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Jim Duke | Author

The Great Wyoming Railroad Robbery of '76

After my father's death in the fall of 1976, I spent as much time as I could with my mother in Laramie while she transitioned into living alone. Having long since worn out my welcome with all friends and family with my couch surfing ways, I'd purchased a camper trailer which I parked in her driveway so that she had access to me without giving up her privacy and to allow my barhopping late nights without disturbing her.

There were a lot of jackrabbits in the countryside around Laramie and having hunted and eaten plenty of cottontails with my high school buddy, Jim Walker, on his families' farm, I assumed that jackrabbits would merely be a much more generous version of the same delicious meat. While plentiful and easy to hunt, I was sorely disappointed by their edibility. It's difficult to criticize the flavor because, no matter how I tried cooking them, they remained so tough that I never could bite off a piece or, if cut off with a sharp knife, chew it down enough to release more flavor than one might get from boot leather. What flavor could be coaxed out with enough effort was like chewing on sagebrush.

Although the meat harvesting never panned out too well, the hunting had led me out along the rail road sidings where the jackrabbits liked the shelter of the snow fencing. The snow fencing was some of the most beautiful, antique, barnwood lumber I'd ever seen and much of it was blown down and weathering into the ground. Many of the stretches of snow fence were being replaced with new galvanized steel fencing that looked like guardrails stacked four high on triangular frames in the same configuration as the old wooden fencing only stronger. Some of the old fencing was so ancient and windblown that the portions of boards that were covered by a cross brace were twice as thick as the wind-blown parts of the wood, where the polished wood grain stood out in stark relief with various colors from gold to rich brown and black stained in pitch and resin by the sun. Some wood was so old that it was held together with ancient square peg nails similar to modern day horseshoe nails.

Having torn down an old barn for some neighbors in Allenspark who considered it a hazard, I had discovered the value of barnwood and made a small fortune selling it to some folks that used it for the interior of what was then Beaujoes Pizza in Idaho Springs, Colorado. The old snow fence struck me as an absolute gold mine and I had a friend that worked for the railroad on track maintenance. Calling my friend, I arranged a meeting with his boss who was in charge of maintenance for large stretches of track in the Laramie area. Amazingly enough, I was able to secure unlimited salvage rights in the region where I'd been hunting rabbits for a mere couple of cases of his favorite beer. He told me I could even take down the wood fencing that was still standing anywhere they were being replaced by the guardrail type fencing. This was too good to be true! Literally.

The boards were all sixteen-foot lengths of 1x6 inch and sometimes 1x8inch pine nailed to 2x6 inch triangular frames with only a couple of nails every eight feet and a couple more nails wherever the cross braces came across the face of the boards. It was the easiest salvaging ever for the most beautiful wood imaginable, in straight lengths of consistent dimensions. Building a loft with this material for my sister and her husband in Breckenridge, I was immediately overwhelmed with orders from all their neighbors and several bars in town. Having trouble keeping my front wheels on the ground in my overloaded half ton Ford truck with the sixteen-foot lengths hanging eight feet over the end of the eight-foot bed, I soon earned enough to buy a sixteen-foot trailer to increase my hauling capacity and steering ability. Before long I had a couple of my longhaired friends from Allenspark working with me along the railroad tracks, all of us smiling and waving at the passing trains while loading up enormous profits.

Realizing that I had truly struck it rich, I decided to try to get a salvage contract for the whole state of Wyoming. After spending most of the day making calls and trying to contact the appropriate people, I finally got the phone number of the regional maintenance manager. Calling his office, his secretary reported that he was out of town for a while. After much insistence and cajoling, she finally revealed that he was in Cheyenne that night and I eventually talked her into giving me the name of his motel. Several very insistent and pushy phone calls later, I was finally put through and caught him in his room. When I told him I was interested in trying to contract salvage rights for old snow fences, he unloaded on me in anger. Hell No!! The rail road NEVER allows any sort of salvage! As a matter of fact, that is why he was in the area…. Suddenly he stopped talking. He realized he was probably talking to the very thief he had been sent out to have arrested.

After a long pause, he started speaking again, but in a very different tone of voice. He asked whom he was speaking with. Knowing that something was obviously amiss, I gave him a fake name. Had I been out along the track north of Laramie? Thinking quickly, I answered without hesitation. Yessir, I'd been out there rabbit hunting. Did I drive a beat up blue and white half ton Ford? No sir, but I'd seen that truck out there and talked to the guy. That's what gave me the idea of pursuing this. Well, that son of a bitch has been out there in broad daylight tearing down and stealing snow fences! He's got the gall to be doing it in broad daylight and even waving at our crews going by!

He then went on to explain that the rail roads never allowed any salvage of any sort. Once anything became property of any rail road company, the ownership was permanent! Dang, there went another one of my get rich quick schemes. I'd already scoped out a section of abandoned rail road north of Ft. Collins where they'd pulled all the rails, but left behind tons and tons of the steel spikes and plates that had held the rails down. The price of scrap steel was very high right about then.

As soon as we got off the phone, I jumped in my truck and headed out. It was already fairly late in the evening, but I had left my trailer half loaded along the tracks with quite a bit of de-nailed fencing spread out nearby. I finished topping off the load with the de-nailed lumber and took off, not stopping until I reached Breckenridge during the wee hours of the morning. My badly battered old truck was easily identifiable so I didn't return to Laramie for over a week, at which time I drove in after dark and parked in the alley behind my mom's house. I only rode my bike around town for the rest of the time I stayed there (a difficult task in Laramie during winter) and only left or entered town after dark in my truck.

I did eventually call my friend who worked for the rail road and who's boss had traded me the salvage rights for two cases of beer. His boss had quit and left town less than a week after we had made that arrangement. My greatest regret from that whole episode was not having saved any of that beautiful wood for my own purposes. Granted, it's not like I could have hauled sixteen-foot lengths of lumber around for the next 10 or 12 years of my migratory lifestyle, but I could have made some sort of small end table or night stand that I might have held onto. But then again, I haven't been jackrabbit hunting for almost 50 years. I might have to head back up north of Laramie and check it out. I might just have to do that on a full moon at night and I might just have to take along a few tools and my new 16-foot flatbed trailer.