Visiting a Pioneer Schoolhouse

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Prescott Daily Courier

Back when my husband and I lived in Mayer, Arizona, there was an area south of us with plenty of dirt roads to explore. One of them, near Cordes Lakes, ran by the site of an old school outside, with a short and easy hiking trail from a primitive parking lot. The schoolhouse site always intrigued me because there were no other homes close by and the nearest landmark was the Agua Fria River. How far, I often wondered, did children have to walk to attend this school?

Naturally I wanted to know more about this early house of education. I found that although it was opened on September 9, 1889, the ruins are now known simply as the “1891 Schoolhouse”: a plain 16′ x 28′ wood building perched upon a sturdy rock foundation. Based on archaeological assessments, a door, several windows and a single chimney completed the structure. Only surveyor notes and a Yavapai County Superintendent’s Report give limited information about the school and its use. “The school has sufficient school grounds that are suitably improved, is well ventilated,” reads one notation, “but poorly supplied with furniture and apparatus, and has no library but a water closet.”

In order to justify building the school, officials needed to find ten prospective students within a two-mile radius of the chosen spot. They found willing participants in the way of rancher’s children, scattered throughout the area and perhaps as far away as Cordes. These hearty kids walked or rode horses to the school each day, beginning on the second Monday in September and continuing for the next five to eight months.

For fourteen years, both male and female teachers taught here. Their names are lost to history, as are those of the students who learned here. If this was actually the Big Bug School which some historians refer to, some of the pupils would have been from the Cordes family ranch some four miles west. Both the Big Bug School and the “1891 Schoolhouse” closed in 1903, according to documentation, due to a decline in enrollment. Depending on what you read, the decline was caused by a sweep of scarlet fever, small pox, and /or local mining labor disputes that closed down operations in the area.

By the time this schoolhouse was rediscovered and documented 2009, the building was long gone. An interpretive sign includes an artist’s rendering of what the school might have looked like. The drawing strongly resembles the only known image of the Big Bug School, which can be viewed at Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott.

What I like to imagine is how the kids and even the teachers overcame the urge to dip their feet in the river just some 50 feet away on a hot day. And I wonder how long it took them to get home after class since the remote area was, and still is, filled with overhanging trees, rock strewn pathways, beautiful flowers, lizards and frogs, and two big, beckoning swimming holes. Stopping to play along the way must certainly have been a learning experience unto itself.

A Toast to the Ghosts

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

Yeah I know Halloween is a long way off, but this writing has nothing to do with that sacred holiday. Rather, I’ve just recently been tracking down cemeteries in my area, and it turns out that there are lots of them. Some are still used, some are abandoned, and some have no trace left to show that they were there to begin with. For me, however, a graveyard is a sign that someone lived nearby, be it a ranch or homestead or an actual town. And often, just reading the name, date and inscription on a tombstone can tell you a lot about the occupant and how they lived.

When you are an historian, the people you fall in love with in your line of work are, unfortunately, dead. They cannot rise from the grave and tell you about their past. There is no pointing the way to where they were born or where they lived. Unless they left written record, there is no way of knowing their favorite color, or what they liked to eat, or how they felt about themselves and their lives. Thus their end is often my beginning as I look for the graves of my subjects to glean information and research for the story of their lives. Doing so brings closure for me, since a grave is literally the last place a person is seen. I find it ironic that the beginning for me starts with the end of another.

Having spent years studying old mortuary records and exploring graveyards, the frontier approach to death fascinates me. It is surprising, for instance, how many people died without socks—a standard item appearing on most mortuary forms. Death came so often in those days that caskets were given elaborate and comforting names—the “Fairy Couch” comes to mind, usually sold to widowers or the mothers of young girls. And, long after the burial, families once made day excursions to picnic at the graves of their loved ones on a regular basis.

Like those families of yesteryear, I like cemeteries. They are quiet, and peaceful. Their graves are, or were, lovingly tended by their families. When I see a flower vase on its side, or a flag that has come out of its holder, or leaves and mud covering a flat gravestone, I can’t help but tidy it up a bit. I have been known to talk to the occupants, sympathizing with their plight at the end. Sometimes I read their name out loud, because it has probably been a long time since someone did that. I like to think I am making sure they will never be forgotten.

Cemeteries also provide the proper thrills if one’s in the mood for a jolt. My mom and I once visited a wonderful graveyard in Colorado on an appropriately overcast day. I noticed that a vault door was slightly ajar, and as I moved away I swore I saw the door move. We were leaving anyway, but my heart missed a beat when the car inexplicably wouldn’t start. “Oh God, Mom!” I whimpered, grabbing her arm. She had a good laugh as she tried again and the car fired right up. Another time I accompanied the melodrama actors in Cripple Creek, Colorado on their annual “final show” jaunt to the local graveyard (sadly, they don’t do this anymore). It was late and very dark; I thought I was very clever for sneaking ahead and laying on a grave, waiting to pop up and scare someone. It was quite comfortable there, until I became aware that the voices around me had grown faint. Sitting up, I discovered everyone had headed out of the entrance far away from me. As much as I scrambled to get out of there, I never did catch up with them and felt like I was being watched as I walked very quickly towards the gate.

There are those who think cemeteries are creepy, and as someone who has heard voices and the cry of a baby while alone in one, I can certainly understand. But hearing voices, and the sounds of the living in places where nobody is alive, is normal in my line of work even if it does occasionally give me chills. These aren’t ghosts, to me anyway. It’s more like they are people lost in some sort of ethereal time warp, walking and talking as if they were still on this earth. And all of them have a story to tell. I don’t get vandals and other creepy people who think it’s ok to tip over tombstones and spray paint memorials. One day (unless you’re into cremation, which I am not), each of us will end up in a graveyard—the last sure sign we were ever on this earth to begin with. Be respectful.

That brings me to one of my favorite stories, and a good one to end with. Several years ago in California, I read of a woman who kept dreaming about a particular house. The dream was quite vivid, always ending with a strange man in a butler outfit looking horrified when he opened the front door. This went on for years, until one day the woman was forced by construction work to detour through an unfamiliar, fancy neighborhood. There, she saw the house from her dreams. Of course the woman stopped, went to the door, and rang the bell. Sure enough a butler answered. He gazed at her in horror, just like he did in the dream. Quickly she explained why she was there, ending with the question of whether the house was haunted. “Yes it is,” the butler stammered, “and YOU are the ghost.”

Faded Trails in Arizona: Alexandra, A Mining Dream in the Making

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in the Frontier Gazette.

