Category Archives: Characters in History

High Altitude Adventures with Corydon Rose

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in Colorado Central magazine.

Fifteen miles from Lake City, Colorado, high up along Engineer’s Pass, lie the ruins of a dream held by one man. His name was Corydon Rose, and today he is remembered as the courteous host at his namesake mining camp, Rose’s Cabin.

Born in New York in 1835, Rose had made his way to Colorado by 1873 where he took up mining in the majestic San Juan Mountains. He chose a gorgeous high—mountain meadow, roughly halfway between Ouray and Lake City, to build his home. When entrepreneur Otto Mears built a toll road along Engineer’s Pass in 1877, Rose’s place officially became known as Rose’s Cabin, complete with a store, eating house and roughly 50 miners. A passing stage line guaranteed further success, since the coaches stopped at the camp to change horses.

Rose’s mining endeavors also paid off. By August, his “Blue, White and Gold” silver mine was assaying at $243 per ton. A month later, a travel correspondent for Lake City’s Silver World newspaper described the genteel hospitality extended to some proper ladies who spent the night at Rose’s Cabin:

“A small log cabin with dirt floor and side bunks partially filled with pine boughs was assigned to the ladies. The roof covered with dirt, a few stones in one corner in which was made a fire, nearby a beautiful, clear, cold rivulet furnished facilities for making their toilets; a couple of miners’ candles were substituted for gas, and the sides of the berths were utilized for seats. It was a novel sight to see a bevy of ladies accustomed to luxurious surroundings thus quartered for the night, and from the peals of laughter continually pouring forth, the novelty was evidently enjoyable in the extreme.”

Nearby, Merritt’s Restaurant contained a cookstove, a “rough plank” table and benches made from planks set on empty powder kegs. A “very creditable meal” was served in tin plates and cups. The writer and his friend slept in this cabin alongside five or six other men. Their accommodations consisted of “blankets spread on the bare, hard ground, with not even the intervention of pine boughs.”

In February 1878, Corydon Rose and his partner, Charlie Schafer, were inured in a rockslide. The two were at Schafer’s cabin at the Moltke lode when they heard the slide roaring down the hill. The men “attempted to escape but were caught in it and carried down the mountain and badly hurt,” reported the Silver World. Rose especially was “pretty effectually jammed up”, leading to speculation as to whether he would live. He  survived, but with permanent injuries.

Rose’s Cabin continued gaining popularity. In June, the Silver World reported that “the mines above Rose’s Cabin and in that vicinity are employing quite a force of men.” A post office opened later that year with Schafer as postmaster. Advertisements for the camp offered “meals and lodging, hay and grain, liquors and cigars”, as well as a “pack train of 60 animals”, and a second floor was added to Rose’s original cabin.

Rose typically stationed himself at the door, wearing a long black coat and a high hat. His signature greeting was “Howdy, stranger,” followed by an invitation to step inside where a bar ran along one side of the room. There also was a faro table, with a dealer wearing “short sleeves, plush waistcoat and long flowing tie”. Upstairs, twenty-two spindle beds, divided by partitions, awaited the weary traveler.

In 1880, Rose shared his roomy cabin with several others, including two women. One was Cornelia Porter, wife of silver miner William Porter. The other was Jennie Eastman, a divorcee with three children whose oldest son, 14—year—old Ira, worked as a teamster. Male residents of the camp included laborers, miners, carpenters and teamsters, as well as a blacksmith, saloonkeeper, butcher and druggist.

On his wedding night in 1884, Charles Schafer and his wife Augusta, still wearing her wedding gown, walked the whole fifteen miles from Lake City to Rose’s Cabin. When the census was taken in 1885, one of the couple’s lodgers was identified as mail carrier William Owens. Corydon Rose, meanwhile, was in Lake City and also worked as a mail carrier. Rose and Owens likely stayed at both Lake City and Rose’s Cabin as they transported mail back and forth.

