A Look at Influences on Early Colorado History

Posted by: admin March 20th, 2018

A Look at Influences on Early Colorado History

By: Zach Cherry

Frisco Colorado History.jpg

The Forming of the 38th State

The history of Colorado and Summit County originate from the United State’s victory in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.  A triple pronged military campaign led by three US Army Generals successfully relinquished what little authority the Mexican government had in the current American southwest region.  Most of Colorado was under the loose control of Mexico, as well as sections of TX, NM, AZ, CA, NV, UT, OK, and KS.  Gold and other precious metals had not yet been discovered by Mexico in these areas, so much of their presence was light settlements without a significant population or government influence.  The first discovery of gold in Colorado came in 1850 when Lewis Ralston found a quarter ounce gold nugget in a small creek flowing into Clear Creek near current day Arvada, CO.  He returned to the site in 1858 with a small mining party to continue his search for placer gold but was quickly overshadowed by a larger discovery in Idaho Springs, Breckenridge, and Leadville.  The Colorado gold rush began in earnest in 1859 and defined how the state would develop economically, culturally, and logistically.

Thar’s Gold in them Hills

The first discovery of gold in Summit County occurred in Breckenridge in the Blue River.  Rueben J. Spalding and his party made a find on Aug 10, 1859 that led to the establishment of the town.  George Spencer founded Breckenridge in November 1859 with the hopes of making it a permanent establishment with government and culture.  At first, the population was approximately 100 people who were mostly engaged in mining or supporting the industry.  Most of the buildings were made from the abundant coniferous timber in the area instead of stone or brick.  The timber was rough cut by hand, rather than planned and fitted by a sawmill.  The inhabitants were interested in only putting enough labor and capital into their buildings to make it by until they struck it rich.  By 1863, all the easy placer gold had been stripped from the rivers.  The population of the Blue River Valley dropped from several thousand to approximately 500 in 1866.  The first gold rush of Summit County had risen and fallen.

And there’s Silver Too

Breckenridge experienced its’ second boom in 1879 when silver-lead ore was discovered in the area.  The population quickly grew from 350 people to 1,500 along with stores, saloons, dance halls, and supporting infrastructure.  Breckenridge was formally incorporated in 1880, and in December 1882 the Denver, South Park & Pacific railroad had connected a line from Como to Breckenridge via Boreas Pass.  Another railroad company Denver, Rio Grande had interests in connecting a line from Denver to Frisco, and eventually Leadville.  In the opinion of the DRG president William J. Palmer, “a population engaged in mining is by far the most profitable of any for a railroad.”  This indicates that the development of permanent settlements was strongly influenced by where the railroad chose to build.  Towns that were not engaged in mining were overlooked and did not experience significant economic growth.  The Sherman Act of 1890 monetized silver and encouraged production of silver so much that it became the primary economy of Leadville and Summit County until the Panic of 1893 when the Sherman Act was repealed.

Occupations of Summit County Residents

An examination of original Federal census records for Summit County in 1880 gives light to the economy and industries of the day.  By far the most frequent entry is a man between the ages of 20-40 with the occupation of a miner.  The next most common work available was as a general laborer, followed by skilled professions such as blacksmith, civil engineer, stonemason, carpenter, and brickmaster.  There was a significantly higher adult male population compared to adult women.  Most adult women were married with children and were listed on the scrolls as having the occupation of “keeping house”.  This meant that there were very few ladies who were single and ready to mingle.  Areas outside of Breckenridge had much higher proportions of miners relative to the total population.  Breckenridge had established a large enough population by 1880 to have a more diverse community and economy than the rest of the county.  Some of the additional occupations listed for Breckenridge include saloon/hotel keeper, attorney, draftsman, machinist, hotel cook, dentist, laundry, barber, waiter, musician, baker, prostitute, physician, school teacher, and retail liquor dealer.  These professions suggest that Breckenridge had reached a point of population saturation from mining that helped give it an identity beyond gold and silver.