The story of Alexandra begins with Thomas and Catharine Alexander, who migrated to Prescott back in 1864. Thomas served as a director of the Prescott and Mohave Road Company, became a postmaster in Prescott, and later established a cattle ranch in Sycamore Canyon. In 1875, Alexander joined prospectors Edward G. Peck, Curtis Coe Bean and William Cole in exploring the Bradshaw Mountains. Peck noticed an unusual rock that turned out to be rich in silver, and the Peck Mine was staked on June 16, 1875.

Over the next decade, the Peck would produce over a million dollars in silver. By September of 1876 a community of 20 buildings near the mine was home to roughly 60 men. They called it Alexandra after Thomas Alexander. In addition to his investment in the Peck Mine, Alexander also staked the Black Warrior mine and eventually opened a mercantile.

Newspapers began taking note about the goings on at Alexandra beginning in 1877. In June, the Arizona Miner newspaper predicted that Alexandra would be “quite a place,” reporting there were “two large stores, Alexander & Company, and Andres & Rowe; three boarding houses, four places were spiritual refreshments are provided, two livery stables, one butcher shop, one blacksmith shop,” and more. The Peck partners had expended nearly $2,000 laying out the town and even grading the main streets.

Because the nearest mill was at Aztlan some thirty miles away, Alexander next built the Peck Mill in December 1877. “The general impression is that this is destined to be the best camp in the whole Territory, if not on the whole Pacific slope,” predicted the Miner on July 26, 1878. Just a few weeks later, on August 6, the post office opened, with Joseph Drew as postmaster. More hotels, restaurants and saloons opened, as well as John Ellis’ “Gold Room Resort” and even a brewery.

Alas, the good times were not destined to last at Alexandra. In 1879, the Peck partners got into a dispute over rights to the mine, which closed during litigation. People began leaving town. By 1880 the Alexanders had returned to Prescott, and it was Catharine who finally sued the Peck Mining Company “to recover the value of stock in that company”. She won, too, in January of 1881 to the tune of $80,000. “In many respects this is the most important case ever tried in the Courts of the Territory,” concluded the Arizona Miner.

Alexandra never had an official cemetery, but there were some deaths and subsequent burials. The first of these was a Mr. Marson, who accidentally fell into his partner’s bloody butcher knife in 1877. He was buried somewhere near the town. Then, in December 1890, a freighter named Grant LeBarr was shot to death at Alexandra. A letter from Sheriff “Bucky” O’Neill to LeBarr’s father—in—law, Dr. O.J. Thibode of Phoenix, explained that LeBarr and James M. Stoop were amongst those drinking at Refiel’s Saloon when a “dispute arose between the two in regard to some trivial matter.” The men made up their differences, but Stoop left, returning with a revolver. The man “took deliberate aim” and shot LeBarr, who died within minutes. O’Neill assured Thibode that LeBarr “has been buried at the Peck mine in the best shape possible, the entire camp suspending all work during the funeral.” Stoop, whom witnesses said had a “break down” in jail, ended his own life by swiping a fellow prisoner’s razor and slitting his own throat.

Alexandra’s post office closed in 1896. Two years later, Catharine Alexander died, followed by her husband in 1910. A new shaft had been sunk at the Peck Mine in 1903 and the railroad came through on the way to Crown King in 1904, but it was all for naught and Alexandra was abandoned. Arizona’s arid climate kept the old buildings preserved for some time. During the 1970’s, several houses remained at Alexandra. Virgil Snyder, who lived in the last standing house in town, was the last caretaker beginning in about 1985.

In about 2016, the Peck and several other mines were purchased by Q—Gold Resources, which was exploring further silver potential at the mine. Meanwhile, not much remains of Alexandra and its surrounding mines. The townsite lies high on the mountain about four and a half miles west of Cleator. Four wheel drive or an ATV is required to visit, but be aware of no trespassing signs.

Cripple Creek v.s. Oatman: An Ass For An Ass

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

Here is something unique to see, and something tourists of all ages love: the sight of a semi-wild donkey herd, ambling through town and panhandling for snacks. Some folks say there is nothing like it, being jostled around by a group of smelly, furry four-leggeds as they nudge food out of your hand. In Colorado, Cripple Creek is well known as the place to watch, feed and pet upwards of a dozen donkeys, some of whom are said to be descendants of the same equines who once toiled in the hundreds of mines around the town. But Cripple Creek isn’t the only place to find donkeys; that claim also lies with Oatman, another historic mining community in Arizona.

Naturally these are two different places in their make-up as a whole. Oatman is located along old Route 66 in the desert hills near the Nevada and California borders. At its peak, the population only hovers between 43 and 135 souls. The hamlet is much smaller than Cripple Creek, whose population of over 1,000 people does not include people living in and around the Cripple Creek District including the City of Victor. In spite of a vast difference in altitudes—Oatman lies in the high desert at just over 2,000′ while Cripple Creek on the backside of Pikes Peak is close to 9,500’—both towns have amazing histories that continue to draw tourists from all over the world.

Despite their differences in population, altitude and accessibility, both Cripple Creek and Oatman offer quirky shops, museums and plenty of history. There are no hotels in Oatman, although the historic Oatman Hotel offers up libations and the honeymoon suite where actors Clark Gable Carol Lombard spent their wedding night in 1939. Three other saloons—Judy’s, the Olive Oatman Restaurant and Saloon and Shotgun Willie’s—offer lots of local color. Funky little cabins, gift and antique stores, and annual celebrations also are star attractions. In comparison, Cripple Creek has legalized gambling with a number of casinos, restaurants and hotels, as well as some unique gift shops and three museums.

It would seem that Oatman and Cripple Creek are vastly different, but the two cities do have several things in common. Both are located in remote places that were once teeming with life and money from local mines before fading to almost nothing before being revived as tourist towns. Both are highly accessible from well-traveled highways and are located near larger cities for a convenient getaway. Best of all, Oatman and Cripple Creek are also notable as the only two hamlets in the United States to have their own herd of wild donkeys.

The tale behind the donkeys (pardon the pun) in Oatman and Cripple Creek is similar: The sturdy little animals were brought to the mines more than a century ago as service animals, hauling ore and pulling wagons. Some were born and raised in the mines where they worked. When mining became unprofitable, the prospectors and their families moved on. Left behind, the donkeys wandered off or were befriended by the dwindling populations. In time, the former beasts of burden gained popularity among visitors and residents alike, and boosted tourism to a great degree.

Today, Oatman hosts a roaming herd of donkeys that includes descendants from the mining days, but also wild burros who wander into town on a regular basis. Because they have no natural predators, overpopulation in the last several years have resulted in occasional round ups by the Bureau of Land Management and even a contraception program beginning in 2018. In town, certain shops offer feed and carrots for tourists to hand out to the animals. There are also plenty of donkey-esque souvenirs for sale, including postcards, figurines, joke books, jewelry and other items featuring the furry figures. Donkeys adorn advertising, billboards, signs, t-shirts, bumper stickers, magnets and anything else used to tell the world about Oatman.

