Colorado Gold Rush History: how seasonal and year-round residents have evolved in Summit County, CO
Mud season: Locals love it, visitors avoid it. That wasn’t always the case for this aptly named season, however. Unpredictable weather and snow conditions mean that spring is now considered the slow season, but before trains or cars zipped up mountain passes, spring brought excitement, promise and contention to the High Country. While the influx of second-home owners coming back after a winter in warmer weather is now second nature to locals, in the 1800s seasonal residents came in even greater percentages and often were not welcomed.
“Successful mining is impossible as yet, owing to the great depth of snow and frost. The belief prevails that spring is near at hand, and all manifest a desire to be at something which will eventually — if not immediately — pay them. They are branching out in every direction; some prospecting by shoveling off the snow, and building fires to thaw the ground, where they wished to prospect. Some are looking out for ranches, some mill sites, some for town sites; while others are chopping and whip-sawing sluice lumber. Thus you see preparation has fairly commenced for a summer’s operation.”
The above quote from a March 5, 1860 article in the Rocky Mountain News shows the conditions miners had to endure. Frozen ground, unpredictable storms and cold spells made work treacherous, if not impossible, in the winter months. Getting to Summit in the winter was also very difficult, with one miner’s account from an April 18, 1860 Rocky Mountain News article claiming it took the miners and a team of oxen over two weeks to get to the edge of Blue River:
“Seventeen days from Denver—we found ourselves safe and sound in Tarryall—I said safe and sound, but would remark that some of our company had a toe frozen, some an ear and some a finger, and one was quite anxious to know if his ears had not got to looking a little mulish as he had become a pack animal!”
The writer also talks about getting to a point where the oxen team was no longer useful, sending some back to Denver and keeping the rest for slaughter.
The difficult trek to the High Country, and existence once here, meant that many miners would leave during the winter, spend time in Denver and come back for the spring to get their claim set up and ready to mine in the summer.
It also meant that claim jumping went crazy for several years. Presently, the biggest problems second-home owners face might be a squatter, absconded firewood or unexpected home conditions, like a flooded basement, upon their return. The stakes were even higher though in the 1800s, when year-round residents had the ability to completely ruin the livelihood of those seasonal folk with one simple maneuver: claim jumping.
When mining first came to Summit in August of 1859 there were no official mining laws. As a result, a mining district would be established complete with its own rules for how claims were made and kept, and with its own “law” enforcement agency. It didn’t take long for problems to arise with so many mining districts in such a confined area each with their own rules, and it took even less time for people to learn how to take advantage of the rules.
In one example, a young miner was chastised by his co-workers for trying to keep his daughter in Summit for the winter. The miner finally relented, and took his daughter to Denver, but upon his return found his claim had been jumped by the very men who sent him down there in the first place. Sadly, this was not uncommon. There was big money and precious gold to be found and so fairness was often left on the Front Range.
A Jan. 21, 1861 Rocky Mountain News article explains that claim jumping also happened on a larger scale: “French Gulch has been the scene of some little excitement of late in claim jumping, two or three districts having been jumped, and new organizations formed.”
The miners who chose to spend the winter in Summit faced extremely difficult conditions. They would mine whenever possible and spend the rest of the time gathering provisions and trying to find warmth. In an Oct. 20, 1859 article in the Rocky Mountain News one miner explains, “Many of us expect to winter here if we can get provisions. There is plenty of game, such as black bear, elk, moose, deer, black and grey wolvers, rabbits, beaver, and better than all, the finest fish I ever saw.”
The purpose for this miner’s article was to ask for provisions to be sent from Denver. “We are all ‘OK,’ except for one thing, namely, flour and bacon is scarce, and we dislike to go after it.”
Though there are no longer “grey wolvers” running around, and bacon is easier to come by, Summit is still a difficult place to winter, and seasonal residents still make up a large percentage of homeowners, but at least their livelihoods are no longer one jump from disappear.
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