That same year, George Crofutt’s Grip-Sack Guide of Colorado counted 120 people at Rose’s Cabin. For a dollar, the camp could be reached by hack during the summer months. In winter, Crofutt suggested reaching the camp via “winter saddle and snow—shoes.” Overall, Crofutt noted, there were “a great many mines and good ‘prospects’ which, with improved facilities, will make this one of the prosperous camps of the country.”

In spite of Crofutt’s prediction, the post office closed in 1887. Although about 50 miners continued living in the area, Corydon Rose was in Montrose by 1890. Meals were still available at Rose’s Cabin as late as 1895, when a correspondent for the North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune recalled, “At noon we halted at Rose’s Cabin and had a good dinner—the finest in milk and butter.”

The Schafers remained at Rose’s Cabin as late as 1900. In time, larger mining conglomerates moved into the area. One of them, Golconda Mines Inc., proposed using Rose’s Cabin as their headquarters, and a telephone was installed connecting callers to Lake City. The new phone came in handy in September of 1900, when Jos. Nevin and Andy McLaughlin scuffled over a card game at Rose’s Cabin. “Nevins assaulted McLaughlin with an axe and was shot and killed by the latter,” reported the San Juan Prospector newspaper.

The news likely did not reach Corydon Rose, who had moved to Utah. His trail might have been lost but for a 1905 article in the Salt Lake City Herald. “Corydon Rose, an old gentleman who had been a county charge for the last two years, placed an advertisement in the Moab paper inquiring for his relatives in Kansas,” the paper explained. “The advertisement was answered by a nephew, who took the old gentleman back to Kansas with him. The young man stated that Mr. Rose was the owner of a farm of 160 acres within ten miles of Kansas City, which is worth $10,000.”

Rose’s brother, August, had apparently made significant improvements to the farm. Although August died in 1904, Rose’s nephew willingly took in his uncle. Rose lived out his life comfortably, dying in 1908. His gravestone bears the simple inscription, “Uncle Corydon”. Charles Schafer had also died, in 1907. He is buried in Lake City, where his tombstone identifies him as “owner of Rose’s Cabin on Henson Creek.” Today, not much is left of Rose’s Cabin but the ruins of a chimney and a couple of log walls.

The Legends Behind the Face on the Barroom Floor

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine.

“Say, boys, if you give me just another whiskey, I’ll be glad

And I’ll draw right here a picture of the face that drove me mad.

Give me that piece of chalk with which you mark the baseball score –

You shall see the lovely Madeline upon the barroom floor.”

The above poem by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy has been the subject of barroom stories for decades. It’s an intriguing tale, yet the truth behind it is one of the little-known tales of western folklore. The mysterious and alluring faces of various women began adorning tavern floors across the nation roughly a century ago. Each had their own story to tell, and Colorado is no exception to the ongoing folklore.

At one time, there were as many as eight portraits known to be painted on barroom floors across America. Each seemed to have been inspired largely D’Arcy’s poem, “The Face Upon the Floor.” The verse tells of love lost by a lonely artist. One day, the woman of his affections spots a portrait the artist is painting of another man. Ultimately, the artist loses his girl to his subject, takes to drink, and tells his sad tale in exchange for whiskey. The artist then renders a stunning likeness of his lost love on the tavern floor, only to fall dead upon the finished portrait.

Little is known about Hugh Antoine D’Arcy. He was born in France in 1843, and it is thought he composed his famous poem in about 1898. “The Face Upon the Floor” appears to be his most outstanding accomplishment, and he lived to see it put into both movie and song. The poem was first immortalized in 1914, when Charlie Chaplin adapted it for a film called The Face on the Bar Room Floor.

Most people believe that the famous face on the floor at Central City’s Teller House was the first, and only, portrait of a woman’s face to be painted on a wooden floor. But the first portrait to appear in Colorado history was actually recorded on the kitchen floor of a private residence in Cripple Creek. The picture is thought to have been painted in the teens or 1920’s, in a house once owned by saloon keeper Herman Metz. Charles Walker purchased the residence in 1906, who in turn hired Harry B. Denny to paint the house in 1910. Denny left his signature and identified himself as the house painter on a basement door. Did he paint the portrait? Certain old-timers of Cripple Creek say no, that Denny painted houses and nothing more. The true artist will likely never be known.