Like Oatman, Cripple Creek remains very proud of its donkey herd, which numbers somewhere around a dozen. The donkeys have been looked after by the not-for-profit Two Mile High Club since 1931, which sees to their care and shelters them during the harsh winter months. Visitors are hard pressed to find snacks for sale, but certain shops do carry them. The club also oversees the annual Donkey Derby Days celebration, a three-day event featuring music, vendors, parades and donkey races.

One more item of note: most everybody in Oatman and Cripple Creek loves their stinky, scruffy, ornery and totally loveable jackasses around town. Visitors coming to see them must follow these simple guidelines to assure a safe, fun and happy visit:

  • The donkeys and burros of Oatman and Cripple Creek are considered wildlife and are protected by Federal law. Harming or harassing them is illegal.
  • Donkeys are not toys. Respect them as you would any other wild animal and approach them gently.
  • Although they are approachable and love having their ears scratched, visitors should use common sense and refrain from trying to ride them.
  • Donkeys will bite, nip and kick, especially when snacks are involved. Be aware that they may surround and jostle you when they see you with snacks, so watch yourself and your children. The best way to feed them is told hold the food out with your hand flat to prevent getting your fingers bit by accident.
  • Candy, cigarettes, bread, crackers, popcorn and chips are just some of the items that are never appropriate to feed wildlife donkeys. Donkey-approved snacks are sold at some retailers, or you can bring your own horse biscuits or carrots (never, ever feed a carrot to a baby donkey; it will choke).
  • Feeding donkeys on the road not only holds up traffic, but it also makes them think it’s ok to stand in the road. Donkeys seldom run away; when you see them, park safely and walk to where they are.
  • Please watch for donkeys on the road and slow down, especially at night.

The Hash Knife Around Holbrook, Arizona

Chapter Two: Holbrook

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

The following is excerpted from The Hash Knife Around Holbrook, Arizona’s famous cattle outfit, available in paperback, Kindle and on audio at Amazon.com.

Arizona had a lot to offer the Hash Knife brand: lots of land at a good price, ample water, a workable climate and the chance to start over from the rough days in Texas and Montana. Arizona Territory had been established in 1863. By the 1870s, communities and ranches were springing up along major water sources, including the Little Colorado River dividing the north and south portions of the Territory. New settlers to the region included Mexican families, Mormons from Utah, and pioneers from the east.

Near the confluence of the Little Colorado and the Rio Puerco rivers was a place called Horsehead Crossing. At this remote spot, Juan Padilla built a house and Berado Frayre, or Frayde, ran a trading post and saloon. The trading post was also owned by Santiago Baca & Company for a time. It was said that “nobody left without food, even if they could not pay.” Edward Kinsley, of Boston, first laid eyes on Arizona as part of a survey team for the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad. At the time, the railroad was planning to lay tracks from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Mojave, California. The new rails would run very near Horsehead Crossing. When Kinsley returned to Boston, his mind was still on the abundant land he had observed in Arizona. Such a vast area would be the perfect place to raise cattle.

The Atlantic & Pacific Railroad made it to the Little Colorado in September of 1881. A year and a half later Baca, along with Pedro Montano, Henry H. Scorse and F.W. Smith, filed a plat for the town of Holbrook two miles west of Horsehead Crossing and right along the tracks. One of the first structures built at Holbrook was the depot. The community grew quickly as the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad made Holbrook a regular stop. The Aztec Land and Cattle Company saw an immediate opportunity to use Holbrook as a shipping point. Beginning in 1884, the company began bringing stock cars filled with cattle from Hash Knife operations in Texas. Holbrook soon became a popular shipping point and center of commerce in the region.

Twin brothers Adolph and Ben Schuster opened their A & B Schuster Company at Holbrook in 1884. For decades the Schusters reigned as prominent businessmen in Holbrook. The business later expanded to include a third brother, Max. Holbrook’s business district grew up around A & B Schuster’s and the town depot. Other early businesses included a Chinese restaurant, two saloons, a drugstore, a mercantile and William Armbruster’s blacksmith and wheelwright shop. A German immigrant, Armbruster first came to Arizona in about 1975. He would flourish in Holbrook for over 25 years.

In December of 1884, Edward Kinsley partnered with nephew Henry Kinsley, Frank Ames, James McCreery and a New York bank, Seligman & Seligman, to form the Aztec Land and Cattle Company. The men purchased a million acres from the Atlantic & Pacific for fifty cents per acre. By buying only the odd-numbered sections of land from the railroad, the company prevented other cattle companies from accessing the even-numbered sections. Thus the Aztec Land and Cattle Company owned the million acres they bought, and also had undisputed and sole access to another million acres. As the Aztec Land and Cattle Company began shipping cattle to Arizona, the Hash Knife brand was registered in Apache County on June 2, 1885. Henry Warren filed the paperwork and published and advertisement about it in the June 11 edition of the St. Johns Herald newspaper. The brand was also registered in Yavapai County, on August 22.

The first Aztec headquarters was constructed in 1885 ten miles west of Holbrook, on the south side of the Little Colorado River. The company spent $850 to construct a small ranch house measuring 14 feet by 24 feet, a tiny cookhouse and one or two outbuildings. Hash Knife cowboys were obviously not meant to spend much time here, but rather out on the range, spending the night at line camps as necessary. The line camps were scattered across the Aztec Land and Cattle Company range. At these remote places cowboys could rest, corral cattle, brand and perform other chores. Beginning in 1885, more line camps were built at Chavez Pass near Payson, Pine Springs, Mormon Mill, Sycamore and near Winslow, to name a few.

Edward Kinsley, meanwhile, had hired his nephew Henry, to work for the Hash Knife in Texas before appointing him assistant treasurer of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company. Despite allegedly receiving only room and board during his first year, the Boston city boy appears to have taken to cowboy life quickly even if he was occasionally spoiled by his uncle. Soon after Kinsley’s arrival, in 1887, a second Aztec headquarters was located on Washington (later Santiago and then Alvarado) Street in Holbrook. The company shared quarters with the Masonic Lodge, renting the bottom floor for $150 annually. Henry Kinsley was living at the headquarters in 1888. Old timers say the Hash Knife also used the nearby Brunswick Hotel as a headquarters, but the hotel was not known by that name until the 1890’s.

