Slumgullion Pass’s wonders created recently
Vail, CO Colorado
Slumgullion Pass crests at an altitude of 11,361 feet and is located on Colorado Highway 149, the Silver Thread Scenic Byway, between Creede and Lake City.
Windy Point Overlook, approximately 1 mile west of the pass, offers views of numerous peaks that are above 13,000 feet, including the impressive 14,309-foot Uncompahgre Peak.
In the 1870s, Henry Finley, president of the Lake City Town Company, led the construction of a road over Slumgullion Pass. This 81-mile road connecting Lake City to Creede reduced the average travel time between the then-mining camps from three days to a day and a half. Very steep sections of the road were “corduroyed” – laid with logs 6 to 12 inches in diameter-to reduce erosion. It made for a very interesting ride in a stagecoach.
Most visible geologic features in Colorado are thousands to millions of years old. Not so with the Slumgullion earthflow, or mudslide.
Around 700 years ago, volcanic tuff and breccia on the south slope of Mesa Seco became saturated with heavy rain. The material broke loose and oozed its way down the mountain, descending 3,000 feet and traveling more than four miles.
The flow dammed up the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River and created Lake San Cristobal, Colorado’s second largest natural lake. A second flow began about 350 years ago and is still moving at a rate of about twenty feet per year. Tilted trees in the mudflow are evidence of the slide’s activity.
The name “Slumgullion Pass” came about because the color of the sliding mud reminded local gold miners of the muddy sediments, called slumgullion, in their sluice boxes. Miners also made a colorful stew that they called slumgullion.
Tall tales, and unconfirmed rumors surround the story of Alferd Packer, sometimes called “The San Juan Cannibal.” In 1883, Packer was tried for and convicted of manslaughter in Lake City after reputably eating five of his prospecting companions while snowbound near Slumgullion Pass.
In 1873, Packer was hired as a guide by some men from Salt Lake City for a prospecting trip into the Lake City area. Some reports say that he knew very little about the area. In January the party attempted a mountain crossing against the advice of many and were reported lost.
When Packer showed up at the Los Pinos Indian Agency four months later looking none the worse for wear, some became suspicious. He appeared well fed and had a lot of money with him.
His explanation as to what happened to him and the rest of the party changed with every telling. In one popular version, Packer said he came back from a scouting mission to find that one of his companions had gone berserk, killing the others and roasting their flesh over a fire. He said that he then shot him in self-defense.
An Indian guide later reported that he found strips of human flesh on the trail where Packer was, and in August of 1894 the camp of the five missing men was found near Slumgullion Pass, two miles from Lake City.
Packer was arrested, but escaped. He lived in Wyoming for nine years under an assumed name until he was recaptured and returned to Lake City to be tried. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged.
The verdict was later reduced to manslaughter and Packer was sentenced to 40 years in prison. He was paroled in January 1901. Six years later, Packer died of natural causes and was buried at Littleton’s Prince Avenue Cemetery near Denver.
Years after Packer’s death, the citizens of Lake City built a monument at the site of the massacre. The inscription on the marker reads: “This tablet erected in memory of Israel Swan, George Noon, Frank Miller, James Humphreys, Wilson Bell, who were murdered on this spot early in the year 1874 while pioneering the mineral resources of the San Juan Country.”
Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes: the States Most Accessible High Country Roadways,” which is for sale at The Bookworm of Edwards for $21.95. Parts of the book will be serialized in the Vail Daily every Sunday this summer.
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