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Rough, rowdy and rambunctious

Kathy Heicher
Courtesy/Eagle County HIstorical SocietyJames Dilts, a pioneer of Eagle County, dabbled in mining; but had many other interests. He was a lawyer, served as County Superintendent of Schools from 1896-1897; and also represented Eagle County in the State Legislature. This photo was taken around the turn of the century at a cabin on Deep Creek.
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The names that filled the newspapers of the day were the bustling mining camps located in the high country, along Battle Mountain and Tennessee Pass: Eagle City, Astor City, Pando, Bell’s Camp, Poverty Flats, Gold Park, Holy Cross City, Camp Fancy, Red Cliff, Gilman and Fulford, to name just a few.

Most of the camps were short-lived, existing only as long as the gold- and silver-bearing ore proved valuable. The pattern in Eagle County was typical of what was happening across Colorado in the late 1800s: news of a strike, followed by a swarm of several hundred fortune-seekers who set up high-county communities that often consisted primarily of tents and a few hastily constructed buildings. The mining boom didn’t last long in this area, but it was memorable.

Newspaper accounts of the day reveal that life in the camps was anything but dull. Despite the rugged conditions, the miners and their families managed to create communities that had, at times, a surprisingly organized social life. When the residents of the camps weren’t dabbling in a bit of mining camp culture, there were always the on-going dramas of camp life to keep them entertained.

Camp rivalries

Each little settlement was fiercely proud, and typically had its own local newspaper. In the fashion of the day, the newspapers shamelessly promoted their own communities, while joyfully casting aspersions upon rival settlements. Accuracy and objectivity were apparently not a major concern of most of those turn-of-the-century publishers.

Consider, for example, the description of Gilman that was reported in the Jan. 1, 1887 issue of the Times, a paper published out of Red Cliff:

“Our people are moderately temperate in habits, reasonably religious in their natures, fairly generous in their views, tolerably well educated in their manners, and honestly industrious in their labors. These qualities, when added to a love of home and the beautiful, make their association to be desired by all.”

However, the Times was not so kind in describing the happenings in the neighboring settlement at Clinton. Consider the following report, printed in the same issue:

“Bad whiskey and bad feelings were the cause of a general fight in Clinton last Saturday. During the fight Charley Russel brought a knife into play in order to defend himself and carved Pat Kennedy in several places, though not very dangerously. From what we can learn, the cutting was justified. There is a gang of toughs on the mountain who try to run the place, and anyone who is against their enmity is sure to have trouble sooner or later. A few lessons such as Russel gave them will probably do a great deal of good.”

The Times’ flattering description of Gilman citizens does not quite mesh with the memoirs of Mrs. J.A. Thompson, an amateur historian whose records are held in the archives of the Eagle County Historical Society. She paints a far less flattering picture of the mining camp between 1879 and 1886.

Thompson describes the “rowdies” or “rough riders” who periodically stirred up the camp. The group was known for riding horses into saloons and shooting out the town lights when the notion took them.

Still, she found a few good things to record about Gilman:

“The town was not entirely Godless because it had one church and was kept up by all classes of people, even some of the “rowdies.’ A young fellow who worked in the mine used to do the preaching. His method was unique. When he would call for a song, he would say, “Now boys, whoop it up and do a little digging in your pocket at the same time.’ This money went to the good of the town.”

Mountain rowdies

Several sources in the Eagle County historical files recount a gala St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Red Cliff in 1880. The Red Cliff Comet newspaper chronicled the event, which coincided with the first day the camp’s new saw mill sawed its first log.

Seizing the occasion for a party, the miners staged a grand parade. The freshly sawed plank was strapped to a burro, then the animal and the log were decorated with green boughs in honor of the Irish. All of the townspeople marched behind the burro, singing Irish songs accompanied by a cornet player.

The parade was essentially endless because the participants stopped at every saloon they passed. Even the burro was given a few drinks. By the conclusion of the parade, men and beast were staggering.