A third headquarters was built four miles south of Joseph City not long after, or even in conjunction with, the headquarters at Holbrook. Most historians agree the construction date was 1886 and that buildings included a kitchen and dining room, the grain house and the main office. Plenty of cowboys whose names still ring a bell worked for the outfit back then. They included Tex Roxy, George Smith, “Peck”, Tom Pickett, Buck Lancaster, Don McDonald, George Agassiz, Ed Simpson and Frank Ames. The cook was Billy or Jeff Wilson. Hash Knife cowboy Frank Ames expressed his fondness for the brand by taking several photographs of the outfit during the 1880’s. Ames, from a well to do Massachusetts family, hired on in Texas, came to Arizona and eventually became the Aztec’s land agent. Thanks to Ames, images today include pictures portraying other cowboys for the outfit: wagon boss Ed Rogers, John Taylor, Charlie Baldridge, Jim Burdette, Don McDonald, Bill Smith, Tom Smith and Tom Beach. Surveyor William Vinal and area ranchers often stopped by the various headquarters for a visit. The Aztec Land and Cattle Company had plenty of neighbors with large spreads in their own right. Some of them later became involved with the Hash Knife. Well-known ranchers and businessmen of the area included Burt Potter, Jug Jackson and Joe Woods. Potter was Woods’ nephew. Both men did business over the years with the Hash Knife; Woods later ran the Pioneer Saloon in Holbrook. He also served as sheriff there.

As the Aztec Land and Cattle Company settled into Arizona, Holbrook continued to grow. A number of other businesses blossomed around the depot along the south side of the tracks. Holbrook’s population was about 250 citizens, with homes scattered around the downtown area. On June 26, 1888, a warehouse filled with wool inexplicably burst into flames burning most of the downtown. A & B Schuster’s, the Cottage Saloon and Frank Wattron’s drugstore were among the businesses to rise from the ashes. Within a year, other new businesses included a feed store, livery stable, restaurant and the Mormon Arizona Cooperative Mercantile Institution. Houses, some of which survived the fire, are still visible in the small neighborhoods adjacent to the downtown area. Holbrook’s fire actually enabled A & B Schuster to build even bigger and better. The company’s success eventually allowed the brothers to open branch stores and trading posts across Arizona, hiring managers to run them. By 1892, the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad depot had been rebuilt at Holbrook and the town was back in full swing as a busy transportation center. Pack trains such as the one pictured here hauled wool and other goods to and from the station. The rail stop was also used to haul sheep and thousands of Hash Knife cattle. Passenger service was available too.The Schusters eventually moved to Los Angeles. Ben died in 1911 and Adolph died in 1934. In 1952, A & B Schuster in Holbrook was recognized as the oldest continuously operated grocery outlet in Arizona.

The Adventures of Captain Jack: A whimsical little woman combined her own stories with her vivid imagination to create a colorful life in Colorado.

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article were originally published in All About History magazine.

“I was born November 4, 1842, in New Lantern, Nottingham, England.” So begins a seemingly plain and humble autobiography by a woman who was anything but plain, or humble. Ellen Elliott Jack’s book, The Fate of a Fairy, or, Twenty Seven Years in the Far West, would later tell of the spunky little woman’s amazing adventures. And although her facts were often sprinkled with a good dose of fiction, her story is very much worth telling.

When she was seven years old, Ellen met a “gypsy queen” at Nottingham’s annual Goose Fair who touched her on the head. “This child was born to be a great traveler, and if she had been a male would have been a great mining expert,” the gypsy said. “She is a Rosicrucian, born to find hidden treasures. She will meet great sorrows and be a widow early in life. Fire will cause her great trouble and losses.” Indeed, Ellen had already lost one sister in a fire. And as a teen, she had a brief romance with a man, “Carl,” who stabbed her in a fit of jealousy after seeing her in the company of her male cousin. Ellen recovered, and when her sister Lydia and her husband sailed to New York, Ellen successfully begged to go along.

Ellen loved New York, but fell ill and was unable to return to England with her sister until she was well. Upon boarding another ship, she recalled the horror of assisting a doctor in amputating the legs of a young Irish girl. But she also met first officer Charles E. Jack. The couple married at Liverpool in 1860 and returned to New York before Jack was called for duty during the Civil War.

The Jack’s first child, Nettie, was born between 1862 and 1864. During this time, Ellen claimed she took charge of a ring presented to her husband by General Robert E. Lee, attended a “president’s reception” with her husband during which she met President and Mrs. Lincoln, and toured Europe. After Charles Jack returned from the war with heart trouble, Ellen gave birth to a son. Both the infant and Nettie died just before the Jacks next moved to Chicago. Over the next three years another daughter, Jenny, was born. The family also lost everything in a fire, just like the gypsy predicted, and briefly farmed in Kansas before returning to Brooklyn. Ellen’s last child, Daisy, was born just before Charles Jack died in 1873.

The widow Ellen next built a hotel called the Bon Ton, but it burned in March of 1876 as she rescued her daughters and their nurse from the second floor. Daisy died three years later. Soon afterwards Ellen made friends with psychic Madam Clifford who, like the gypsy queen, told Ellen she was “born to find hidden treasures.” Ellen decided to head west, leaving Jenny with her sister-in-law. She arrived in Denver in about 1880, where she ran into her former nursemaid, Jennie. The woman advised her to go to Gunnison, but Ellen went to Leadville first. There, she was a witness when “Curley Frank” and another gambler killed each other in a shootout. A shook-up Ellen heeded Jennie’s advice and headed to Gunnison, where she arrived in the spring of 1881.

Ellen’s first night in Gunnison was spent at the Gunnison House where she paid a dollar to sleep in the lobby of the crowded hotel. The landlady advised Ellen to hide her valuables on her person, “as this is a very rough place.” Ellen followed the woman’s advice, saying she had “diamonds and government bonds sewed up in my bustle.” The next morning, Ellen was exploring the town when a stray bullet passed through her cloak. Ellen identified the shooter as “Wild Bill,” who scared her so badly that she shot him. Two lawmen appeared, but Ellen implored them to leave Wild Bill alone, “for he is a dying man.” Wild Bill gave her his gun, which the officers tried to take from her after the man died. Ellen boldy told them, “No. He gave me the gun, for you were too big a coward to get it, and you shall never have it.”

Ellen next purchased a tent with a cook stove, as well as a lot on Tomichi Avenue. She called her place “Jack’s Cabin” and began advertising a restaurant and “furnished rooms” in Gunnison’s Daily-News Democrat. Running a boardinghouse was no less exciting, for Ellen once discovered a group of Indian marauders pilfering Jack’s Cabin. Ellen said one of them was Ute leader Colorow, a “big buck” with “large gold earrings” who “came to me dancing and trying to touch my hair.” Ellen cut a lock of her golden hair for Colorow to keep, and a friendship was formed.

