Dale Robertson’s “Iron Horse” began as “Scalplock”, a Columbia Pictures made-for-television movie which aired on April 10, 1966. Robertson played dapper frontier gambler Benjamin P. Calhoun who won the Buffalo Pass, Scalplock and Defiance Railroad in a high stakes poker game in Kansas City. The problem, which set up the premise for the series, was that the railroad line he won was only partially built, 130 miles were needed to finish the connection to the Union Pacific, and the line was “broke…penniless,” owing some $500,000. Nevertheless, the flamboyant, self assured Calhoun, realizing the future of the West depended on the railroad, quickly acquired a competitor’s palacious private car, La Bonne Chance, and through faith, bluff, nerve and pure luck finagled his work crew into accepting stock in the BPS&D rather than back pay and rounded up a crew to help him finish the line: construction engineer Dave Tarrant (Gary Collins) (originally played by Todd Armstrong in the “Scalplock” movie pilot); former telegraph office worker Barnabas Rogers (Bob Random) as an engineer (with his pet raccoon Ulysses); and Swedish giant Nils Torvald (6' 6" Roger Torrey) as head of the construction gang.
When “Iron Horse” went to series on September 12, 1966, much of the movie-pilot footage was re-used in the first episode, “Joy Un-confined”, in order to set up the premise for viewers who hadn’t seen “Scalplock” several months earlier. Dale Robertson told WC, “I liked the show after it got started but I grew to dislike it. The network didn’t seem to take an interest in it. It would have been a great series, as it was, it was just a mediocre show. They all had to get their finger in the pie.”
Dale summed up his abilities in a 2/4/67 TV GUIDE interview, “I can’t play no French drawing room comedy and I know it and Screen Gems knows it. I know exactly what I can do and I can do it better than anyone, and they know that too.”
Stunt coordinator on “Iron Horse”, Dean Smith gives high regard to Dale. Dean feels Dale is “a terrific man who deserves every accolade that comes his way.”
Sierra Railroad engine No. 3 was used in filming on narrow gauge rail at Sonora and Jamestown, CA. Coach No. 6 was dressed up as La Bonne Chance. Dean told WC when Screen Gems/Columbia built mock-ups of No. 3 and No. 6 for use in scenes filmed back at the Columbia Ranch they were mounted on rubber tires so they could be towed around the lot and set up on prefab rail sections anywhere the train was needed. The tires were then hidden by sideframes. A steam-generating unit provided “visual effects”. Additionally, Dean told us he not only stunt coordinated the series, utilizing “every stuntman in town” but Dean himself doubled “not only Dale but Collins and Random as well.”
When seen off the rail cars, Dale rode a great black gelding named Hannibal. Dale remembered for us, “He was a beautiful horse, but he had bad feet. I bought him about midnight at a place where he was standing in straw about two feet high. He was a good horse.”
“Iron Horse” depicted the dedicated and determined Ben Calhoun’s problems in completing the line…obtaining right-of-ways, Indians, outlaws, freight contracts, workmen, lack of capital and much more. Two seasons, 47 one hour color episodes were aired on ABC, the first season (30 eps.) on Monday night from 7:30-8:30. But the network competition was tough on “Iron Horse” with the popular “Gilligan’s Island” and “Run Buddy Run” on CBS and “The Monkees” and “I Dream of Jeannie” on NBC. Lackadaisical ratings saw ABC move Robertson’s “Iron Horse” to Saturday night as of season two (beginning Sept. 16, ‘67) from 9:30-10:30pm, but again with a movie on NBC and “Petticoat Junction” and the 1st half of “Mannix” on CBS, the end of track was in sight for “Iron Horse” on January 6, ‘68.
Oklahoma born Dale Robertson, 89, died February 27, 2013, near San Diego, CA. Gary Collins (born 1938) went on to guest on hundreds of TV shows, but scant few Westerns. He died at 74 in Biloxi, MS, on October 13, 2012. Canadian Bob Random (born 1943) worked sporadically until 1990 and is now retired in British Columbia, Canada. Pocatello, ID, born Roger Torrey died of a brain hemorrhage at 47 in 1985.