In the summer of 1898, railroad engineer William "Billy" Westall saw that his train was hurtling at top speed toward a section of track that had been washed away in a flash flood.
Westall had just enough time to leap from the locomotive and save himself — but he didn’t. Instead, he stayed on board and slowed the Denver, South Park and Pacific train enough to save the lives of 450 passengers and crew.
The narrow-gauge tourist train had been descending a stretch of track near Dome Rock in South Jefferson County, where a granite monument still stands to honor Westall’s heroic act. The monument, along the South Platte River, bears his last words: “Tell my wife I died thinking of her.”
"It's important to remember (that) Westall gave his life to save those people on the train," said Jackson Ortiz, 13, a seventh-grader who is among nine gifted-and-talented students from West Jefferson Middle School in Conifer determined to preserve the monument. The students are restoring the obelisk and planning to relocate it.
"If we don't save places like this, we lose a very important part of ourselves," said teacher Frank Reetz.
The monument, which has stood for more than 100 years on the banks of the South Platte, sits along West Platte River Road on Denver Water property, obscured by brush and trees. It can be difficult to find unless one knows where to look.
Yet being obscured by overgrowth is the least of the monument's problems. It is slowly being taken over by the river.
As the water saturates the ground around the monument, the massive granite stones have begun to slide apart, said Neil Sperandeo, recreation manager for Denver Water.
Sperandeo and Denver Water are working with the students to find a new home for the monument away from the river's path and closer to the road. Wherever the monument is moved, Sperandeo said it has to be out of the floodplain, and approval has to be granted by Jefferson County.
The students are working on finding a new home for the monument near its current location; they’re also writing grant proposals to fund transport of the large granite blocks.
Yet saving the monument isn't the only goal. Everyone in the group wants to make sure people know about the obelisk — and about the story behind it, said Rachel Shirlaw, 13.
"He gave up his life to save hundreds of others," said Rachel. "We're hoping the monument stays up for years and years. We want people to know about it and for it to become a visited place."
While the project is most likely more than a year from completion and still faces numerous reviews at the county level, the students are approaching it with enthusiasm, Sperandeo said.
"They always are saying, 'Why can't we do this?' as opposed to saying, 'Oh we can't do that,' " Sperandeo said.
Contact Ramsey Scott at email@example.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22, and follow him on Twitter for breaking news @RamseyColumbine.