Eventually Ellen constructed some buildings. She rented one of them to Jeff Mickey, whom she had met on her trip to Gunnison. Mickey opened a saloon which became “headquarters for the freighters, and it was very crowded at night.” He was quite the businessman; once, the Gunnison Daily News Democrat revealed that the guest of honor at a funeral in the saloon was really only a passed-out drunk. “The joke was a profitable one for Jeff Mickey,” the paper explained. The supposed victim, with “burning candles at his head and feet, was better for business purposes, so Mickey said, than a free lunch or brass band.” Mickey also opened a gymnasium and “boxing school” next to the saloon.

Ellen would later attribute a large scar on her forehead to another Indian raid. This time, Jack’s Cabin was set on fire and she “was struck on the forehead with a tomahawk” laced with poison. Ellen claimed that she managed to kill some of the Indians before Chief Colorow declared a truce. “Pale face! Me wants to save her,” he exclaimed upon seeing her. “Bloody poison killy the white squaw, and we lovey the pale face.”[sic] There is no recorded Indian raid in Gunnison at the time, although it is true that Colorow often camped nearby. Only Ellen’s scar remained as a testament to her whimsical story.

Jack’s Cabin made the news again in January of 1882, when escaped convict Jim McClees appeared there. Ellen recalled that one of her employees told her, “There will be trouble in the bunkhouse, for Jim is full [of liquor] and has a gun, and is abusing one of the carpenters.” Ellen tried to make McClees leave. Instead, she said, McClees “pulled out his gun to fire at the man. I pulled mine and shot the gun out of his hands and part of his hand off with it.” A Sheriff Clark soon came looking for McClees and searched a room “occupied as a sleeping apartment by Mr. and Mrs. Mickey.”

When the officers found a trap door in the floor, “Mrs. Mickey” called out, “There is no use, Jim; there are fifty men here with guns, and you might as well come out without losing your life or shedding their blood.” McClees surrendered, Jeff Mickey was arrested, and Mrs. Mickey was notified she must appear in court. Ellen never admitted that she was “Mrs. Mickey.” She did admit, however, that she was unduly credited with beating everyone up during a fight in the courtroom and that a news reporter called her “Mrs. Captain Jack, the Dare Devil of the West”. All that is known for sure is that Ellen accused Sheriff Clark of false arrest while McClees bonded out and returned to Jack’s Cabin as he awaited his trial.

Ellen next decided to go to Crested Butte and told Jeff Mickey to leave. Mickey, she said, proposed marriage and promised to stop drinking. When she refused him, he told her that “when I breathe my last breath on earth it will be, ‘love for you, my fairy queen’, goodbye!” The Daily News-Democrat later explained more truthfully that “when (Mickey) took to drinking there was sure to be trouble. This last spree angered Mrs. Mickey so much that hot words followed and she left the house.” Ellen went on to Crested Butte. Later that evening at Jack’s Cabin, McClees saw Mickey with a vial of morphine powder. “Here’s the thing that will end all of my troubles,” he said. He died after consuming half of the vial.

The Daily News-Democrat noted that Ellen was slow to return to Gunnison because “the telegram instead of reading, ‘Jeff has taken poison,’ read, ‘Jeff has taken horses,’ and she supposed he coming for her with a team.” The paper also revealed Ellen was trying to lease the Miners’ Boarding House in Crested Butte “hoping in that way to get her husband away from his present business”. Ellen “thought her absence would bring him to his senses, and sober him up.” But Ellen had already placed a new advertisement for Jack’s Cabin, which appeared on the same day as Mickey’s funeral. “The business will be carried on as heretofore,” it said, “and Mrs. Jeff Mickey will be glad to see old friends.”

Within a month of Mickey’s death, however, Ellen rented Jack’s Cabin to someone else and ventured “into the mountains in Wild Cat Gulch where the Indians camped,” looking for mining investments. This time her partner was sometime outlaw Bill Edwards, who promised to share any gold discoveries if Ellen would bail him out of jail. Edwards kept his promise and for the first time, Ellen made money off of the Big Congo and Maggie Jack mining claims. She also became half owner of the Black Queen Mine near Crystal City.

In 1882 Ellen had returned to Jack’s Cabin when one of her boarders, Redmond Walsh, proposed marriage. The couple traveled to Denver, but the night before the wedding, Ellen dreamed of children crying and awoke with a sense of dread. During the ceremony, the children’s crying sounded again, as well as a man’s voice. Startled, Ellen dropped the ring on the floor, but Walsh “grabbed my hand and put the ring on my finger without any more ceremony.” Afterwards, Walsh left Ellen at a hotel and did not return.

The next morning, Ellen caught the train back to Gunnison. Walsh eventually returned too, but spent much of his time away from home. A few months later he asked Ellen to take out a note for $2,600, explaining that the Black Queen’s payroll was short. But the miners only received half of their promised pay. A cashier from the bank informed Ellen that Walsh had “duped” her, and advised that Walsh had his eye on her half of the Black Queen. “Be on your lookout for that man,” he said. “He would not hesitate to take your life to get that mine.”

There was more about the deceitful Walsh. For one thing, he was still married to another woman. Ellen confronted him about it and recalled that his face turned into “an incarnated demon, and such a hellish, fiendish look I never saw on a human face before.” The next day, Walsh tried to make Ellen sign a contract deeding half of her properties to him. When she threw it in the fire, Walsh “grabbed me and tried to stick my head in the fire. I clung to him and screamed until two men came and took him by the collar, and then he let go of me.” Ellen’s hair, she said, “was nearly all burned and my face and neck were in blisters.”

Walsh’s debtors soon came after Ellen, who next caught Walsh planting dynamite under her window. She finally divorced him, but spent two years battling him in court. She also was arrested, in 1886, for applying for the pension left to her by Charles Jack. The reason? Nobody knew her as Ellen Jack, and the court believed she was trying to steal the pension. It took almost a year for Ellen to gain an acquittal, at which time she also was embroiled in another suit with the other owners of the Black Queen. Ellen’s rollercoaster of money troubles continued: She nearly lost the Black Queen in 1888, although she did manage to invest in the Little Mandie mine. Also, however, some property she purchased in Ouray in 1891 was seized to pay an outstanding bill.

In 1894 Denver’s Queen Bee, a feminist newspaper “devoted to the interests of humanity, woman’s political quality and individuality,” at last defended Ellen. “Captain Ellen E. Jack is back on her claim near Gunnison, again,” the paper reported. “The powers that be have had the wiley Captain Jack arrested for defending her claim at the point of her pistols…Men are simply absurd or they would let her alone, and fight professional pugilists and small dogs. It is shameful how the lords of creation will condescend to badger a plucky woman just because they like to have a winning fight.”