The Birth of Frisco

Frisco was established by a railroad agent by the name of Henry Learned in 1875.  As an official representing the state of Colorado, he surveyed the valley of the current day location and determined that it would be a wise choice for connecting the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Company line to Leadville via the 10 Mile Creek valley.  The original line was never constructed, rather it dipped south to current day Frisco, TX that bears the same namesake as the town in Colorado.  After Frisco was incorporated in 1880, leaders of the town recognized that a railroad would solidify the permanence of the burgeoning mining settlement.  The Denver, Rio Grande rail company was granted a 40-foot easement adjacent to Main St along the current route of Galena St.  Denver, South Park & Pacific rail company was also granted an easement through Frisco to bring competitive freight prices and more reliable transportation to Denver.  Both rail companies were competing for prime real estate along the route to Leadville where an even bigger mining boom was occurring.  There were several mines around Frisco that were rich in silver and gold which provided the base economy for Frisco much like Breckenridge.

Life in the High Rockies

Life in Summit County during the late 1800s was an exceptionally arduous lifestyle.  People had to work around the clock during the lengthy, frigid winters to keep warm in addition to their regular occupation.  The roughly shod cabins were drafty and needed constant snow shoveling to be accessible.  The highest proportion of goods delivered by wagon or train was coal which was used to heat buildings as well as power the locomotives that supplied the county.  Oil lamps were used for lighting before electricity reached Breckenridge in 1898 and Frisco-Dillon area in 1909.  Agriculture and livestock were difficult to cultivate in the sub-arctic alpine climate, so most foods were also delivered over Boreas Pass from Como.  Winter held its icy grip for at least six months out of the year, and snowfall was possible in any season.  It was common for people to wear two layers of wool underwear and socks, along with two shirts and pants, two scarves, a wool hat, thick leather boots, and fur-lined gloves to combat frostbite and hypothermia.  Children were given elementary level education to determine their potential for future schooling or mining.  Teachers would grade students in part by inspecting the child’s home and evaluating the mother’s housekeeping as well as her hospitality.  Mining and railroad companies controlled the majority of residential housing and retail stores.  The typical salary for a railroad employee was $2.25-2.50/day.  When compared to $5/wk for room and board, the average rent burden was approximately 30% of the employee’s income if they worked 7 days a week.  If they took off Sunday, the rent burden rose to 35% of earnings.  Newsprint was delivered over Boreas Pass from Como as well as liquor, clothing, perfume, and other luxury goods.

Great Blizzard of 1899

The winter of 1898-99 was a record-setting behemoth that literally buried all of Summit county in the snow.  Fall of 1898 was mild and extended past Thanksgiving, but on the night of Nov 27th, 5 feet of snow fell to the surprise of everyone (too bad there were no ski lifts around!).  Snowfall continued every day until Feb 20th.  Life became a constant struggle to maintain warmth and dig outbuildings, supplies, livestock, and wagons to keep from losing them to massive drifts.  Single story cabins were quickly covered above their chimneys, while two-story buildings were using windows on the upper story as access to the building.  Residents began digging tunnels to neighbor’s homes and businesses rather than fight the inevitable shoveling.  The railroads had invented an ingenious the self-powered rotary snow plow to combat the 20-50 feet tall snowdrifts that blocked the passage from Como to Breckenridge.  This snowplow was approximately 12-15 feet tall and was powered by four to six locomotives with snow shovelers leading to probe for rocks and trees that would damage the blades.  Despite this great tool, the incessant snowfall and blowing wind kept covering the tracks and eventually blockaded Breckenridge and greater Summit County from resupply for 79 days.  During that time, only a handful of wagons were able to deliver food and supplies.  Stores sold out of liquor, milk, butter, eggs, fruit, vegetables, meat, and newspapers.  Ranchers were forced to butcher their emaciated livestock for food after their stock of animal feed ran out.  One brave man named Jess Oakley decided to brave the high line from Breckenridge to Como on foot with a bag of gold to purchase food and supplies in Como for his return trip.  He trudged under a heavy load for 6.5 miles up to the train station at Boreas Pass elevation 11,493’.  As he crested the pass, he was demoralized at first to see no sign of buildings or human activity.  He kept snowshoeing forward and found a stream of smoke coming from a chimney that was buried six inches under the snow.  A quick inspection led him to a snow tunnel that accessed the quarter house at Boreas where he was greeted with a steaming cup of coffee.  He continued his journey on to Como, then returned with as much as he could shoulder to Breckenridge.  The newspapers he carried sold for a whopping $1 apiece (equivalent to a half days work).  On April 24th, 1899 the rotary snow plow managed to clear the High Line all the way from Como to Breck and finally resupplied the desperate citizens.  Although nobody starved, the price of goods had doubled, and most people had a trimmer waistline.

