A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, by Isabella Bird

Letter 12

Deer Valley — Lynch law — Vigilance committees — The silver spruce — Taste and abstinence — The whisky fiend — Smartness — Turkey creek Canyon — The Indian problem — Public rascality — Friendly meetings — The way to the Golden City — A rising settlement — Clear Creek Canyon — Staging — Swearing — A mountain town.

To-night I am in a beautiful place like a Dutch farm — large, warm, bright, clean, with abundance of clean food, and a clean, cold little bedroom to myself. But it is very hard to write, for two free-tongued, noisy Irish women, who keep a miners’ boarding-house in South Park, and are going to winter quarters in a freight wagon, are telling the most fearful stories of violence, vigilance committees, Lynch law, and “stringing,” that I ever heard. It turns one’s blood cold only to think that where I travel in perfect security, only a short time ago men were being shot like skunks. At the mining towns up above this nobody is thought anything of who has not killed a man — i.e. in a certain set. These women had a boarder, only fifteen, who thought he could not be anything till he had shot somebody, and they gave an absurd account of the lad dodging about with a revolver, and not getting up courage enough to insult any one, till at last he hid himself in the stable and shot the first Chinaman who entered. Things up there are just in that initial state which desperadoes love. A man accidentally shoves another in a saloon, or says a rough word at meals, and the challenge, “first finger on the trigger,” warrants either in shooting the other at any subsequent time without the formality of a duel. Nearly all the shooting affrays arise from the most trivial causes in saloons and bar-rooms. The deeper quarrels, arising from jealousy or revenge, are few, and are usually about some woman not worth fighting for. At Alma and Fairplay vigilance committees have been lately formed, and when men act outrageously and make themselves generally obnoxious they receive a letter with a drawing of a tree, a man hanging from it, and a coffin below, on which is written “Forewarned.” They “git” in a few hours. When I said I spent last night at Hall’s Gulch there was quite a chorus of exclamations. My host there, they all said, would be “strung” before long. Did I know that a man was “strung” there yesterday? Had I not seen him hanging? He was on the big tree by the house, they said. Certainly, had I known what a ghastly burden that tree bore, I would have encountered the ice and gloom of the gulch rather than have slept there. They then told me a horrid tale of crime and violence. This man had even shocked the morals of the Alma crowd, and had a notice served on him by the vigilants, which had the desired effect, and he migrated to Hall’s Gulch. As the tale runs, the Hall’s Gulch miners were resolved either not to have a groggery or to limit the number of such places, and when this ruffian set one up he was “forewarned.” It seems, however, to have been merely a pretext for getting rid of him, for it was hardly a crime of which even Lynch law could take cognizance. He was overpowered by numbers, and, with circumstances of great horror, was tried and strung on that tree within an hour.19

19 Public opinion approved this execution, regarding it as a fitting retribution for a series of crimes.

I left the place this morning at ten, and have had a very pleasant day, for the hills shut out the hot sun. I only rode twenty-two miles, for the difficulty of riding on ice was great, and there is no blacksmith within thirty-five miles of Hall’s Gulch. I met two freighters just after I left, who gave me the unwelcome news that there were thirty-miles of ice between that and Denver. “You’ll have a tough trip,” they said. The road runs up and down hill, walled in along with a rushing river by high mountains. The scenery is very grand, but I hate being shut into these deep gorges, and always expect to see some startling object moving among the trees. I met no one the whole day after passing the teams except two men with a “pack-jack,” Birdie hates jacks, and rears and shies as soon as she sees one. It was a bad road, one shelving sheet of ice, and awfully lonely, and between the peril of the mare breaking her leg on the ice and that of being crushed by windfalls of timber, I had to look out all day. Towards sunset I came to a cabin where they “keep travelers,” but the woman looked so vinegar faced that I preferred to ride four miles farther, up a beautiful road winding along a sunny gulch filled with silver spruce, bluer and more silvery than any I have yet seen, and then crossed a divide, from which the view in all the ecstasy of sunset color was perfectly glorious. It was enjoyment also in itself to get out of the deep chasm in which I had been immured all day. There is a train of twelve freight wagons here, each wagon with six horses, but the teamsters carry their own camping blankets and sleep either in their wagons or on the floor, so the house is not crowded. It is a pleasant two-story log house, not only chinked but lined with planed timber. Each room has a great open chimney with logs burning in it; there are pretty engravings on the walls, and baskets full of creepers hanging from the ceiling. This is the first settler’s house I have been in in which the ornamental has had any place. There is a door to each room, the oak chairs are bright with rubbing, and the floor, though unplaned, is so clean that one might eat off it. The table is clean and abundant, and the mother and daughter, though they do all the work, look as trim as if they did none, and actually laugh heartily. The ranchman neither allows drink to be brought into the house nor to be drunk outside, and on this condition only he “keeps travelers.” The freighters come in to supper quite well washed, and though twelve of them slept in the kitchen, by nine o’clock there was not a sound. This freighting business is most profitable. I think that the charge is three cents per pound from Denver to South Park, and there much of the freight is transferred to “pack-jacks” and carried up to the mines. A railroad, however, is contemplated. I breakfasted with the family after the freight train left, and instead of sitting down to gobble up the remains of a meal, they had a fresh table-cloth and hot food. The buckets are all polished oak, with polished brass bands; the kitchen utensils are bright as rubbing can make them; and, more wonderful still, the girls black their boots. Blacking usually is an unused luxury, and frequently is not kept in houses. My boots have only been blacked once during the last two months.