Ellen was likely not aware of the article, for she never mentioned it. Her autobiography ends after her account of a trip she took through Utah and Arizona, as well as her musings on God and how far society had come. “So, cheer up, for the aura light is breaking through the dark circle of apprehension,” she concluded, “And this is the prophecy of the Fated Fairy and a wanderer for twenty-seven years in the far West.”

Ellen’s adventures, however, were far from over. In February, 1900, the Aspen Daily Times reported that Ellen sold her interest in the Black Queen and was heading to Cripple Creek. “She is a good rustler and will make a strike in that camp,” the paper predicted. But Ellen did not invest in any mines in the Cripple Creek District. Instead she merely rented a lodging house above a grocery store. By 1903 she was in Colorado Springs, where it was reported a year later that she had established a mining claim in nearby Cheyenne Canyon called the Mars group, with four gold and copper mines. There also was a “tent town” called Camp Jack. Ellen said the claims were averaging $21.00 per ton.

None of Ellen’s claims ever amounted to much. Beginning in about 1907, she turned to the tourism industry. One of her endeavors was generating photographic postcards, featuring herself in various scenarios. In the earliest known image, she poses along with several men, two burros and some equipment. The image is captioned hopefully, “Mrs. Capt. Jack Looking for a Company to Buy Mine.” Next, in 1909, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported that Ellen had located a cave “of wonderful formation”, but was keeping its location a secret until she could “purchase the property and turn it into a tourist attraction.”

Promotion of the cave never did come to fruition, but Ellen did establish a resort on High Drive in Cheyenne Canyon. She called it “Captain Jack’s” and told visitors colorful stories while hawking her postcards and copies of Fate of a Fairy. During 1912, her advertisement in a traveler’s guide of the Pikes Peak region commanded, “Stop at Captain Jack’s!”

Ellen also maintained a separate home in Colorado Springs, where passerby remembered seeing her “brilliantly colored parrots in the trees in front of her house.” In 1921 she filed for patents on her Cobra No. 3 and Mars No. 1 mining claims and seemed to be doing well until a flood which washed out the road to Captain Jack’s. The loss of her tourist resort was Ellen’s undoing. Her heart failed and she died on June 17. She was buried in Colorado Springs’ Evergreen Cemetery. Her long-forgotten daughter, Jenny, appeared in the hopes of gaining something from her mother’s will, but received nothing.

Ellen’s rival tour operator, Nora Gaines, purchased Ellen’s resort in 1923. The Colorado Springs Gazette noted that the “New Captain Jack’s Place Now Being Constructed on the High Drive” would offer rest for hikers and motorists, but Nora died just ten years later. The property was abandoned, and the “rotting cabins” were torn down in 1965. Today, Captain Jack’s Mountain Bike Trail outside of Colorado Springs is named for her.

Oh, those Victorians loved to dance

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in Colorado Gambler magazine.

Oh, going to a dance was our favorite thing to do. We would start out in the morning and drive our buggy for miles and bring food for a big dinner. Then we would dance all night and come home at daybreak.” – Frances Hennessey

My great-grandma’s words still echo in my mind whenever I think of those Victorian dances we so love to imitate today. In Granny’s world, nothing was so pleasing as to attend a social outing, especially a dance, where the toils of living on a remote ranch could be forgotten in the swishing of fancy skirts and a magical night that most pioneers rarely got to experience.

This was a day before radio, before nightclubs and even those dreaded disco days. It was a time before e-mail, telephones and automobiles made reaching friends commonplace. Attending a dance was literally the social event of the season. Dances were critical to the definition of social standing. They were a time to catch up on news and gossip, a time to cast off ordinary work clothes in favor of fancy dress. They also served as excellent venues to meet future mates and make new friends. Weeks, sometimes months, were spent preparing for this one special evening, whether it be a country hoedown held in a barn, a shindig at the local community center or even a fancy cotillion in one of the city’s finest dance halls.

Much like a high school prom, the most crucial aspect of any dance was the dress. Full, floor-length ball gowns were required attire. Lower and middle class ladies could fashion their evening wear from last years’ cast-off dresses, remnants of wedding gowns, or even lacy table cloths or curtains, while wealthier women always had the luxury of buying new. Gentlemen could be expected to bring out their best string-tie and an ironed shirt, or perhaps even a dress suit or tuxedo. And, unlike their contemporary counterparts of today, they were fully expected to remove their hats before entering the hall.

Upon arrival, the participants crowded into the ballroom or onto the dance floor. Etiquette of the day commanded finishing one’s “toilet”—that is, brushing hair, removing hats, drawing on gloves or arranging clothing—before entering the room. A courteous bow to the host, master of ceremonies or the dance caller was considered the polite thing to do. Friends greeted each other cordially, taking care to introduce strangers with the understanding that any new acquaintances between men and women would cease at night’s end—unless the lady chose to acknowledge her new gentleman friends at another time or place. For a man to ask a woman whom he did not know to dance was considered rude, and women who accepted such offers risked being labeled immoral!

If dinner was a part of the gala, ladies and their escorts brought in an array of dishes, potluck style. At fancier affairs, dinner might be served by caterers at lavishly set tables that included china, silverware and elegant table decor. In smaller, rural towns, where whole families were in attendance, children were given their own table with older siblings managing the younger ones. Afterward, as the hour grew late, children were generally ushered into a separate room and put to bed among coats and blankets brought by guests.

Sometimes, too, the energy of fitting a full-course meal into an agonizingly tight corset required a brief rest period. At the more luxurious balls, the ladies would retire to a separate room to rest, nap, chat and fix their hair and dresses. The men would retire to another room to smoke cigars, drink fine liquor and talk politics or business. A full-blown, carefully planned gala took time, and most attendees wanted to look and feel their best when the festivities began. After a properly allotted period of time, the couples would rejoin before entering the ballroom together.

And then the dance really began. At more elite affairs, ladies in attendance were issued a “dance card”, a small folded card with a pencil attached. Some were quite fancy and could include a tasseled cord to be tied to the wrist. Others came with a jacket covered in ornate paper or even a metal case. Dance cards served two purposes: one could record each dance and the partner with whom she danced, and the little trinkets served as a momento of the evening. In most cases, male partners could reserve a favorite dance with a lady in advance. Woe to the woman, however, who filled her dance card too quickly and inadvertently left out a late-arriving friend or favorite partner. Attending a ball without an escort or leaving a lady unattended was especially taboo; therefore, dance cards were dealt with very delicately.

