McFarland: a history of the historian

       Edward M. “Mel” McFarland has been merrily chronicling local history for close to 40 years now - including the last decade in his Westside Pioneer column - but what about the history of Mel?

Historian Mel McFarland sports an unofficial Midland railroad patch he bought online and holds a photo he doctored for the fun of it to look like a Midland train passing through contemporary Manitou Springs.
Westside Pioneer photo

       It turns out that his family goes back quite a ways in Colorado Springs. In a recent interview, Mel described himself as a “fourth-generation resident,” whose great-grandparents moved here in the 1890s. Mel himself was born in the Springs in 1944, when his father Wilbur was in Europe, fighting in World War II.
       Mel got used to moving as a kid. After the war, his dad and mom (Rosemary) relocated the family to Maryland, where Wilbur was from. His younger sister Elaine was born there. But the sojourn only lasted about two years. “There were more jobs here than there,” Mel said.
       Once back in the Springs, with his dad working in different places (including the Golden Cycle mill and the Golden Flake potato chip factory), “we lived all over town,” Mel recalled. Some of his residences he's mentioned in his columns, such as the motel in the area of the present-day Wendy's off West Colorado Avenue. “I went to most of the schools on the Westside except Midland and West,” he said. “When we moved to Mesa Springs, I was one block away from going to West Junior. So I went to North.”
       The Mesa Springs house had the greatest longevity for the McFarlands, lasting from 1955 to 1995 and beyond the life span of both his parents. Unfortunately, the I-25 widening in '95 forced yet another move. At least the state's compensation included the relocation of Mel's train caboose. But we're getting ahead of the story.
       Reaching high school, Mel was in the first class to go through all four grades at Palmer High (the name had changed from Colorado Springs High in 1959).
       Next, he went to college in Pueblo, studying to be a teacher. It took longer than expected because the Vietnam War was on and he served a four-year stint in the Air Force.
       As part of his teaching preparation, he student-taught at Coronado High during its first year (1970-71). “The principal at Coronado was Hank Lujan, who had been my high school chemistry teacher,” Mel recalled with a rueful smile. “The funny part was when I reported in, I was sitting outside his office. And he said, “Congratulations, Mr. McFarland,' and then his voice tapered off as he remembered who I was.”
       Other than his first four years in Rapid City, South Dakota, Mel's teaching career took place at Fountain Middle School (1976-97).
       He did more than teach during those years. He also wrote two books on local railroading: “The Midland Route” in 1980, followed by “The Cripple Creek Road” in 1984.
       He also co-wrote a history of the Rock Island Railroad, “Rocketing to the Rockies,” in 1987. The involvement had a personal tie. The Rocky Mountain Rocket was the primary Rock Island train, and “that's the first train I know I rode on, when I was about 2,” he said.
       Mel dates his railroad passion back to the “Colorado Midland” book (by Morris Kafke) that he received as a Christmas gift from his boss when he worked at Levine's, a downtown bookstore, in the '60s. Eventually he got into model railroading, and wanted to build accurate replicas of the Midland trains but “I couldn't find enough material on the Colorado Midland, so I started looking for it. I didn't want just any railroad, I wanted the Colorado Midland railroad.”
       He started going to libraries and museums, also interviewing retired Midland employees and family members who still lived in the area. The resulting facts and inside information work their way into both books.
       Mel has become a railroad man in his own right. After school and on weekends in the late 1980s, he served as a volunteer conductor, engineer and track worker on the (since closed) Cadillac and Lake City line. And for the last 16 years he's been a conductor and engineer on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway.
       A current project is working with the Old Colorado City Historical Society (OCCHS) on updating “The Midland Route” with new information and pictures. “We're about halfway through it and hope to have it ready by Christmas,” he said.
       So why does the Midland (technically there were two successive railroads with “Midland” in their names) still appeal to him, after all these years? It's not just the local connection, dating back to 1887 - “it's a tragedy be-cause of the way it ended,” Mel said, referring to Golden Cycle's shutting it down in 1949 after a bitter union dispute. “When people who know the Midland get together, we can get into some real interesting discussions - what if it was still here?” Mel said. “One of our speculations is that if it could have lasted another two years, it would have become a tourist train. That was when the Durango-Silverton line [still in existence] took off. The Silverton mining lasted until the 1950s.”
       If you've ever tried to phone Mel's house and gotten his answering machine, you may have heard a message that makes it sound as though you've actually contacted the Midland railroad. A physical tie is his ownership of a former working caboose, which sits in his Rockrimmon backyard.
       Here's what Mel wrote about it in a column a few years ago: “I bought my caboose in 1983. It was the object of newspaper and TV stories when I got it, and a dozen years later when I moved with it to a new neighborhood. The students in my classes in Fountain wondered what I wanted with a caboose! I occasionally show it to interested neighbors. I use it for an art room or for quiet writing, and in a pinch as a guest room. I even have a tape recording of what it sounds like in a caboose as it runs along on the track. That way it is just like riding in it, but a lot smoother!”

Westside Pioneer article