Sunday, September 27, 2015

Tragedy on the Tracks

by Linda Farmer Harris

I enjoy historical reenactments whether they're Medieval, Civil War, Heritage Celebrations, or Western Shoot-outs. I like being transported back to olden times. Jerry and I are members of SASS - Single Action Shooting Society. Our SASS identities are Lin Penlady and Jeremiah Prophet. We have lots of opportunities for period dressing.
SASS - Elk Grove 2012
I love trains, too. Put reenactments and trains together and that's definitely a win-win for me. In August, for our 49th wedding anniversary, Jerry's brother, Phil, honored us with tickets to "Tragedy on the Tracks" a Railfest Murder Mystery Train event presented by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

This interactive, on-board Murder Mystery Train, was written and performed by the Historic Narrators of the D&SNGRR. The play is based on an actual 19th century Colorado murder at the Bowen's Ranch and Bitterroot Mine.

Historic Narrators of the D&SNGRR
The murder occurred in 1811 on Bowen's Ranch just north of Cascade Canyon. At this time, the railroad was being constructed in the remote wilderness area between Durango and Silverton, Colorado. Bill Bowen's Ranch was a well-known stopping place along the Animas Toll Road. Bowen's store carried staples and supplies for prospectors and travelers. He added a rooming house and saloon when construction started on the railroad to Silverton. Bill and his wife, Jane, also operated the Westminister Hall, Silverton's first saloon. Jane was the town's first madam.

Meanwhile, back at the Ranch deep in the mountains, the women who came to live and serve the travelers and prospectors soon discovered there was one way in and no way out. Things at the Ranch turned sour when Bill hired John Haley as the Ranch accountant and partner. Although business was booming, the books didn't reflect the revenue. Haley was drinking up the profits. Bowen also suspected Haley was embezzling from him.

That fall day the store and saloon were filled with customers. Haley and Bowen argued, it turned into a fist fight when Bowen threw Haley and his wife off the Ranch. Haley refused to leave, vowed to find a pistol and return.

Haley returned, hand in pocket. Bowen seeing the bulging pocket and, fearing for his life, raised his own gun and shot an advancing Haley three times. Mrs. Haley came at Bowen from behind with a butcher knife. Customers subdued her before she could strike him.

In a twist to a typical self-defense murder, Bowen stepped over Haley's body, walked out the door, rode to Durango, and turned himself in to the sheriff. In another twist to the story, none of the witnesses stayed around to testify that it was self-defense, including the "sporting women." Mrs. Haley was the only person left to answer the Sheriff's questions. Bowen was not charged in the death of John Haley.
Historic Narrators of the D&SNGRR - less one
Players left to right: Sheriff, Mr. Bowen, Conductor, Mrs. Bowen's Nephew, Mrs. Bowen, Mrs. Haley, Sporting Woman and alas, Mr. Haley.

The play's capture of the events and translation to the train instead of the Bowen Ranch was well done and worth a re-play next year. I recommend the adventure.
Lin and Jerry Harris taking part in the interactive 1811 murder mystery
Have you been involved in historical reenactments? Do you go to renaissance festivals?

Linda Farmer Harris
Lin and her husband, Jerry, live on a ranch in Chimney Rock, Colorado. She writes historical fiction for adults and children. Her enjoyment of genealogy and family history adds unique elements to her story. 

Her novella, The Lye Water Bride, is included in the California Gold Rush Brides Collection (Barbour, 2016)


  1. How fun would that be?? I've never done this but I think it would be quite a fun experience!
    Thank you for the very interesting post..

  2. Hi Deanna, you're welcome. It was a first for us. I'm low-key in groups and usually get lost in the crowd. When the sheriff stopped at our seats and started grilling us on where we were going, what we'd seen, and if anyone told us where the missing girl is, it became a lot of fun. Thank you for sharing it with me.

  3. My husband and I rode the Durango to Silverton RR roundtrip last August and really enjoyed the whole day. thanks for the post on the re-enactment. sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  4. Hi Sharon, thanks for stopping by. We lived in Chimney Rock (between Durango and Pagosa Springs) for three years before we took our first ride to Silverton (train up—bus back). Next week we're taking the Chama Train ride. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Thanks for posting about re-enactments. See enough train here in North PLatte Nebraska. Rail fest just ended a couple of weeks ago. kamundsen44ATyahooDOTcom.

  6. Howdy, Kim, appreciate you stopping by. Wow, I bet you do have a lot of train traffic! We rode passenger trains a lot when we lived in Arkansas. We rode trains from Piggott, AR to Wichita Falls, Texas for my dad to work in the oil fields. The train ride was smelly, but the smell of crude oil was horrible. He told me to think of it as the smell of money and paying for our lifestyle. It never bother me after that.