As the face on the floor at Cripple Creek was subsequently forgotten, D’Arcy was experiencing a second success from his poem. It came in the form of a movie by renowned director John Ford, who in 1923 made his own version of D’Arcy‘s poem, The Face on the Bar-Room Floor.

 D’Arcy passed away in 1925, but his poem lived on. In 1936, the poem’s fame was sealed by Herndon Davis, formerly an artist for the Denver Post. One of the stories goes that Davis was a carpenter at the Teller House in Central City. His employer was Anne Evans, daughter of former Colorado Governor John Evans. A falling out between the two resulted in Davis‘ termination. Before leaving, however, Davis painted a ladies’ portrait on the floor. The act allegedly infuriated Anne Evans, but not enough to inspire her to remove it. In fact, the identity behind the mysterious face became legend until Davis died in the 1960’s. Just before his death, Davis revealed that the face was none other than his wife, Edna.

The success of the Teller House face was not lost on the rest of Colorado. In about 1953, another face appeared at the Western Hotel in Ouray. Built in 1890, the Western offered hotel rooms until it closed in 1945. The bar and dining room were kept open, however. When the Western was purchased by a Mr. Shady, according to Ouray native Ed Gregory, the new owner decided that another face might boost tourism. Shady commissioned Ed‘s mother, Ruth Gregory, to paint the portrait.

Like the faces in Cripple Creek and Central City, Mrs. Gregory‘s portrait reveals an intriguing face with mischievous eyes and a bobbed hairstyle. The painting also appears “two-faced,” with the left side resembling a profile. The fuss over the faces in Ouray and Central City continued to grow. Antoine D’Arcy’s poem received more coverage from Franklyn MacCormack, beloved radio announcer at Chicago’s WGN. A recording exists today of MacCormack reading the poem to his listeners.

One last rendering of a face on the floor appeared in the early 1960’s, again in Cripple Creek. This last face was at what was once the Cottage Inn at 261 East Bennett. When owner Jack Schwab passed away in 1961, his ex-wife Evelyn took possession of The Cottage and commissioned none other than Dick Johnson, founder of the Cripple Creek District Museum, to paint a female face on the floor. Like Herndon Davis, Johnson preferred not to be identified as the artist until after his death in February 2004, and this is the first time he has officially been named as the man who painted the face. Today, Cripple Creek’s “Madeline” is preserved at the Cripple Creek District Museum.

In 1978, writer Henry Mollicone penned an opera version of D’Arcy’s poem. The Central City Opera Company swooped upon the play, presenting it with great success. The company performs near the Teller House, where Edna Davis’s portrait can still be seen on the floor in the barroom.  Most recently, the story of Madeline gained fame once more in 1997, when the late Teller County musician, T.O. Locker, produced his own music video, The Face on the Barroom Floor. Several Colorado locations were used in filming the video, including Cripple Creek and the Western Hotel. The video won several first place prizes through the Colorado Springs Film Commission and the Professional Film and Video Guild of Colorado.

Perhaps what is most intriguing about the mysterious faces on the floors of Colorado is their failure to become commercialized. In each case, D’Arcy’s story has been treated with utmost respect. In the end, the poignancy behind the story rings truer than any other tale one could tell. Indeed, it is the last stanza of D’Arcy’s poem that carries on the romance behind the obscure faces painted in his memory:

“Another drink, and with chalk in hand the vagabond begTo sketch a face that well might buy the soul of any man.

Then, as he placed another lock upon the shapely head,

With a fearful shriek, he leaped and fell across the picture—dead.”

Image: Today, the face on the floor at Central City’s Teller House remains as the best known painting by Herndon Davis.

Ashcroft: A Premiere Colorado Ghost Town

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in The Colorado Gambler magazine.

High up in the hills near Aspen lies Ashcroft, one of the best preserved ghost towns in Colorado. During summer, Ashcroft fairly comes alive with visitors who love to walk along the old roads and explore the nine buildings comprising what is left of the town. Although it is still highly accessible during winter, the snowy months drive away tourists as Ashcroft—altitude 9500’— settles into slumber and waits for spring thaw.

