A rugged doctor for rugged times
July 6, 2006
RED CLIFF – He had a long, white Santa Claus-like beard, a leather satchel for carrying his doctor’s instruments, some astute medical knowledge, and a generous heart.It’s been well over 100 years since Dr. Joseph Gideon Gilpin tended to the medical needs of the Red Cliff mining camp. The people he for, even the small children, have died. But Doc Gilpin was apparently so revered by his community, the stories about him survive.In the mining camps of the 1880s, medical care was hard to come by. The living conditions were harsh.”The few doctors available were called upon to labor heroically in the service of the their fellow men. The railroad gave them passes on all the trains, and engineers had orders to stop for a doctor anywhere along the line.”- MacDonald Knight and Leonard Hammock, “Early Days on the Eagle”At a time when Leadville and Red Cliff were booming mining camps, Doc Gilpin was the only practicing physician for miles around. He was a stout man of medium height, easily recognizable by his long white beard, which was partly stained yellow from the tobacco in the short clay pipe he favored.He had been born in Rockville, Md., and graduated with honors form the Medical College of Baltimore.He was a man who shared few details about his personal life. He had apparently served with the Confederate Army during the civil war. He would never reveal his age to any man or woman. One thing is clear: He was drawn to the mountains.According to his obituary, Gilpin came to Red Cliff in 1881, and practiced medicine for a short time before being distracted by all the mining activity. He prospected on East Lake Creek for a couple of seasons, but then returned to Red Cliff, and again took up his profession, which he practiced almost continuously for the next 40 years.Like everybody in that time, the doctor had to deal with the elements. The birth of a baby might require him to make his way through heavy snows or torrential rains. He dealt with epidemics, sewed up the injured, and set broken bones.Out of necessity, Doc Gilpin became an authority on the treatment of pneumonia – an often fatal sickness in the mining camps of the day. His Red Cliff friends once persuaded him to put on his best clothes and head down to Denver to a meeting of the State Medical Society. Gilpin presented a paper that he had written on the treatment of pneumonia.His reputation preceded him. Those big city specialists reportedly listened with rapt attention, then swarmed to him afterwards asking for advice.Train wreck recoveryIn the winter, Gilpin traveled to his patients by sleigh. O.G. Boyd wrote about the doctor in a story that was reprinted in a March 19, 1956, edition of the Eagle Valley Enterprise.”Old Doc Gilpin, wrapped in his great coat of buffalo skin, his long, white beard covered with frost, was coming down the old Mother Lode mountain road from the mines to his home. His sleigh, pulled by an old sorrel mare lighted with numerous lanterns … glittered like a Christmas tree as he rounded the torturous curves. His two dogs, who accompanied him everywhere, their breath steaming in the cold night, stalked sedately behind.”The stories about the doctor were the stuff of legend. Knight and Hammock wrote of an incident where a miner at Gold Park – a camp above Red Cliff on French Mountain – broke his leg during the winter. Gilpin was called from Red Cliff, and had to trudge through waist-deep snow to set the leg. Gilpin decided the miner needed to be brought back to Red Cliff for treatment. The doc helped other minors pull the patient back on a sled.The next spring, the injured miner asked the doctor for his bill. Gilpin asked if $5 would be too much.The Enterprise reported an incident involving a miner crippled with rheumatism, whom Gilpin treated for an entire year. The patient, after regaining his health, paid a visit to the doctor’s office.”How much do I owe you, Doc?” he asked.Gilpin hemmed and hawed, and eventually replied, “I guess about $10.””Don’t you think that’s a little steep?” the miner countered.”Well, make it five, then,” the kindly doctor answered, without blinking an eye. The grateful miner handed the doctor a $50 bill, then walked away, laughing. It was undoubtedly the most money Gilpin had seen at any one time during the past year.Gilpin typically charged only a nickel or a dime for the most generous bottles of pills.Another local legend recounts an incident involving a train wreck a few miles down Eagle Canyon. Several people were killed or injured. Gilpin hopped on a light train engine headed down from the summit, and was the first doctor to arrive at the scene. The undertaker had already removed most of the dead. Gilpin tended to the injured, including a young boy who was looking for his mother. The boy said his mother had some money sewn into the hem of her dress.When she didn’t turn up among the injured, Gilpin borrowed a horse and buggy, took the boy, and left for town at top speed. They arrived just as the undertaker was about to burn the tattered clothes taken from the dead. The boy picked out his mother’s dress. They found $5,000 sewn into the hem.Rigged pokerGilpin had no set charge for his doctor’s calls; and in fact seldom kept track of them – a frustrating situation for his wife, who attempted to keep the books for his business. At one point, she persuaded him to bring in a young doctor to share his practice.The younger physician, Dr. Carson, took a cursory look at the books and immediately realized that Gilpin’s finances were a mess. Carson suggested that Gilpin raise his prices.”Hell,” Gilpin said, “they can’t pay what I charge now.”Gilpin handed over some of his patients to his new partner. However, Carson took offense when the patients repeatedly asked if Gilpin was getting too feeble to get around. Eventually, Carson left the mining camp for greener pastures.The members of the community also took care of the doctor.In his off hours, Gilpin played poker. He rarely, however, made it through the entire nightly game at the local saloon. The men who played with him always made sure he won a few pots before the inevitable emergency call pulled him away from the poker table. Somebody else would sit down at the table for him, and play his hand.”The bartender would put in the call, and the rest of the players saw to it that Doc was a few dollars to the good. It is doubtful that he ever caught on.”- Eagle Valley Enterprise, March 29, 1956Gilpin was believed to be well into his 80s when he died on June 30, 1920, at his home in Red Cliff. A service was held at the Evergreen Cemetery in Red Cliff, and it drew a large crowd.”Doctor Gilpin’s death is not only a loss to his immediate family, but a community loss that will be long felt.”- Eagle Valley Enterprise, July 9, 1920Sources for this story include the Eagle County Historical Archives, and back issues of the Eagle Valley Enterprise.