COBWEB CORNERS: The General Palmer movies

By Mel McFarland

       You might wonder, with his travels in the West, was there ever a movie about General Palmer? The answer is yes - two that I know of. One was loosely based on him, another names him specifically. Both are train movies.
       The first, "Kansas Pacific," is a basic western railroad movie, based on the real Kansas Pacific, with a surveyor looking to build his railroad across Kansas. It is a fictionalized account of General Palmer coming across the plains. Sterling Hayden plays the character in the lead. Not much truth in the story! It does not even make the list of One Hundred Top Railroad Movies! Another movie about Palmer, also not in the Top Hundred, is called "Denver and Rio Grande." Filmed in the early 1950s between Durango and Silverton, it's about the railroad war between the Santa Fe (which has a different name in the movie) and the Rio Grande to get the line in the Royal Gorge to Leadville. Richard Jaekel plays General Palmer, with no moustache and very little hair! The bad guy, representing the Santa Fe, is Sterling Hayden!
       Both movies have some classic movie character actors, including an Irish engineer! The General Palmer in "Denver and Rio Grande" travels in a car called the "Nomad." The real Palmer did as well; in fact, there were several versions over the years. The one used in the movie still carries that name on the Durango and Silverton Railroad, but Palmer never used it. Two steam engines were destroyed in the movie in a crash, staged to be run by the two rival companies. Nothing like that really happened, but the scenery is the spectacular mountains you expect in Colorado.
       "Denver and Rio Grande "came out with quite a publicity campaign, and shows up on TV regularly, as does "Kansas Pacific." There were more than a dozen movies over the years about the Denver and Rio Grande, including a Tom Mix western that used both the Royal Gorge and Glenwood Canyon. One of my favorites is "Night Passage," filmed a bit after "Denver and Rio Grande," but using some of the same spots. It even has some of the same actors! It stars Jimmy Stewart and has a cameo role featuring Ed C. Johnson. He was a telegrapher on the Colorado Midland as a young man and is a telegrapher in the movie! He is best known as the governor of Colorado when the movie was being filmed!