Ashcroft had its beginnings during the winter of 1879-80, when miner Thomas E. Ashcraft joined 22 other prospectors in Castle Creek Valley. Named for the castle-like spires on nearby Castle Peak, the valley was identified by the Hayden geological survey as having valuable silver deposits. Despite threats from Ute Indians, Ashcraft stuck it out and soon laid out a small settlement called Highland. A short time later, Ashcraft and his fellow miners moved a short distance from Highland and named their new camp Castle Forks City, a name they also assigned to their placer mine. Highland flourished for a short time before succumbing to the popularity of Ashcroft.

A Miner’s Protective Association was soon formed, with each of the 97 members having an equal say in Castle Forks’ future. Eight hundred and sixty four lots were sold at $5 each. The idea of renaming the picturesque little town soon came under fire. According to postal records, Castle Fork’s post office was first known as Ashcroft as of August 12, 1880 (the census taker called it Ashcraft when he came around a week later). Even at that early date, there were 130 people living there. Their numbers included several miners, but also an assayer, a mason, a merchant, a restaurant owner, a saloon keeper, a surveyor and two blacksmiths. A surprising five entrepreneurs, a news reporter and even a government scout were included in the eclectic total. And, there was nary a woman around.

The following year, the postmaster general assigned the name of Chloride. But local miners were calling the place Ashcroft by the time that name was reassigned in January of 1882. John R. Nelson was the first postmaster. As was the case with so many mining camps, the town grew quickly. Initially Ashcroft was only accessible via Taylor Pass, an extremely rough road that was closed through winter. Wagons traversing the pass were required to stop, disassemble the vehicle, raise or lower it over 40-foot cliffs, and reassemble it before moving on.

The Carson Brothers Stage Line made its debut in 1881 and charged travelers $2 for a ride to Buena Vista and points in between via Cottonwood Pass or Independence Pass. Two other stage lines eventually served Ashcroft as well. Easier access made Ashcroft a gateway to Aspen, while telegraph poles along Taylor Pass enhanced communications. Famous visitors to Ashcroft included Bob Ford, the killer of outlaw Jesse James, and silver magnates Horace and Baby Doe Tabor. In fact, Tabor purchased interests in the Tam O’Shanter and Montezuma mines and built a lavish home at Ashcroft that included gold-encrusted wallpaper. Whenever Baby Doe visited, Tabor declared a holiday and bought drinks for everyone.

By 1882 the $5 lots were selling for as much as $400 and by 1883 Ashcroft had outgrown the nearby town of Aspen. Some historians place the population of 1,000 and others 2,500. The residency consisted mostly of miners and was served by two newspapers the Herald and the Journal. There were also two sawmills, a school, a courthouse and jail, a theater and an amazing 20 saloons. There were also four hotels: the Farrell, Fifth Avenue, Riverside and St. Cloud. Main and Castle were the two main streets.

Unfortunately, much of the silver ore mined around Ashcroft was low grade. The town of Aspen began to grow. Aspen’s mines also excelled where Ashcroft’s did not, and local mining strikes also affected the town. Sealing its doom was the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s decision not to extend their tracks to Ashcroft. Very quickly, Aspen came into the limelight while Ashcroft faded into the past.

Ashcroft’s population had dwindled to 100 souls by 1885 with a mere $5.60 left in the city treasury. Many of Ashcroft’s citizens moved to Aspen, often lifting their cabins right off the foundations and moving them as well. There were 75 residents in 1900, but the number still only included three women. Ashcroft’s population was nearly depleted by 1906 when the town was sold to a New York syndicate. When the population was reduced to nine residents, the post office finally closed in 1912.

Eventually only two residents remained at Ashcroft: poet and former postmaster Dan McArthur and former saloon owner John “Jack” Leahy, who had helped form a union during the strikes. A resident of Ashcroft for some 57 years, Leahy also offered legal advice and served as a justice of the peace. Interestingly, his services were never required in an official court of law, and in later years he became known as the Hermit of Ashcroft. When Leahy died in 1939, he was the last official resident of the town.

