Life at West Portal, Colorado

Written by Stella Timmerhoff Todd in 1985

Background: Stella Timmerhoff was born October 31, 1899 in Brainerd, County, Minnesota. Her parents were Fred Timmerhoff and Ina Mott Timmerhoff. She had siblings: Lester, Chester, Velma, James Harold, Richard and Dorothy. I believe the family came to Colorado around 1920 to work for the railroad. Stella married Phillip Todd in Douglas county Wyoming in 1924. Phillip Todd was born in Greeley, Weld County, Colorado in 1898. Stella passed away in Long Beach California in 1990.

The following story has been submitted by her great niece, Judy Powell Silva. For more information contact Judy Silva at

In June of 1926 Phil quit his job in the Chicago-Burlington and Quebec Railroad in Wyoming and left for Fraser, Colorado to visit my parents, the Fred Timmerhoff's, for a few days.

Phil went to West Portal and got a job in the Moffat Tunnel, which was 11 miles from Fraser. In a few days, he was a workingman again. That was July 1926. We stayed with my folks until we could find something of our own to move into. It wasn't long until someone told Phil about a one-room shack furnished with a woodstove for cooking and heating, a bed, small table with chairs, and a rocking chair. We bought it all for $100. Everything about the cabin was crude, but we didn't seem to mind. Everyone else was living the same way.

Before the summer was over, I was cooking one meal a day for three or four men who worked on the main road. I have forgotten where they sat while they ate. Phil worked in the tunnel for fourteen months. Soon after he started to work, there was a cave in. All the men who were in the tunnel at the time were killed.

Life wasn't too easy living in West Portal in the winter, but we were used to the cold. Phil working in the tunnel would get wet and walking home after work his clothes would freeze on him. After he took them off they would stand up on their own. He began coughing a lot and drank bottle after bottle of Pinex. After we moved away from there, the cough left him.

In May we planned to go to Fraser 11 miles away, for Mother's Day, but when we got up that Sunday morning there was two feet of snow on the ground. We stayed at home and went to town the following week.

West Portal was like living in an old mining town, like we used to see in the movies. All the cabins or shacks were very much alike, so no one needed to feel bad about the other person having something better. There were a lot of dogs running loose and no one seemed to mind the barking. It was so cold in the winter, we kept our dog inside, perhaps other people did the same.

"Trail of 98" a movie was made at West Portal the winter of 1927. A lot of local people were in it. I might have tried to get in it, but I was pregnant with Russell and didn't feel too well. After we moved to Long Beach, we saw the picture at one of the theaters. It had a lot of snowing in it. It was supposed to have been an Alaskan picture.

On my 24th birthday, October 31, 1925, my father gave me a pretty heart shaped moss agate with a gold ring around the edge. When Phil and I got married I gave it to him to wear on his watch chain (outdated now). He wore it to work in the tunnel and lost it. He felt bad about it and never expected to see it again. Two shifts (16 hours) went on before Phil went back to work again. He still had the moss agate on his mind and soon after starting to work, he reached down and picked up a handful of muck and rubbed it back and forth between his fingers and thumb. Believe it or not, Phil had picked up the agate. He was so pleased about finding it, but I was an Indian giver and I took it back. Now at the age of 85 years old I still have the agate.

Back of our shack and down the hill a ways, was the toilet. Not warm and cozy like the indoor ones in the cities. Believe me, it was very cold having to go outside in the winter. It meant having to keep a pathway shoveled out, so we could get to it. We were always glad when summer came for more reasons than one! Only two months out of the year cars didn't have to be drained of water. All other times the water would freeze.

At East Portal, working towards the west, the men drilled a hole in the top of the tunnel and drilled into the bottom of a lake on the top of the mountain. The men were off work for several days until the water could be drained from the lake and out through the east end of the tunnel.

Russell was born June 6, 1927, while we were still living in West Portal. A couple of weeks before he was born we rented a little 2 room house in Tabernash, which is about 18 miles from West Portal and nearer to the doctor. His name was Dr. Fleming, he was an army doctor.

About a month before Russell was born, I heard him cry! One night Phil and I drove into Fraser so Phil could drive my father to a Masonic Lodge meeting which was several miles away. It would be late by the time Phil and my father would get home, so I went to bed in my mother's room. Soon after I got all comfortable in bed, I heard a baby cry! I lay there for a few minutes listening and couldn't decide where the crying was coming from. I sat up thinking perhaps there was a baby outside the window. After I sat up I realized it was the baby inside me that was crying. I didn't tell anyone about it. I was afraid people would think I was crazy. Several years later, after we had moved to Long Beach, California and our three boys were partly grown I read in a newspaper that babies can cry before they are born, but that it was a rare thing.

The night before Russell was born, my parents drove up to the house in brand new Chevrolet touring car. They had just driven it from Denver where they had bought it that day. I had a great ride in it that night.

The last of July, we had a chance to sell our shack for what we paid for it only $100. We rented a house in Fraser for $10.00 a month. I was nursing Russell, I had enough milk for two babies and I weighed less that one hundred pounds. The food I ate all went to making milk.&bnsp; He was thriving on my milk and I was getting weaker - spending more and more time in bed. The doctor said to put the baby on a bottle; otherwise I wouldn't live to take care of him. I was hard for me to put him on the bottle, having so much milk. Later I didn't have any milk for the two other boys.

Near the last week in September 1927 Phil quit his job at the tunnel and we started getting the car ready for our trip to Long Beach, California, where we planned to make our future home. It is now April 1985 and we are still in Long Beach.

At noon on October 6, 1927, we were ready to leave Fraser, Colorado, and head for California. It was a sorrowful time -everyone was hugging each other and crying. That day Russell was exactly four months old. Later when he was old enough to talk, he said he remembered everyone hugging each other and crying when we were saying goodbye. I said, "How could you, you were only four months old?" He said, "but I do". He stuck to that story all his life.

Over the years we have heard of strange things that have happened to other people all over the world, hiccupping, sucking thumbs, crying before being born. Phil and I have come to the conclusion that Russell did know what was going on that day when he was only four months old. Russell always said he wasn't going to be very old. I told him he would probably out live his father and me. He knew what he was talking about, he passed away when he was only 55 years 8 months ands two days old.

Colorado footer


"If you teach them where they come from,

they won't need as much help finding where they are going!"

               Cordelia Carothers " Aunt Dee" Geoghegan (1894-1987)


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