I could not make out whether the superiority of the Deer Valley settlers extended beyond material things, but a teamster I met in the evening said it “made him more of a man to spend a night in such a house.” In Colorado whisky is significant of all evil and violence and is the cause of most of the shooting affrays in the mining camps. There are few moderate drinkers; it is seldom taken except to excess. The great local question in the Territory, and just now the great electoral issue, is drink or no drink, and some of the papers are openly advocating a prohibitive liquor law. Some of the districts, such as Greeley, in which liquor is prohibited, are without crime, and in several of the stock-raising and agricultural regions through which I have traveled where it is practically excluded the doors are never locked, and the miners leave their silver bricks in their wagons unprotected at night. People say that on coming from the Eastern States they hardly realize at first the security in which they live. There is no danger and no fear. But the truth of the proverbial saying, “There is no God west of the Missouri” is everywhere manifest. The “almighty dollar” is the true divinity, and its worship is universal. “Smartness” is the quality thought most of. The boy who “gets on” by cheating at his lessons is praised for being a “smart boy,” and his satisfied parents foretell that he will make a “smart man.” A man who overreaches his neighbor, but who does it so cleverly that the law cannot take hold of him, wins an envied reputation as a “smart man,” and stories of this species of smartness are told admiringly round every stove. Smartness is but the initial stage of swindling, and the clever swindler who evades or defines the weak and often corruptly administered laws of the States excites unmeasured admiration among the masses.20

20 May, 1878. — I am copying this letter in the city of San Francisco, and regretfully add a strong emphasis to what I have written above. The best and most thoughtful among Americans would endorse these remarks with shame and pain. — I. L. B.

I left Deer Valley at ten the next morning on a glorious day, with rich atmospheric coloring, had to spend three hours sitting on a barrel in a forge after I had ridden twelve miles, waiting while twenty-four oxen were shod, and then rode on twenty-three miles through streams and canyons of great beauty till I reached a grocery store, where I had to share a room with a large family and three teamsters; and being almost suffocated by the curtain partition, got up at four, before any one was stirring, saddled Birdie, and rode away in the darkness, leaving my money on the table! It was a short eighteen miles’ ride to Denver down the Turkey Creek Canyon, which contains some magnificent scenery, and then the road ascends and hangs on the ledge of a precipice 600 feet in depth, such a narrow road that on meeting a wagon I had to dismount for fear of hurting my feet with the wheels. From thence there was a wonderful view through the rolling Foot Hills and over the gray-brown plains to Denver. Not a tree or shrub was to be seen, everything was rioting in summer heat and drought, while behind lay the last grand canyon of the mountains, dark with pines and cool with snow. I left the track and took a short cut over the prairie to Denver, passing through an encampment of the Ute Indians about 500 strong, a disorderly and dirty huddle of lodges, ponies, men, squaws, children, skins, bones, and raw meat.

