The moniker “Poet of the Rockies” is a bold stamp to place upon a writer, one that some would not be able to live up to. It would take an education within the ranks of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad before Cy Warman could be honored with this title.
Cy moved to Salida in 1885 and got a job with the D&RG. He started at the bottom as a general laborer. Historian Nolie Mumey describes here what kind of work Cy was employed to do:
“On the second day of his new position, he was assigned to clean the ash pan of the 4-4-0, a 20-ton locomotive with 45-inch drive wheels. The task of cleaning the pan required that he crawl under the hot engine and drag out the ashes with a hoe. The heat from the firebox was stifling, and the smoke and steam from the air pump were suffocating and blinding. The new recruit completed his task to the satisfaction of the foreman and the general manager who stood by watching the entire operation.”
Cy was a dedicated employee and, due to his hustle, it didn’t take long for him to move up the ranks. Three months later, Cy was promoted to fireman aboard the D&RG locomotives. It was a step up because he was riding in the engine, but still it was backbreaking work, shoveling coal into the great steam engines. Writer Samuel Dougherty describes a typical day for a fireman:
“The job of fireman in those days was more than going for a ride on a swaying, pounding, jolting locomotive; more than hard, physical labor shoveling 20 tons of coal in the firebox during a 16-hour tour of duty. It wasn’t just shaking grates, bogging ash pans and eating smoke and cinders in the heat and dust. It was a way of life that extended beyond the hours in the cab.”
After a few years, Cy reached the pinnacle for a railroadman: locomotive engineer. And this is when Cy began to earn his title of “Poet of the Rockies.” His runs included Salida to Gunnison (via Marshall Pass) and Salida to Leadville. Later on, Cy would observe: “I couldn’t help writing poetry with such scenery as that to run my engine through,” and that was the beginning of Cy’s writing career.
Here is one of Cy’s poems, an ode to what is known today as the Royal Gorge:
The Canon of the Grand
I’m going to paint a picture with a pencil of my own;
I shall have no hand to help me; I shall paint it all alone.
Oft I fancy it before me, and my hopeful heart grows faint,
As I contemplate the grandeur of the picture I would paint.
When I rhyme about the river, the laughing, limpid stream,
Whose ripples seem to shiver, as they glide and glow and gleam;
Of the waves that beat the boulders that are strewn upon the strand,
You will recognize the river in the Canon of the Grand.
When I write about the mountains, with their heads so high and hoar,
Of the cliffs and craggy canons, where the waters rush and roar;
When I speak about the walls that rise so high on either hand,
You will recognize the rockwork in the Canon of the Grand.
God was good to make the mountains, the valleys and the hills,
Put the rose upon the cactus and the ripple on the rills;
But if I had all the words of all the worlds at my command,
I could not paint a picture of the Canon of the Grand.
Cy was also influenced by the excitement and dangers of railroading. He wrote many railroad tales, many of which documented true-life cases of desperate circumstances on the line. Nolie Mumey describes one instance of the treacherous conditions:
“The track over Marshall Pass went up to an altitude of 10,000 feet, with 4 percent grades and 24-degree curves. (Cy) was in many snow battles – one lasted eight days, where he bucked snowdrifts and spent 40 consecutive hours in the cab without any rest. It was a tough run.”
Cy ran the Calumet Branch line only once. This was a notorious line that spurred off from the main D&RG line to Leadville, turning at Hecla Junction and going straight up to the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co.’s mine. It was 7 miles with a 7 percent grade. A locomotive engine pushed up empty cars but could only bring down four loaded cars. That was all the engine brakes could handle. Cy Warman called it “The Perpendicular Railroad,” and he wrote a story about it.
Due to health reasons, Cy retired from the railroad in 1888 and started his own newspaper in Salida. He named it The Frog, which is railroad terminology for the split where two rail lines cross. It was dedicated to railroading tales and news, but was soon bought out and renamed Western Railway magazine. From there he began to hopscotch around the state in search of new writing jobs.
In 1891, Cy got a job writing for the Rocky Mountain News, and then he wound up in Creede, where he started up The Creede Chronicle. It was another short-lived enterprise that lasted around six months, only because Cy had stiff competition from two other Creede newspapers. But while he was there, Cy wrote one of his most memorable poems:
Here’s a land where all are equal –
Of high or lowly birth –
A land where men make millions,
Dug from the dreary earth.
Here the meek and mild-eyed burro
On mineral mountains feed –
It’s day all day, in the day-time,
And there is no night in Creede.
The cliffs are solid silver,
With wond’rous wealth untold,
And the beds of running rivers
Are lined with glittering gold.
While the world is filled with sorrow,
And hearts must break and bleed –
It’s day all day, in the day-time,
And there is no night in Creede.
Following the bust in Creede, Cy stuck to writing, and sold his pieces to many different publications of the era. He also published several books of his poetry and short stories. One of his poems was set to music and became a popular hit of the era. It was featured in the 1947 film “Life with Father,” of which a small snippet can be viewed on YouTube.
When Cy was 56 years old he published a book of poems entitled “Songs of Cy Warman.” One had a brush of foreshadowing:
Will the Lights Be White?
Oft, when I feel my engine swerve,
As o’er strange rails we fare,
I strain my eye around the curve
For what awaits us there.
When swift and free she carries me
Through yards unknown at night,
I look along the line to see
That all the lamps are white.
The blue light marks the crippled car,
The green light signals slow;
The red light is a danger light,
The white light, “Let her go.”
Again the open fields we roam,
And, when the night is fair,
I look up in the starry dome
And wonder what’s up there.
For who can speak for those who dwell
Behind the curving sky?
No man has ever lived to tell
Just what it means to die.
Swift toward life’s terminal I trend,
The run seems short tonight;
God only knows what’s at the end –
I hope the lamps are white.
Cy died three years later.
Joy Jackson is desk clerk and archivist at Salida Regional Library. Follow twitter.com/SalidaArchive to see historic images of Salida.