Ashcroft next caught the attention of sports figure Theodore Ryan and Olympic gold medalist Billy Fiske, who wanted to turn it into a ski resort. The pair built the Highland-Bavarian Lodge in anticipation of constructing an aerial tramway to the top of Mount Hayden. World War II put a stop to the plans when Fiske died in action. Ryan was also drafted and but offered to lease Ashcroft to the 10th Mountain Division for only a dollar per year. But the army was already using Camp Hale near Leadville and while some training exercises took place at Ashcroft, the small town never reached its full potential as a base camp. A decision to move the ski resort to Aspen was Ashcroft’s final undoing.

After the war, dogsled operator Stuart Mace became a caretaker at Ashcroft in exchange for using the land for his sleds. Mace, his huskies and Ashcroft were all featured in the 1950’s television series “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.” Stuart and his wife also ran the Toklat Restaurant at Ashcroft, and their descendants have turned the building into an exclusive gallery with crafts from all over the world. The Mace’s also saved the town from land developers by donating its 15 acres to the Forest Service in 1953. The Aspen Historical Society began working in 1974 to preserve what was left of the town.

Today, Ashcroft is a great place to snow shoe in a quiet mountain valley. There is a caretaker nearby and a fee of $3.00. From Aspen, take Highway 82 west. At the roundabout, take Castle Creek Road for approximately 11 miles. The road is paved all the way to Ashcroft, but the ancient streets of the town will remind you of how it must have looked over a century ago.

 

 

The Woman Who Dressed as a Man

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Colorado Gamber and the Ute Pass Vacation Guide.

It was a hot, dusty and dry Colorado August day in 1899 as the Colorado Midland Railroad chugged into the one horse town of Florissant. As the train came to a stop at the depot, the restless population looked on as passengers disembarked from the train. In such a sleepy town, the coming of the train was always an event to look forward to. New faces bearing news from Colorado Springs were always welcome, and residents yearned for anything fresh to break up the monotony of everyday life.

One woman in particular seemed to stand out from the crowd on the depot platform. For one thing, she was alone and no one was there to greet her—a most unusual circumstance in those times. Furthermore, the gal hardly seemed lost or lonely. Rather, she bore a determined look on her face as she gazed up and down the street. Upon spying the nearest hotel, the woman gathered her bags up and made for the lodge as if she had a mission in mind.

Once the lone traveler had disappeared within the depths of the hotel, the folks watching the train forgot all about her. The exception may have been a reporter for the Cripple Creek Times, who was in town skulking around for fresh news. Alas, there just plain wasn’t much going on. So when the mysterious femme was next seen leaving the hotel dressed in men’s clothing, she became front page news.

In 1899, cross dressing—as most state and city ordinances referred to it—was most inappropriate, as well as downright illegal. Notorious western corset-busters such as Calamity Jane and Pearl Hart were one thing. But this woman had actually appeared quite refined before her change from a ladies’ dress to men’s pantaloons. To make matters worse, the seeming suffragette refused to even acknowledge the odd looks coming her way as she walked with purpose out of town. According the newspaper she was next seen headed toward Guffey in the Freshwater Mining District, that determined look still sparkling in her eye.

For three days, the Cripple Creek Times continued to speculate on the woman’s activities. The hotel front desk yielded little information, except that the lady was from somewhere back east. She had spoken very little, paid cash, and left her room without checking at the desk. As the girl presumably continued her journey to Guffey, newsmongers scrambled for some clues as to her motives and interviewed witnesses as to her whereabouts.

The mystery was finally solved on the third day, when the Times published the rest of the story. Apparently, the woman’s fiancé had suddenly abandoned her in the east, and subsequent inquiries revealed he had taken up with another woman whose expansive ranch was located nearby. The lone traveler had disguised herself in men’s clothing in order to spy on the two and see just what they were up to.

The couple were not at the ranch when the she-man arrived, but a ranch hand remembered her visit. He said it was mighty curious that the young “man” was willingly greeted by the family dog. Also, he said, he began asking questions and leaning towards the cowpoke for closer look at his face. That was when the strange visitor took “his” leave.