The Americans will never solve the Indian problem till the Indian is extinct. They have treated them after a fashion which has intensified their treachery and “devilry” as enemies, and as friends reduces them to a degraded pauperism, devoid of the very first elements of civilization. The only difference between the savage and the civilized Indian is that the latter carries firearms and gets drunk on whisky. The Indian Agency has been a sink of fraud and corruption; it is said that barely thirty per cent of the allowance ever reaches those for whom it is voted; and the complaints of shoddy blankets, damaged flour, and worthless firearms are universal. “To get rid of the Injuns” is the phrase used everywhere. Even their “reservations” do not escape seizure practically; for if gold “breaks out” on them they are “rushed,” and their possessors are either compelled to accept land farther west or are shot off and driven off. One of the surest agents in their destruction is vitriolized whisky. An attempt has recently been made to cleanse the Augean stable of the Indian Department, but it has met with signal failure, the usual result in America of every effort to purify the official atmosphere. Americans specially love superlatives. The phrases “biggest in the world,” “finest in the world,” are on all lips. Unless President Hayes is a strong man they will soon come to boast that their government is composed of the “biggest scoundrels” in the world. As I rode into Denver and away from the mountains the view became glorious, as range above range crowned with snow came into sight. I was sure that three glistening peaks seventy miles north were the peerless shapeliness of Long’s Peak, the king of the Rocky Mountains, and the “mountain fever” returned so severely that I grudged every hour spent on the dry, hot plains. The Range looked lovelier and sublimer than when I first saw it from Greeley, all spiritualized in the wonderful atmosphere. I went direct to Evans’s house, where I found a hearty welcome, as they had been anxious about my safety, and Evans almost at once arrived from Estes Park with three elk, one grizzly, and one bighorn in his wagon. Regarding a place and life one likes (in spite of all lessons) one is sure to think, “To-morrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant”; and all through my tour I had thought of returning to Estes Park and finding everything just as it was. Evans brought the unwelcome news that the goodly fellowship was broken up. The Dewys and Mr. Waller were in Denver, and the house was dismantled, Mr. and Mrs. Edwards alone remaining, who were, however, expecting me back. Saturday, though like a blazing summer day, was wonderful in its beauty, and after sunset the afterglow was richer and redder than I have ever seen it, but the heavy crimson betokened severe heat, which came on yesterday, and was hardly bearable. I attended service twice at the Episcopal church, where the service was beautifully read and sung; but in a city in which men preponderate the congregation was mainly composed of women, who fluttered their fans in a truly distracting way. Except for the church-going there were few perceptible signs of Sunday in Denver, which was full of rowdies from the mountain mining camps. You can hardly imagine the delight of joining in those grand old prayers after so long a deprivation. The “Te Deum” sounded heavenly in its magnificence; but the heat was so tremendous that it was hard to “warstle” through the day. They say that they have similar outbreaks of solar fury all through the winter.

Pleasant as Denver was, with the Dewys and so many kind friends there, it was too much of the “wearying world” either for my health or taste, and I left for my sixteen miles’ ride to this place at four on Monday afternoon with the sun still hot. Passing by a bare, desolate-looking cemetery, I asked a sad-looking woman who was leaning on the gate if she could direct me to Golden City. I repeated the question twice before I got an answer, and then, though easily to be accounted for, it was wide of the mark. In most doleful tones she said, “Oh, go to the minister; I might tell you, may be, but it’s too great a responsibility; go to the ministers, they can tell you!” And she returned to her tears for some one whose spirit she was doubtless thinking of as in the Golden City of our hopes. That sixteen miles seemed like one mile, after sunset, in the rapturous freshness of the Colorado air, and Birdie, after her two days’ rest and with a lightened load, galloped across the prairie as if she enjoyed it. I did not reach this gorge till late, and it was an hour after dark before I groped my way into this dark, unlighted mining town, where, however, we were most fortunate both as to stable and accommodation for myself.

