer snapped the scene for posterity.

Lester Gonce was 14-years old.

Crowds gather at the corner of 5th and Court streets, to view the body of 14-year old Lester Gonce, who local media dubbed “The Baby Bandit.”

The story of Lester Gonce, known by the local media as “The Baby Bandit,” has been told for the past 90 years, and his antics remain as one of the more infamous crime sprees in Colorado history. The tale of Lester, and his then 18-year old brother, Forest, began the previous year, when the two teens allegedly went on a multi-city career of crime, including horse stealing, burglary, and robbery, across Colorado and Kansas. In April 1926 they were captured and sentenced to the state reformatory school in Buena Vista and the Industrial School for Boys in Golden. By the summer of 1926 the Gonce brothers were back in Pueblo, after they managed to escape both facilities.

Their crimes started up again on Aug. 13, when the boys lured Pueblo County Undersheriff F.R. Daniels and Deputy Sheriff C.L. Fiscus to a secluded road. The lawmen were responding to a report of an abandoned car and were immediately met by the Gonce brothers, who held up the officers, took their money, their guns, and their vehicle. News reports indicated they then used the car to hold up a store in Rye and then looted the YMCA camp in the area. Holding authorities at bay, lawmen enlisted the help of bloodhounds and an airplane to pinpoint the pair’s location. On Aug. 19 they stole a get-away car and eluded the posse once again. The two split up, but the now 20-year old Forest Gonce was quickly captured, after a tip from his uncle alerted law enforcement that he was walking across the 8th street bridge, by Fountain Creek. Meeting with the media, after his capture, Forest attempted to downplay his crime spree and admitted that he and his brother only escaped the reform schools after witnessing beatings of inmates by school officials. He was later sentenced, without counsel, to serve 17 years in Cañon City.

Lester’s freedom would meet a violent end.On the morning of Friday, Aug. 20, 1926, Lester Gonce’s own statement indicated that he stood openly in public, at the corner of 5th street and Court, talking to “Federal Officer Funston and Special Officer Morris” about surrendering. According to his statement, Pueblo County Sheriff Sam Thomas and Deputy Sheriff Fiscus spotted him. Fearing for his safety, Gonce admitted that as he approached Thomas and Fiscus, he reached for his gun. Both Thomas and Fiscus then opened fire — the first bullet, shot by Thomas, struck the boy, which caused him to fall at the corner. According to other reports, Fiscus then fired four shots into the suspect, striking the boy as he lay on the ground. W.H. Holmboe, who witnessed the incident in front of his office, admitted that he didn’t see Gonce fire a single shot.

Present day view of the corner of 5th and Court, the scene of the 1926 shooting. (Photo Lisa Wheeler)

On the morning of Friday, Aug. 20, 1926, Lester Gonce’s own statement indicated that he stood openly in public, at the corner of 5th street and Court, talking to “Federal Officer Funston and Special Officer Morris” about surrendering. According to his statement, Pueblo County Sheriff Sam Thomas and Deputy Sheriff Fiscus spotted him. Fearing for his safety, Gonce admitted that as he approached Thomas and Fiscus, he reached for his gun. Both Thomas and Fiscus then opened fire — the first bullet, shot by Thomas, struck the boy, which caused him to fall at the corner. According to other reports, Fiscus then fired four shots into the suspect, striking the boy as he lay on the ground. W.H. Holmboe, who witnessed the incident in front of his office, admitted that he didn’t see Gonce fire a single shot.

Bullets riddled his body, including penetrating his arm and lungs. He was rushed to Parkview Hospital, bleeding and unconscious, and on the verge of death.

The story of a 14-year old boy, shot multiple times by law enforcement officials, made national news. Readers were engrossed with every grisly detail published. Public opinion began to sway in favor of the dying teen, as reporters alleged that Fiscus was upset that the brothers had previously disarmed him and had stolen his vehicle, resulting in the extreme retaliation. According to reports, Deputy Fiscus feared for his own life, as the media sensationalized the incident, and his role in the confrontation. The Colorado Sheriff’s Association came to his aid by quickly adopting a resolution that the law officer acted appropriately, and condemning the “maudlin sentiment created by certain newspapers of the state and nation through misleading information against the peace officers in general, and the sheriff’s office of Pueblo, in particular.”

To the surprise of many, after months in the hospital, Lester survived and turned his life around. For reasons that are unclear, he was not charged with a crime, and later moved in with local plumber Bill Cody, and his wife, and attended Centennial High School, where his notoriety followed him, as noted in the 1928 yearbook:

“We, Elizabeth Reece, Ethel Reynolds, Elizabeth Sheurer, Gwen Shore, and Manetta Spady freely will unto Lester Gonce, a rattle, some knitting needles and yarn.”

His attempt at normalcy wouldn’t last long. Festering over the loss of his brother, who was serving time after a quick, unrepresented trial, Lester began to hatch a plan to break him out of prison. In 1931 he put together an arrangement to spring him, but the plot was discovered, and Lester found himself in jail. A few weeks later, Forest was granted trusty status for good behavior, and simply walked away while working at a park. The elder brother then picked up where he left off, stole a car, and went on a crime spree through New Mexico and Western Colorado. In October, Forest tried to release his brother from the Saguache County jail by driving to the jail keeper’s home to retrieve the jail cell keys. He held the jailer and his daughter hostage, until they gave him the key. He returned to the prison, only to discover he had the wrong key. He eluded police by making a quick getaway to Ordway, but was quickly surrounded in a hotel. He was arrested, but not before shooting a volunteer searching for the fugitive. Forest was returned to prison to finish his 17-year term.

Six years after his son was gunned down on the streets of Pueblo, Lester Gonce, Sr. had read that Deputy Sheriff Charles Fiscus, the man responsible for pumping four bullets in his son, had retired to his farm, in Baxter, near what is now the Pueblo Memorial Airport. In the evening of Nov. 14, 1932 the elder Gonce knocked on door of the Fiscus homestead and fired three shots from his .45 automatic, killing Fiscus instantly. At his murder trial, held in May the following year, Gonce’s lawyers alleged that their client acted “with temporary insanity” when he shot at the former law enforcement officer, in vengeance for the shooting of his youngest son.

Lester Gonce’s grave marker, St. George Cemetery, Utah. (Courtesy)

On May 5, after almost 22 hours of deliberations, a jury found Lester Gonce, Sr. innocent for killing former-Deputy Fiscus. He served six weeks at the state hospital, and was released. He died in 1957, and is buried, along with his wife Sarah, who died in 1946, in the Olney Springs Cemetery.

Lester was released from prison in 1934, but returned in 1935 on a parole violation, and walked out of prison, for good, in 1936. He would go on to work at KGHF radio, and serve in World War II, before changing his name to Chet, and leaving Pueblo for Las Vegas.

Forest served his entire 17-year prison term, and went on to work in logging. He later moved in with his younger brother, in Nevada. The date of his death is unknown.

Chet Gonce would go on to be a successful keno manager in Las Vegas, and for all intents and purposes, rose above his teenage escapades. His last years were spent in a retirement home in St. George, Utah. He died in 1992, at the age of 80, and is buried in the St. George City Cemetery.
His tombstone reads “Man of Integrity.”

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
Continue Reading

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