For years, quadrilles and polkas—Victorian versions of line dancing and square dancing—were prominent. Dance styles with such extravagant names as the Schottische, the Mozourka, Le Pantalon, La Poule and Des Graces were popular because they included changing partners with everyone on the floor. During the Victorian era, the newest craze became the Waltz. Considered scandalous by some, the Waltz gave couples the luxury of dancing a full song together and required partners to hold each other close. A handkerchief, placed delicately between the hands or on the shoulder of the gentleman where the lady placed her hand, kept gloves from getting soiled. They also kept partners from the total intimacy of touching one another.

Music was naturally another important aspect. Lutes, mandolins, fiddles, flutes, pianos and organs were generally played at less fancy functions, where a “caller” might help dancers keep the time to the music by calling out the steps. Rural mining camps often had no more than a single musician, hopefully a fiddle player, to provide music. His pay usually came in the form of dinner and grog, or a collection might be taken to pay him at the end of the evening. At larger balls and more elite dances, a full band or orchestra would be on hand to play through the evening.

As odd as it sounds in our nine-to-five world, most dances did not end until the sun peeked over the horizon in the wee hours of the morning. The dancers, spent and happy, would then make their way home to await word of the next function. Until then, they would tuck away their dance cards, place cards, wilted flowers and pieces of lace in memory of the occasion.

A Day in the Life of a 19th Century Cowboy

C 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article were excerpted from The Hash Knife Around Holbrook.

As romantic as it sounds, a day in the life of a cowboy has always been a hard one. “We ate breakfast about 4 a.m. and wrangled our horses,” said 96-year-old cowboy George Hennessey of Arizona in 1974. “Sometimes we’d circle for 20 miles in a day, bringing the cattle in. Generally, we got a little rest in the afternoon. We’d come in at night in time to get the herd together and hold it overnight. Then everybody would stand three hours guard at night.” Hennessey worked for the famed Hashknife brand, a well-traveled icon of the cattle industry of Arizona and other places during the late 1800’s. In New Mexico, Frank Jones purchased some Arizona cattle bearing the brand and decided to register the Hashknife at his Watrous ranch. The brand can still be seen on the ranch’s 1913 barn from Interstate 25. The brand was also established in Oregon by a former Hashknife employee during the early 1900s.

Cowboying goes back a long way. The beef industry was especially important during the gold rushes of Colorado beginning in 1859. A year later, famed cattle baron Charles Goodnight brought cattle north through New Mexico and into southeastern Colorado. The Goodnight-Loving Trail and many other paths became well-worn highways of history, with millions of cattle stamping down the hard, dry dirt during summer and struggling through snow during winter.

The average cowpoke around the turn of the last century could make between $25 and $40 per month, but the work was tough. Many were young; New Mexico cowboy Ralph McJunkin left school after fourth grade to work on his father’s a ranch. But not everyone had what it took. A good rider, one who could work alone under a blazing sun or in freezing snow, made a good candidate. Working 15-hour days was typical. Loneliness was a given, since many hands spent weeks out on the range.

A comfortable bedroll was important to the boys, who were expected to roll up their bedding and toss it on the wagon each morning. One man recalled how cowboy Homer Creswell “always rolled his bed looser than anybody, just wadded it up loose as a goose and stuff was always spilling out of it.” The men also had to carry a gun. “We were gathering some of these wild cows and sometimes you had to shoot one to keep it from hooking your horse,” Hennessey explained. A good rancher supplied his hands with up to three circle horses, three cutting horses and two night mounts.

Although cowhands spent much of their time on the range, they also shared a common bunkhouse on the ranches that employed them. Eight to ten cowboys were usually kept on the payroll. In addition to herding cattle, cowboys also staved off wolves, rounded up strays, looked after the horses, and made repairs to fences and line shacks. Most men worked April through November calving, keeping the herd together and rounding up cattle as needed. During the winter months, crews of two men and a wagon spent their time looking after the herd and branding.

The success or failure of any ranch came twice a year at roundup, when it was time to sell the cattle. Up to 25 men could be needed as the cows were herded to stockyards, where they were inspected as buyers came to make their bids. Demand set the price, which was important since many ranchers bought their winter supplies on credit, at high interest rates. “It was likely they sold their souls to the company store,” commented one rancher’s daughter, Ruth Wallace. “Our father used to say if they had one good year out of seven, we would be lucky.”

At the end of the day most cowboys relished the chance to rest up. Some spent the evening hours singing songs or playing a guitar or harmonica. But after roundup or payday were the times the men looked forward to the most. Stories are many about cowboys galloping through some town or another with their guns blazing, or partying the night away at a saloon or brothel. Trinidad, Colorado’s location along the Santa Fe Trail, for instance, made the town a central location for cowpokes and cattlemen where bathhouses, saloons and plenty of wild women were on hand for entertainment.

The men also could eat a good meal after months of chowing from the chuckwagon with a rather repetitive menu. Dry biscuits known as hardtack, beans, jerky and coffee were regular staples. Those lucky enough to dine at the ranch fared much better. “Mama did the cooking for the cowboys and took care of them as her own,” said Ruth Wallace. “I learned one thing, when a cowboy came riding through to ask him in and cook a meal for him. That was the way of the west.”

The career span of a cowboy largely depended on whether he made enough money to start his own ranch and how long he was physically able to mount a horse. Longtime cowboy Frank Wallace had no use for cars and trucks. His daughter-in-law, Amy, remembered telling him, “that car isn’t a horse, and when you come to a bush or tree, unless you turn it, it is going to go right over.’” Colorado rancher Joseph Schneider was known to yell “Whoa!” and start cussing before jumping out of the vehicle. George Hennessey’s sentiment towards retirement likely rang true for many. “I think I’d enjoy myself a hell of a lot better if I was out on the range,” he said.

Trucks and other modern technology have changed ranching in many ways. For many cowboys, however, the work remains just as grueling and long as it ever was. Love for the job still comes straight from the heart. “You gotta want to be a cowboy, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut,” Arizona cowboy Pat Hughes once said, over 70 years ago. “And, by Gawd, don’t think you know it all the first year. Hell, I been cowboyin’ all my life and I’m still learnin’.”

The Terrible Mill

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

The Terrible Mill. The sinister sounding name was what intrigued me from the git. Even before I ever saw it, I could picture it in my mind, a large skeleton of a building, looming quietly on a hillside above the long forgotten town of Ilse in which ghosts roamed and winds moaned. Such was what I pictured the first time I first went to the mill back in the 1980s. What I found was interestingly different. The town was nowhere to be found, save perhaps one home, still occupied, with another modern dwelling nearby. And the mill, oh the Terrible Mill! There it sat, a quarter of a mile away from the houses, not a skeleton so much as one large, rusty square of wood and tin. Three glorious stories of rambling corrugated steel and wood beams and scaffolding and ancient cement jutted out of the hillside, right beside the road.