I fear you will grow tired of the details of these journal letters. To a person sitting quietly at home, Rocky Mountain traveling, like Rocky Mountain scenery, must seem very monotonous; but not so to me, to whom the pure, dry mountain air is the elixir of life. At Golden City I parted for a time from my faithful pony, as Clear Creek Canyon, which leads from it to Idaho, is entirely monopolized by a narrow-gauge railroad, and is inaccessible for horses or mules. To be without a horse in these mountains is to be reduced to complete helplessness. My great wish was to see Green Lake, situated near the timber line above Georgetown (said to be the highest town in the United States), at a height of 9,000 feet. A single day took me from the heat of summer into the intense cold of winter. Golden City by daylight showed its meanness and belied its name. It is ungraded, with here and there a piece of wooden sidewalk, supported on posts, up to which you ascend by planks. Brick, pine, and log houses are huddled together, every other house is a saloon, and hardly a woman is to be seen. My landlady apologized for the very exquisite little bedroom which she gave me by saying “it was not quite as she would like it, but she had never had a lady in her house before.” The young “lady” who waited at breakfast said, “I’ve been thinking about you, and I’m certain sure you’re an authoress.” The day, as usual, was glorious. Think of November half through and scarcely even a cloud in the sky, except the vermilion cloudlets which accompany the sun at his rising and setting! They say that winter never “sets in” there in the Foot Hills, but that there are spells of cold, alternating with bright, hot weather, and that the snow never lies on the ground so as to interfere with the feed of cattle. Golden City rang with oaths and curses, especially at the depot. Americans are given over to the most atrocious swearing, and the blasphemous use of our Savior’s name is peculiarly revolting. Golden City stands at the mouth of Toughcuss, otherwise Clear Creek Canyon, which many people think the grandest scenery in the mountains, as it twists and turns marvellously, and its stupendous sides are nearly perpendicular, while farther progress is to all appearance continually blocked by great masses of rock and piles of snow-covered mountains. Unfortunately, its sides have been almost entirely denuded of timber, mining operations consuming any quantity of it. The narrow-gauge, steel-grade railroad, which runs up the canyon for the convenience of the rich mining districts of Georgetown, Black Hawk, and Central City, is a curiosity of engineering. The track has partly been blasted out of the sides of the canyon, and has partly been “built” by making a bed of stones in the creek itself, and laying the track across them. I have never seen such churlishness and incivility as in the officials of that railroad and the state lines which connect with it, or met with such preposterous charges. They have handsome little cars on the route, but though the passengers paid full fare, they put us into a baggage car because the season was over, and in order to see anything I was obliged to sit on the floor at the door. The singular grandeur cannot be described. It is a mere gash cut by the torrent, twisted, walled, chasmed, weather stained with the most brilliant coloring, generally dark with shadow, but its utter desolation occasionally revealed by a beam of intense sunshine. A few stunted pines and cedars, spared because of their inaccessiblity, hung here and there out of the rifts. Sometimes the walls of the abyss seemed to meet overhead, and then widening out, the rocks assumed fantastic forms, all grandeur, sublimity, and almost terror. After two hours of this, the track came to an end, and the canyon widened sufficiently for a road, all stones, holes, and sidings. There a great “Concord coach” waited for us, intended for twenty passengers, and a mountain of luggage in addition, and the four passengers without any luggage sat on the seat behind the driver, so that the huge thing bounced and swung upon the straps on which it was hung so as to recall the worst horrors of New Zealand staging. The driver never spoke without an oath, and though two ladies were passengers, cursed his splendid horses the whole time. Formerly, even the most profane men intermitted their profanity in the presence of women, but they “have changed all that.” Every one I saw up there seemed in a bad temper. I suspect that all their “smart tricks” in mining shares had gone wrong. The road pursued the canyon to Idaho Springs, a fashionable mountain resort in the summer, but deserted now, where we took a superb team of six horses, with which we attained a height of 10,000 feet, and then a descent of 1,000 took us into Georgetown, crowded into as remarkable a gorge as was ever selected for the site of a town, the canyon beyond APPARENTLY terminating in precipitous and inaccessible mountains, sprinkled with pines up to the timber line, and thinly covered with snow. The area on which it is possible to build is so circumcised and steep, and the unpainted gable-ended houses are so perched here and there, and the water rushes so impetuously among them, that it reminded me slightly of a Swiss town. All the smaller houses are shored up with young pines on one side, to prevent them from being blown away by the fierce gusts which sweep the canyon. It is the only town I have seen in America to which the epithet picturesque could be applied. But truly, seated in that deep hollow in the cold and darkness, it is in a terrible situation, with the alpine heights towering round it. I arrived at three, but its sun had set, and it lay in deep shadow. In fact, twilight seemed coming on, and as I had been unable to get my circular notes cashed at Denver, I had no money to stay over the next day, and much feared that I should lose Green Lake, the goal of my journey. We drove through the narrow, piled-up, irregular street, crowded with miners standing in groups, or drinking and gaming under the verandas, to a good hotel declivitously situated, where I at once inquired if I could get to Green Lake. The landlord said he thought not; the snow was very deep, and no one had been up for five weeks, but for my satisfaction he would send to a stable and inquire. The amusing answer came back, “If it’s the English lady traveling in the mountains, she can have a horse, but not any one else.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31