Union Pacific Railroad Burro Crane BC-47 at Seven Mile Canyon
In May 2013, I drove from Downtown Moab, via U.S. Highway 191 North. My destination was the turnoff to Utah State Route 313, which is the gateway to Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park. Although the distance was only eleven miles, the turnoff at Route 313 seemed like another world. Far from the shops and restaurants that make Moab so inviting to tourists, my destination was hot, dry and desolate. “Seven miles from nowhere”, I said to myself.
Almost as soon as I turned on to Route 313, I spied an interesting contraption parked on a nearby railroad siding. With my pickup truck, I had easy access to the location of this unusual mechanical beast. Nearby, a weathered railroad sign identified the place as “Seven Mile”. Union Pacific Burro Crane BC-47 became “The Burro at Seven Mile”. In six-inch letters on the rear of its turret, the words, “BURRO CRANE” stood out on its cast iron ballast. In the dry desert air, that cast iron emblem could last for millennia.
On first glance, the turret of the Burro Crane looked like an antiaircraft gun from a mid-twentieth century warship. Upon further inspection, the function of the Burro Crane as “maintenance of way” equipment became obvious. With its flatcar as a tender, the Burro Crane was a mobile track repair vehicle. The burro’s compact, rounded turret allowed it to swivel without its ballast overhanging an adjacent rail line.
Nearby, old and worn-out railroad ties lay in a pile. In addition, at trackside was a collection of bent and worn steel rails. Rather than utilizing welded steel rails, the old the Potash Branch line features 1960s railroad technology. In keeping with railroad construction throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, wooden ties were set into gravel. Using large wrenches, nuts and bolts secured one track to another. For stability, spikes held the rails to the ties. Replacing earlier manual labor, the Burro Crane and its tender helped to automate the track repair process.
Accompanied by a small crew, the operator could use the Burro Crane’s diesel engine to propel both burro and flatcar to a prospective repair site. If rails required moving, the repair gang would first remove the bolts between the affected rails. After removing the spikes on the affected rails, the burro would use a cable-strung electromagnet to lift each rail from the roadbed. If the repair required new railroad ties, the Burro Crane could lift out any damaged or derelict ones. A bucket could scoop up new gravel from the flat car or reconfigure existing ballast at the scene. Once the ties were in place, the gang could bolt the rails back together and then drive spikes into the new ties.
By today's standard for automated track-laying along mainline roadbeds, the Burro Crane and gang system seem archaic. Still if repairs are only occasional and are not extensive in nature the Burro Crane’s throwback design and relatively diminutive size can be more economical than the use of heavier equipment. With weather and monkey-wrench protection for its powertrain, this vintage piece of equipment could go on operating indefinitely in the dry climate of the high desert. In wetter climates, most similar units have disintegrated into piles of rusty scrap metal.
The geographic setting at Seven Mile is epic. The crane's block and tackle dangled only six feet from the ground. The angle of the lattice-boom appeared ready for business. In the background are the Klondike Bluffs of Arches National Park. From another angle, the view beneath the long boom is of the La Sal Range, far past Moab. Other than the power poles and their high-voltage lines that cross near Seven Mile, the Burro Crane was the most prominent human-made object in sight. In fact, it appears on Google Maps (2014 version) much as it did the day of my visit.
With a Union Pacific emblem on the side of its cab and its faded yellow paintjob, the Burro Crane appeared to be authentic Union Pacific rolling stock. Soon I determined that Burro Crane BC-47 more likely started life with the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (DRGW), which is a precursor to the contemporary Union Pacific.
The giveaway is the flatcar tender, which appears to be even older than the venerable Burro Crane. The flatcar still bears DRGW markings. Spray-paint on the side of the flatcar indicates that the last date of inspection or repair was 4-‘84, almost thirty years prior. In the Old West, a prospector and his burro were mates for life. Since the arrival of this burro, more than half century ago, the old flatcar and the new burro mated and then stayed coupled for life.
As I began my research into Burro Crane BC-47, I found that it might be the last Model 40 Burro Crane operated by the Union Pacific Railroad. My Google searches yielded only two pictures of Union Pacific Model 40 Burro Cranes and both were of BC-47. In the past decade, BC-47 has apparently stayed close to home. Those two photos of the crane and tender were taken in nearby Green River, Utah and Grand Junction, Colorado. With its age and size, it is unlikely that BC-47 would stray beyond the Western Slope of the Colorado Plateau.
If indeed the Burro at Seven Mile were the last of its breed operated by the Union Pacific Railroad, it would be interesting to see it in action. I propose that rail buffs in Moab and fans of the Union Pacific Railroad request a public demonstration of Burro Crane BC-47. Since it already sits on a siding, that demonstration could include lifting old rails and ties on to transport vehicles for disposal at an appropriate location. If anyone out there can help to arrange such an event, please contact me at my email address below. I shall be happy to attend.
This is Chapter 1 of a two-part article on railroad Burro Cranes. To read Chapter 2, please click HERE.