Friday, August 3, 2012

Red Mountain Mining...Living and Working Above 10000 Feet

Living in Colorado presents many distinct challenges. On some days, simply going for a walk through my neighborhood is a workout. Choosing to do life in a place with drastic changes in altitude, weather and landscape at every turn is definitely an adventure. When employment is added to the mix, one must be sure they are clear-thinking and used to the thinner air and can handle it.

Surely the prospectors who traveled both near and far to the high country of Colorado in the 1800s, were surprised to see what awaited them. It was a different time, for sure. Most people probably had no idea what lay ahead. Surely once most of the Westward travelers were shocked by the sheer beauty of the mountains from a distance out on the High Plains. Pikes Peak can be seen from a hundred miles away.  The closer they got, the more daunting the sight becomes.

It's like this: you walk along on these flowing plains, the wind always blowing, cool breezes coming from the mountain air. Then BAM! All of a sudden, with no warning, you go from lower elevations to THE MOUNTAINS! Like a brick wall. I used to tell my husband when we still lived in Colorado Springs that it felt like the world just ended right at those mountains.

But those people didn't have the roads we have today. They followed trails made by the Native Americans, that. And it didn't get easier as they climbed. The altitude only got more intense, the air thinner and the ground....ROCK!

So the mining camps were a primitive way to live in the beginning. Imagine breaking ground for gold or silver in a place that was solid granite. On Red Mountain, I have seen the remains of houses, gantries, warehouses and other buildings that are just built right into the side of  mountains that go straight up. I've tried to imagine how in the world they actually built them...and then how they got to them. No steps, no ladders. Just a building hanging from the side of a huge mountain in the middle of nowhere. Hmm.....

Think for a moment about your life. How comfortable it really is in comparison to what went before us. It's cold up in those mountains; some of the mining camps were above tree line, which is 12000 feet above sea level. It's cold there ALL THE TIME; it snows year round, maybe not everyday, but enough that I'd tire of it quickly.

And let's talk about high-grading. High-grading, for those who aren't familiar with the term, is simply when the workers of the mine filled their pockets, hats, shirts, shoes, socks, any old thing, with ore during their shift and making a profit at the expense of their employers. Call it what it is: STEALING! In the early days there were no laws preventing it. It was a new capitalistic venture and they sort of learned as they went.  Now, it's a big deal.

In Cripple Creek just a few years ago, several men were arrested and brought up on charges of high-grading. I don't know the exact amount of gold they took, but suffice it to say, it was six figures. So, take it back to the 1800s and lots of people made a fair share on top of the salary they drew. I've not found anything that says how it was handled in Colorado, but in California the mine owners decided to start a new rule about reporting in for work and leaving at the end of a shift. It went like this: when arriving, the workers would report to a building that housed showers, lockers...much like the locker rooms of today. They would change their clothes, put them in a locker and don a uniform provided by the mine (hats, shoes, pants, shirt...the whole works). At the end of the shift, with a security guard on site, the men would strip down of those clothes, throw them into a bin for laundry and shower before dressing in their own clothes. High-grading virtually stopped in California.

Many towns sprung up all over the region, many at the lower elevations, to be supply ports for the mine and villages at the highest elevations. Silverton and Ouray both wanted to the be port of entry to the mining fields on Red Mountain, each shouting their accolades. Knowing a road was desperately needed, Ouray built a wagon road on the rough, rocky, dangerous terrain, prompting Red Mountain City, which as initially on the Silverton side of things, to move closer to Ouray.

Later Otto Mears built the now famous Million Dollar Highway through the area. Towns began to appear all over the mountain. As more and more prospectors surfaced in the area, their women and children followed and the area became quite populated. Lawyers, land developers, saloon keepers, and the ever-present prostitutes all made decent money. Before long, thousands of people called the Red Mountain Mining District their home.

And none of those people expected or planned for such extreme conditions. At night, a day that had been shirt sleeve weather could become intolerable with temperatures dropping to twenty below zero. Mining accidents caused death and injury. And the Silver Panic of 1893 brought about a change on Red Mountain. Things would never be the same. Three separate fires, one in 1892, another two years later, then another in 1939 destroyed Red Mountain Town. After the last, it was never rebuilt.

There is still mining in the area but not to the extent of its heyday. What was once a productive, mining area now looks like a series of ghost towns. Rich in history, the Red Mountain Project left the mountains scarred. Driving through the District, you might very well find yourself asking, "I wonder what it was like when...."

1 comment:

Debbie Maxwell Allen said...

Hi Hazel-
I'm a WPCC member, and I've enjoyed the writing on your blog. You might be interested in the Woodland Park Writers group that meets on the last Thursday of the month. You can email Holly (holly[at]greaterworksmedia[dot]com) for more details. We'd love to see you there!

Also, I have a blog where I share free resources for writers. You can check it out at