A Pioneer Road Trip Through Southwest Colorado in 1878

The following article appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette, September 14, 1878

Gipsying in Colorado 1878

It is often asked, which do you admire most, Silverton or Ouray? It is impossible to make comparisons between places so utterly different.

Ouray, as I have described, is in the wildest imaginable spot; just room enough, as it were scooped out of the solid rock, in which to put down a town, all its surroundings wonderfully grand. Silverton on the other hand is in a beautiful mountain park, green and peaceful looking. It is the prettier town of the two.

Ouray Colorado 1890s
View of Ouray, Colorado as seen in the 1890s

We rode into Silverton about six o’ clock. Quiet as the town looked, we were just in time for a shooting match. These matches must be of frequent occurrence, as the one which greeted us caused no excitement. We did not even hear the cause or the result, if there were either. When I enquired of the landlord what was the matter, he replied, “Oh, nothing but a little shooting; it is Saturday evening.”

We stopped at Captain Walker’s, a most comfortable place. The captain and his wife are Kentuckians, and know how to keep a good house. The captain formerly commanded a steamboat on the Ohio river, and has not forgotten how to set a generous table. Mrs. Walker also sees personally to the comfort of her guests. I enjoyed my stay there and would advise any one finding themselves in Silverton to stop at Cap. Walker’s. I do not think the house has any other name; it could not have a better, or one which could recommend it more.

Silverton, Colorado around 1878
Silverton, Colorado around 1878

After supper, the night being dark, we walked through the middle of the main street and saw the outside glitter of the traps, set to catch and defraud the miners of reason, principles and money. Music and shouts resounded from these dens. It was sickening to listen to this mockery of happiness.

I thought of Colorado Springs, where no places of this kind exist, where the vices of intemperance and gambling are catered to only in secret; the caterers being under a ban—social and legal. The latter they may sometimes evade, the former never. Where indulgence in these vices is a disgrace, where the inclination to them has been formed elsewhere, and where the whole sentiment of the community goes to strengthen those struggling to reform, a struggle which takes more courage and determination than Hercules could boast, a struggle so desperate that few, very few, are heroes enough to come out conquerers. God help them each and every one to throw off their chains and rise to the full stature of free men.

The next morning as we sat at breakfast our attention was quite taken up by the occupants of the table next but one to us. This table was filled by faro bankers and their victims. It was Sunday morning; these bankers were gotten up in the shabby genteel style, shiny black clothes and a great display of white shirt. One of these creatures bore a strong resemblance to an India rubber doll, and as he ate and laughed his eyes would disappear and his face double up as the faces of such dolls do when squeezed.

I was told that this individual is gifted with a remarkable memory, which he debases after this fashion: attending church every Sunday morning, remembering the sermon perfectly, then repeating it at his saloon in the evening in blasphemous manner, these repetitions drawing large audiences.

Another of these hankers was of tile cadaverous style tall, thin, dark, eyes bloodshot and protruding, limp black tie, acres of shirt collar, which threatened at each turn of his head to do violence to his ears. He had a very bad harelip, his articulation was consequently, painful to listen to and his laugh was fiendish. I never hope or desire to have the opportunity of studying such faces again, horribly fascinating as they were.

After a good breakfast and friendly good-bye from Captain and Mrs. Walker, we went on our way once more. Just outside of the town we were joined by a fresh-looking Scotch miner, who offered us some Bartlett pears. I slackened my horse’s pace, glad of a chat with this miner, who told me so intelligently of his experience.

Bakers Park and Howardsville, Colorado 1870s
Bakers Park and Howardsville, Colorado 1870s

He walked beside me through Baker’s park, to Howardsville, a prosperous little mining camp, near which are a number of good mines, among others “The Pride of the West“, and the “Terrible“. There is excellent shooting in Baker’s park. It is well watered, as indeed is the whole of San Juan.

My companion told me of the snow slides, or avalanches, which occur here in the winter. Last winter twenty-nine men were lost in San Juan in these slides . They come without warning , moving with great rapidity, escape being almost impossible.

He told me also that it costs the miner thirty dollars a ton to get his ore to the smelter. The smelter is then entitled to one-third. The miner must trust to the smelter’s honesty, there being but few smelters in the country. They of course have every advantage.

Then the miner having received what the smelter sees fit to allow him, the banker and the saloon keeper stand ready to prey upon him. This explains why miners seldom grow rich; are generally poor, digging and delving that others may prosper. If they would only turn from their tempters, stand for, and understand their rights, careless, easy-going lot that they are as a rule! I can not bear to see them victimized.

From Howardsville we went on to Eureka. here we had a very pleasant little visit with a Swedish gentleman to whom we had letters; he told us of excellent mines in that vicinity. Here is “The Silver Wing“, which we heard very highly spoken of.

Eureka, Colorado
Eureka, Colorado

As we rode out of Eureka we passed some miners’ cabins. As it was Sunday the miners were making extra toilets. One was shaving before a small bit of looking glass, nailed to the casing of the door; lathering his face with a medium sized paint brush. That was roughing it.

From Eureka we rode on to Animas Forks, overtaking a miner with a train of burros. He looked as if he had been born in a mine, and had seldom seen the daylight. So swarthy, unkempt, and unshorn as he was he might have been the familiar of the Genii who guard earth’s hidden treasure; his clothing or covering, was nondescript in color and cut.

He was not indisposed to conversation, asked us which way we had come. When we said “down the Uncompaghre and over the Red Mountain trails,” he turned on his burro saying, “Down the Uncompaghre! is not that a holy tare? Over the Red Mountain! She! (pointing to me) Well, that’s the first woman who has ever been over that trail . She must have lots of pluck.”

One of our party questioned him about mines and mining, asking his opinion of some specimens of ore we had; saying to him after he had talked some time, “Well I believe you are about the only honest man I have met.” The miner answered, “You are right there, stranger; and if you know of any one who wants to buy a mine,  just you send them to Jim Black. That’s me; I’ve been at this business a good many years. Why I’ve got a claim that I’d sell—I’d sell, (Then with a look of hungry cunning and a clutching gesture of his long skinny grimy hand) for—for, one hundred thousand dollars.” The gesture was most expressive; he closed his fingers tightly, with a jerk, as if he felt the money within his grasp. It made one shudder; in his face was the greed of a miser, with the desires and record of a spendthrift.

Animas Forks, Colorado
Animas Forks, Colorado

We dined at Animas Forks, and rode again over Engineer mountain, enjoying once more the wonderful view from that high standpoint, fourteen thousand, eight hundred feet above sea level; then winding down to Mineral City, Capitol, and on to Lake City, coming down Henson creek canon by starlight, passing the beer garden lighted up with rainbow colored lanterns for the Sunday evening concert, and into camp again where a good supper awaited us, which we ate with keen appetites, talking and laughing the while over the adventures of our trip, and planning for a start homeward.