The Rise of Labor Unions and Ludlow Massacre

Miners were frequently at odds with their companies over low wages and unsafe working conditions.  Lode miners were expected to descend deep into tunnels without electricity or ventilation to extract gold and silver.  Electricity first arrived in Clear Creek County in 1882 for mining, but many sites would continue to use oil lamps that competed with the workers for oxygen.  The men were expected to purchase their own personal safety equipment and were not compensated for time or expense used to fortify the tunnels.  John D. Rockefeller Jr was an owner of Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, which was built around an iron works facility in Pueblo, CO.  CF&I controlled most aspects of their employee’s lives, and showed little regard for morale or human rights.  Compensation was made in company credit that was only accepted at CF&I stores.  Employees caught bartering for outside goods were punished underhandedly by management.  Prepubescent boys were expected to join the mining workforce at the earliest age possible.  Unsavory wages and working conditions necessitated the emergence of child labor laws and labor unions.  The first mining labor union was established in 1878 as the Knights of Labor Local #771 in Boulder County.  Tensions between miners and their employers would continue to escalate through the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century with the culmination of the Ludlow Massacre which was orchestrated by CF&I and the Colorado National Guard against the United Mine Workers of America.  John D. Rockefeller Jr instructed his posse to shoot and loot the striker’s camp in Ludlow, CO to disrupt the strike and encourage men to return to the coal mines.  The Colorado National Guard and CF&I militia set the tent city ablaze and killed several women and children during the attack.  55 women and children were shot or died from the ensuing fire.  It is perhaps the most disgusting example in Colorado history of the struggle for power between greedy corporations and their employees.  Only 4 Colorado National Guardsmen and CF&I militiamen died during the attack.  The result was a call to arms by the United Mine Workers of America who outfitted approximately 1,000 men with rifles and supplies who then proceeded to burn and destroy the mines.  75 men died before Woodrow Wilson was able to dispatch federal troops to stop the violence.  The strike initially failed, however, Rockefeller Jr was coaxed into recognizing a company labor union and making an earnest attempt at improving the lives of the families who supported he and his company.

The Legacy of Mining and a Rising Tourist Economy

Early Colorado history was shaped by rugged frontier lifestyle mixed with a “strike it rich” mentality of mining.  Much of the economic and logistical interest in the state during the late 19th century was centered around areas that were producing precious metals and minerals.  People flocked to boom towns while railroad companies hastily hammered out plans to build a rail line to profit on the transportation of goods and people.  Census records for 1880 show an overwhelming majority of Colorado residents who were from eastern US states and foreign countries.  This wave of immigration was the beginning of a unique culture defined by hard work and helping neighbors.  Old railroad beds would be converted into roads after the invention of automobiles.  Mining faced a sharp decline in the 1930s during the Great Depression, but the state would soon see a new economic boom.  After the Ski Troops of the 10th Mountain Division returned from World War II, several ski areas were created by veterans including Arapahoe Basin, Vail, and Aspen.   Highways and personal vehicles paved the way for tourists and skiers who brought their earnings to the high Rockies from Denver in their shiny new cars.  The 1960s saw the rise of “white gold” which is better known to skiers as pow.  Resorts began “mining” snow instead of gold.  The ski industry has picked up where mining left off and will continue to shape the economy, infrastructure, and culture of Colorado for many decades to come.



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