That was the end of the story, at least as far as the Times was concerned, although there was some chatter in the paper about the fiance’s mother, who apparently had disapproved of the mysterious femme. Whether the lady reconciled with her unrequited lover remains unknown. But at the very least, she did make history as the first woman daring enough to walk the streets of Florissant dressed as the opposite sex.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Melinda Brolin

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Parts of this article originally appeared in the Ute Pass Vacation Guide in 2002.

Today’s “Old Colorado City”, located due west of Colorado Springs, Colorado, is filled with kitschy shops, great restaurants and comfy pubs. Most of them are housed in beautiful historic buildings, some dating back to the late 1800’s. From the time it was founded in 1859 to its annexation to Colorado Springs in the early 1900’s, Colorado City fairly howled with history in the way of saloons, gambling and giddy girls.

When Colorado Springs was founded as the elite “Saratoga of the West” in 1874, there was naturally an uproar over the goings-on in bawdy Colorado City. Liquor, gambling houses and prostitution was outlawed in the new town, but in the old town the owners of such places found plenty of ways to carry on business out of the prying eyes of newspapers and the law. One system employed involved an underground tunnel system, whereby one could enter a respectable store or restaurant, access a tunnel, and come out at a tavern, gambling den or brothel.

In time, everyone knew about the tunnels. And although some of the old tunnels survive even today, not much has been found to document what actually went on inside of them. There is one tale, largely folklore in nature, that tells of a young lady who went into one of these tunnels-and never came back out. Her name was Melinda Brolin.

At the time, there was a new rush to the Cripple Creek District, just on the other side of Pikes Peak from Colorado City. Miners were flooding into Colorado City on their way to the goldfields. One of them was Ben Kelly, who left his Chicago home to find his riches in 1899. As was common Kelly left behind the love of his life—our heroine—with the promise to send for her as soon as his prospects looked good.

Six months after Kelly’s departure, Melinda grew impatient and came west herself. She landed in Colorado City, securing a waitress job in a restaurant at today’s 2625 West Colorado Avenue, until she could afford the trek up Ute Pass to Cripple Creek. Colorado City proved to be a friendly place full of friendly people. As months went by, Melinda thought less and less of the beau who had not bothered to send for her. Eventually she found another man and made Colorado City her permanent home.

Back then, Colorado City was practically a sister city to Cripple Creek. The Golden Cycle Mill along today’s Highway 24 processed Cripple Creek ore, and thousands of people divided their time between the two cities. In time, Ben Kelly heard that Melinda was in Colorado City. He also heard about her new lover. A fit of jealousy overtook him and he hopped on the next train for Colorado City, intent on finding his cheating gal and exacting revenge.

By then, Melinda’s dedicated customers, as well as her new beau, were as loyal to Melinda as though she had lived in Colorado City all her life. When they heard Kelly was in town and looking for blood, they lost no time in informing Miss Melinda. The Irish lass quickly took refuge in the basement, disappearing into one of many tunnels underneath Colorado Avenue.

Kelly looked in vain for Melinda all over Colorado City, but nobody ever saw hide nor hair of her—ever again. Even after Kelly gave up and departed for Cripple Creek, Melinda failed to surface from the tunnel. A thorough search turned up nothing, and nobody recalled seeing a woman of her description emerge from either end.  No one ever knew what became of her, and some weeks after her disappearance the tunnel collapsed.

Melissa’s disappearance was the beginning of several strange happenstances. Local legend alleges that a week after the tunnel collapsed, Melinda’s former place of employment caught fire. Melinda’s forlorn lover in Colorado City died a mysterious death and his body was found in Fountain Creek. Shortly after that, even Ben Kelly met his end in a mine at Cripple Creek. If Melinda was around to hear of these fateful events, she never made herself known.

For decades following Melinda’s disappearance, her old workplace pretty much remained the site of generations of other restaurants and cafes. In about 1952 it was known as Baskett’s Cafe, and in 2002 was Gertrude’s Restaurant. These days, the place is an Irish pub called Alchemy. No matter the business, various owners dating as far back as 1900 have claimed there is a ghost. Perhaps in the end, Melinda never left her beloved workplace at all.