Fights were frequent and often savage in the rowdy camps. An article headlined “A Friendly Fracas” in the Feb. 23, 1899 Eagle County Blade newspaper recounts a skirmish between three Swedish citizens at a timber camp a few miles up Turkey Creek from Red Cliff:

“Monday morning Andrew Berg came to town in double quick time and repaired at once to the office of Justice of the Peace Ben L. Cress. Andy looked as though the Denver and Rio Grande’s rotary snowplow had run over him, but he said it had not. Numerous flesh wounds were distributed over his features, one eye was blackened, and a gash was cut clear through one ear and the flesh behind the ear was badly bruised.

“Mr. Berg said his two partners had inflicted his injuries. He swore out a warrant for their arrests, charging them with assault with intent to do great bodily harm.

“Sheriff Flock took the warrant and soon had all three of the Swedish gentlemen before his honor. Andrew Berg was not the only one who possessed a decorated countenance. One of Andrew Anderson’s optics looked like a big charred knot on a log, and his other appearances indicated that his person had recently come in contact with more or less violence.

“Upon arriving at the justice’s office, the gentlemen seemed to have patched up their differences and the complainant withdrew the charge and paid the costs and the case was dismissed. The facts appear to be that Andrew Berg became obstreperous and disagreeable in camp and undertook to whip his two partners. Anderson put up with this for a while, and finally lit into Berg and in less time than it takes to tell, he had him so completely cowed that he stampeded from camp and came to town on a gallop, hardly knowing whether he was Sharkey or Fitz or either of them.”

Justice, mining camp style

Residents of the mining camps sometimes took justice into their own hands. An Eagle County history book, compiled by local school children in the 1940s, recounts the lynching of a man named Jack Perry at Red Cliff in 1885 or 1886.

According to the account, Perry, a miner, was drinking with a man named Mike Gleason at the “Little Church Saloon” between Bell’s Camp and Gilman on Battle Mountain. Gleason asked Perry for a $5 loan. Perry gave him a $20 bill and instructed him to get change.

However, Gleason refused to give back the change. Perry drew his revolver, knocked Gleason down with the gun, then shot him dead. Perry then fled toward Red Cliff, using a back road.

News of the shooting quickly reached Red Cliff via a hack driver and in time for the sheriff to intercept and arrest Perry as he neared town. Perry was arrested and placed in the old stone jail.

The sheriff guarded the jail the first night of Perry’s captivity. However, when there was no sign of trouble, he decided not to stay the second night.

That evening a crowd of 15 to 20 men broke into the jail, removed Perry, and carried him up to the town water tank with the intent of hanging him.

Perry’s brother, a railroad operator at Red Cliff, learned of the plan and attempted to intervene. However, the crowd intercepted him and ordered the brother back to Leadville at gunpoint.

When Perry and the mob reached the tank, the prisoner asked permission to climb the ladder on the tank and jump. His captors refused. However, in an unguarded moment, he plunged headfirst down the railroad grade, breaking his neck.

The angry crowd proceeded to hang his body. His brother eventually cut the body down and sent it home to Independence, Mo. for burial.

Blacksmith’s battle

Gold Park, a mining camp that flourished briefly on Homestake Creek, was also the scene of a memorable altercation. Robert L. Brown recalls the story in his book, “Holy Cross, the Mountain and the City.”

During the winter of 1881, when mining activity slacked off, the blacksmith shop at Gold Park laid off an employee, who subsequently became involved in an altercation with the foreman of the Gold Peak Mining and Milling company. The dispute ended with the murder of the foreman.

The blacksmith then tried, but failed, to kill the superintendent, too. Brown writes that as word of the murder spread, the blacksmith, pursued by miners, barricaded himself in his cabin. With little else to occupy their time on a December day, most of the town turned out to watch the unfolding drama.

After an eight-hour siege, the spectators decided to end the impasse by blowing up the killer’s house with powder.

A charge was put into place. The murderer knew he was facing either a lynching or a death by dynamite. He took his own life.

Brown writes that by the following morning, Gold Park was an armed camp, with friends of both sides taking up the previous day’s quarrel that precipitated the deaths. The two warring factions, with plenty of time on their hands during the winter slow-down of mining activity, kept the camp in turmoil for days.

There is no longer any physical trace of most the mining camps of the 1800s. The life of those camps live on primarily in the historical archives. While the ore veins and mining communities may not have lingered, the stories do.

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.


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