We roamed discreetly around the backside of the mill, keeping a careful eye on the houses lest anyone protest our intrusion. But once we had climbed through a broken window into the dank confines of that old place, all cautions were forgotten in the wonderful splendor of a building time forgot. We rambled at our leisure up one side and down the other, exploring endless passageways, chutes, large rooms, small rooms and halls. And there were wonderful, crooked but solid stairways, one of which led to the very top of the mill and the greatest treasure of many: a small sparrow hawk, trapped in the uppermost room. Catching and exploring his sleek and refined shape, returning him to the outdoors, and watching him fly away from us was an experience like none other.

Seven years later, we returned to the mill. As it is with ghost towns, one can never know how fast they will deteriorate. We took a back way in, different from the last time, and I felt an assuring pang of excitement when I sighted the old mill from around the next bend. We passed the first of the two houses, and lo and behold, there sat a sheriff’s blazer. It wasn’t there the last time, and my heart sank at the thought of not being able to see the mill after such a long drive. But we respectfully took our chances, and stopped to ask permission. A small, affable man, not at all resembling a sheriff, gave us permission to explore and take photographs. His father once worked at the mill.

How amazing and refreshing it was to find the Terrible Mill held up well over those seven years, with virtually no change at all. There it was, all three stories still there and holding. The wind, as before, whistled through cracks in the walls and rustled the tin roof – but the building stood strong.

My first mission was to find my favorite staircase, the one leading to the top. It was still there, scaling the side of the wall up, up a good hundred feet, and so crooked that I had to half climb it, hanging precariously on to the supporting wall. Even in its dilapidated position, its steps worn and slick from the hundreds of feet that have climbed it through the years, it was strong and sturdy.

Hardly anything had been moved. The old iron bed was still in the office, complete with mattress and the old shoes looking like someone just took them off before retiring. The bedside table was still there too, although a previous visitor had spilled the bottles of vitamin B to the floor. The old lab looked almost exactly the way I last left it. Samples were scattered in small brown packets, mixed in with old bottles of acid and other mining chemicals. The old bottle of salad dressing, still half full, lay exactly where I’d swear I put it. A box of wire mesh, looking like a giant brillo pad, still leaned against the wall. Even the old empty cans of cat food lay untouched, just as I’d seen them seven years ago, and the cat, whose petrified carcass we found when we pulled a Persian rug from the rafters back then, still lay prone on an old piece of cardboard in a doorway.

We wandered back down to the bottom story, where ore once rumbled down chutes to be melted by a large drum furnace, and eventually found our way out of a large sliding door. As we climbed carefully across the barbed wire fence, I felt a sense of duty relieved. It was as if I had just been to see an elderly aunt, and was leaving with the assurance she was doing just fine. In all the hussle of influx to this state, amongst all the construction and destruction going on, all the people old and new who have no appreciation for how this state came to be and the people who toiled so hard to make their dreams come true here, there are still some quiet corners in which to take refuge. I can rest easy knowing this, and that it is still possible for time to stand still in certain spots if you know where to look.

Busting Through Snowdrifts: the Ghost Train of Marshall Pass, Colorado

c 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in Colorado Central magazine.

At 10,846’ in elevation, Marshall Pass remains among one of Colorado’s most precarious roads. The pass, located in the Sawatch Range between Salida and Gunnison, was discovered by Lieutenant William Marshall in 1873 as he was making a mad dash in search of a Denver dentist for a bad toothache. But Marshall’s painful trip was nothing compared to the wild ride experienced by Denver & Rio Grande Railroad engineer Nelson Edwards, and engine fireman Charles Whitehead.

The D & RG was built over Marshall Pass during 1880-1881. Shortly after the rails reached Gunnison, however, stories began circulating of a “ghost train” on the pass, the sight of which had caused other engineers to quit out of fright. Nelson and Whitehead had paid no heed to the tales, making several trips over the pass over a two month period without incident. One evening, however, Nelson guided a passenger train towards the pass with a feeling of foreboding. Perhaps it was because of a weakened bridge and a defective rail, both of which lay ahead on this snowy night. Others would later say that Nelson’s heightened sense of danger was due to the hair-raising specter he was about to see.

The train had just passed through a snowshed when the men heard the warning whistle of another train. The signals continued as the unseen train came nearer, and when Nelson heard the conductor’s signal to stop, he brought his train to a stand-still. Next, the conductor appeared, demanding to know why Nelson stopped. “What did you pull the bell cord for?” the engineer responded. “You’re crazy,” the conductor answered, “now pull her wide open, there’s a wild train a-climbing up on us!”

Edwards opened the throttle as the wheels struggled for a purchase on the rails and Whitehead shoveled coal madly into the fire. Over the next several minutes, the men listened in terror as warning blasts came from the approaching runaway. The D & RG cars were now rocking precariously, awakening panicked passengers and breaking through icy snowdrifts as they sped down the tracks. As the runaway came into view, Edwards was horrified to see a “white figure” atop one of the cars, waving wildly. A short distance later, the engineer vainly veered onto a side track as the runaway train came up on his side. Glancing over, Edwards saw “two extremely white figures in the cab. The specter engineer turned a face to him like dough and laughed.”

Alas, Edwards was going so fast that the runaway could not pass. As he guided the train back in front, the “ghostly fireman” in the other engine maniacally sounded the whistle. Now, the D & RG train was approaching the damaged bridge, but miraculously sailed right over it. A minute later, Edwards sighted a dozen or so section workers, toiling over the broken rail ahead. There was no time to slow down; when the man applied the brakes, he felt the wheels stopping even as the train continued gliding along the icy rails. The train ran right through the workers, whose forms parted like wisps of powdery snow. Edwards looked back just in time to see the runaway hit the broken rail, jump the track, and plunge over the embankment.

When their hearts ceased pounding, Edwards and Whitehead puzzled over what they were sure was the phantom train so many had spoken of before. The men’s hearts thudded again, however, when they spotted a cryptic and badly-spelled note etched in the frost of the fireman’s window: “Yeers ago a frate train was recked as yu saw—now that yu saw it, we will never make another run. The enjine was not ounder control and four sexshun men wore killed. If you ever ran on this road again yu will be wrecked.”

To date, no documentation supports the death of four section workers on Marshall Pass, although a wreck in November of 1888 did kill two men on the train, including the fireman. As for Nelson Edwards, the engineer quit his job the minute the train reached Green River, Utah, and went to work for the safer, and ghost-free, Union Pacific Railroad out of Denver.

Pictured: A Denver & Rio Grande Train on Marshall Pass, as captured by William Henry Jackson.