Buckskin Charlie: A Proud Indian

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in the Ute Pass Vacation Guide in 2000.

Long before Colorado’s Ute Pass became Highway 24, an ancient Indian trail once skirted the base of Pikes Peak. Much of it comprises Ute Pass as we know it today, with traces of the original path veering off and onto the highway.

The Utes were among Colorado’s first residents. Ute Pass served as the gateway for their tribes, who worshiped the magical bubbling waters at today’s Manitou Springs. They often camped up and down the pass, even after the formation of Colorado City in 1859, Colorado Springs in 1871 and Manitou Springs in 1872. Frequenters of Ute Pass included Buckskin Charlie, one of the last tribal leaders of the old Ute nation in Colorado.

Born circa 1842, Buckskin Charlie was an original Colorado native. His father was Ute and his mother Apache, but both died before Charlie was 11 years old. The young boy eventually became a warrior, participating in many battles against plains Indians. One such skirmish left the scar of a bullet wound on his forehead. Later, he learned to speak English and served as a scout for the U.S. Army. He earned his famous nickname for the number of antelope he killed during an expedition on behalf of the United States.

Buckskin Charlie also made fast friends with Ouray, head of the Mouache Utes. The two men often made trips to Washington D.C. and talked treaties with the government. It was Ouray who appointed Buckskin Charlie his successor when he stepped down as leader of the Utes. When Ouray died in 1880, Charlie assisted in his secret funeral ceremony.

Photographs of Buckskin Charlie often depict him wearing a moustache, a rare characteristic among Native Americans. As the leader of his people, Charlie encouraged his tribe to let their children be educated by whites and attend church services. He also dressed in white men’s clothing when visiting the Capital. Ever wary, however, government officials took note of Charlie’s preference for his native Ute tongue and his refusal to outlaw peyote and other ceremonial aspects of his native culture. Still, Charlie was patient and sensible in his dealings with U.S. officials, even when arguing over broken treaties. He was respected by both whites and his tribe, and reigned over the Ute Nation for an amazing 56 years.

The turn of the century held many changes for residents of the Pikes Peak region. In recognition of the passing of an era, the El Paso County Pioneer’s Association decided in 1912 to dedicate the old Ute Pass trail to those who had used it long before any white man. Buckskin Charlie and his tribe were cordially invited to the ceremonies. Scores of Utes, dressed in full regalia, rode the pass. As the party passed into French Creek Valley just below Cascade, the Indians burst into ceremonial song. Buckskin Charlie led the pack, declaring, “I seventy years old and never been so happy.”

Buckskin Charlie continued living a colorful life. In 1925, he assisted in the moving Ouray’s remains to the cemetery at Ignacio. Throughout his career, he maintained his outstanding reputation and personally met with seven United States presidents. He died in 1936 and is buried beside Ouray at Ignacio, in Southern Colorado.

Pictured: Buckskin Charlie and his sons.

The Irish of Cripple Creek, Colorado

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in The Colorado Gambler magazine in 2000.

Between 1891 and 1900, an estimated 403,496 Irish immigrants arrived in America. A good percentage of them were miners whose ancestors had toiled in the copper and tin mines of Ireland. Mining was a transient occupation, relying on the newest, biggest and best strike. The Colorado goldfields provided ample income in districts such as Leadville, Central City and Blackhawk, and Cripple Creek.

Work for the Irish miner was easy to find since they were regarded as highly skilled. Like miners of all races, the men usually came ahead to scope out the prospects. If the boom was big enough, family and friends followed. As a result, the city of Cripple Creek was predominantly white, Irish and Catholic. Names like O’Hara, Sullivan, Murphy and McKenna were common around town. During the labor wars of 1894, one Colorado Springs minister went so far as to predict the strikes would end if only the predominantly Episcopalian mine owners would just hire Catholic superintendents.

Hundreds of Irish patented land in and around Cripple Creek beginning in 1893. Many have their names emblazoned in history. Jimmy Burns and Jimmy Doyle were two Irishmen whose mine, the Portland, was the largest producing mine in the district. The Mary McKinney Mine was also a big producer. Jim Daily, another Irishman, is said to have saved millionaire investor A.E. Carlton from a gunshot meant for him at McKillip & Doyle’s Grand View Saloon at Midway.

At least five Irishmen were among the district’s top millionaires. Mollie O’Brien was the only female broker to ever hold a seat on the Cripple Creek Mining Stock Exchange. And while Irish prostitutes ran rampant in other cities around the state, only two are recorded as shaming their upper-class counterparts in Cripple Creek.

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was an Irish-American whose actions ranked high above many women. By the age of 74, Jones had overcome the deaths of all four of her children and her husband to become a powerful force in the United Mineworkers of America. Authorities tried to kick her out of Colorado during the strikes of 1904, but were unsuccessful. Incidentally, one James Murphy was a saving grace after the depot at Independence was blown up during those same strikes.

True to their heritage and folklore, the Irish produced many a lively tale in the Cripple Creek District. The infamous Tommyknockers of the mines in Ireland accompanied the immigrant miners to Cripple Creek. These mischievous, invisible little characters were said to dwell in the working mines. Tommyknockers were considered to be of a friendly nature, warning miners of danger and allegedly saving many a man’s life. They also served as the perpetrator whenever a tool was misplaced or unusual noises in the shaft were heard.

Occasionally, the Tommyknockers were blamed for eating another man’s lunch or wreaking vengeance on the miner who dared to curse him. If a Tommyknocker wasn’t to blame, the Irish could always accuse their enemies, the “Cousin Jacks” who had migrated from Cornwall, England. Their dislike for each other ran deep in their respective native lands, and the two never worked together if they could help it.

Hard rock miner and poet Rufus Porter wrote many a vignette about the Irish in the district. The very real characters he portrayed included Angus McGurk, who threw himself down his own mine shaft because he’d eaten the last of his beans. Then there was drunken Pat McCain, who became a hero after rescuing a crew of men at the Lucky Ten Mine.

Porter’s most famous character was probably Dynamite Dan O’Hara, a fictional person based on several Irishmen Porter knew in the district. Among other things, O’Hara is credited with building Johnny Nolon’s and other saloons, knocking boxing great John Sullivan out for insulting his heritage, and being a favorite among the dance hall ladies.

It is true that many an Irishman found wealth in the Cripple Creek District. But the tales behind the success are now more priceless than the fortune made. An example is two Irishmen who had a claim on the east slope of Bull Hill. Three months went by with nary a result. The story goes that the two were down to their last dollar one morning and decided that if nothing came of the day’s work they would sell the non-producing mine for the going rate of $100.

On a whim, the pair decided to see what their pet mongrel had to say about the situation. “We’ll wait until the pooch lays down,” one of them declared, “then we’ll kick him off and dig there.”

Sure enough, upon ousting the dog from his chosen spot and digging, the men hit a rich vein of ore by noon. Three weeks later they sold out for $100,000 and their discovery, the Last Dollar, became one of the best producers in the camp. The end of this story is unfortunate, if typical; the pair headed back east, prepared to return to their homeland. By Chicago they were broke, and at least one of them returned to the district to finish out his years hard rocking.

Other tales include the one about the Irishman who was single jacking in some tough ground one day. When he came out of the hole that night, his boss asked how it had gone that day. “Begorra,” he replied, “I drilled all day on one hole and the ground’s so hard that when I quit the hole stuck out two inches.”

By 1930, the Cripple Creek District’s heyday was well over. Even so, the census that year showed 34 Irish still calling Cripple Creek home. Among them was Danny Rind, who lived to be over 100 years old. Rufus Porter recalled Danny was still sinking shafts and hauling his own ore in the 1930’s. When asked his secret to longevity, Rind replied, “You’ve got to have an interest in life, son.”

These words of wisdom might have been followed by an evening of tipping pints of ale and singing one of the best of all Irish toasts:

“May the wind always be at your back,

May the road you take not be so steep

And may you be in Heaven half an hour

Before the Devil knows your dead.”