Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: Big snow crushes a town, blasts into a building, entombs a train
January 18, 2016
Editor's Note: This excerpt is from "SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado." This concludes our four-installment history of the Big Snow Winter. Next week look for the story of Summit County's first forays into downhill skiing, the first ski events, pioneering ski "courses," feats and misadventures of early day Summit skiing.
The Big Snow Winter of 1898-99 not only buried Breckenridge to its rooftops in snow and blockaded the county's lifeline railroad, it also made notable impacts around the rest of Summit County. Not the least of these occurred when a massive avalanche roaring off Gray's Peak decimated an entire Peru Creek valley town.
The year 1898 challenged, as well as, prospered local mining and mine towns. Despite untold riches pouring out of gold-latticed Farncomb Hill in Breckenridge's Gold Horseshoe and dizzying silver profits delighting Montezuma's mining district, untoward events punctuated the year's history.
The Silver Panic of 1893 had hit hard at the entire Peru Creek-Montezuma mining region, but the strong Pennsylvania Mine at the head of Peru Creek managed to weather the devastating effects of silver devaluation. In 1893 when silver towns across the American West gained ghost town status almost overnight, the town near the rich Pennsylvania Mine regained its lapsed post office. When the postal service re-awarded a post office, it required a new town name. So 1868-founded Decatur renamed itself "Rathbone." The town arose from the ashes, riding high again.
But disaster lurked. In spring, after the Winter of the Big Snow, came a string of block-buster snowslides. One day, gunshot-like reports split Rathbone's air. Instants later, a giant crush of snow demolished the town. Gray's Peak snowmelt had set off a massive avalanche that reduced Rathbone to splinters on a fine 1899 day.
Less dramatic but also interesting, the force of snow blast makes an amusing story from another town. Boreas, the rail town atop Boreas Pass, boasted the nation's highest U.S. post office. Boreas also had a five-room, one and one-half story section house (restored and still standing) which served as a boardinghouse for rail workers. An 1884 stone engine house with turntable (in ruins beside the road) also housed a rail company office and two-room telegraph office. A 9,156-gallon above-ground water tank; a huge coal bin, a 600-foot-long snow shed and lots of snow fence completed the railroad structures there. Several residences also rose at Boreas.
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Wind blasts at Boreas could pile up huge drifts as soon as workers finished shoveling rack. When the Leslie rotary snowplow came into use in the early 1880s, four or five engines were required to push the hefty plow up Boreas Pass. Often summit snow was so deep that when the rotary plow roared over the top, the force of snow thrown to the sides blew open the depot door and filled the room with snow, to the surprise and distress of waiting passengers and the rail agent.
Across the county, the little town of Wheeler was digging out from a block-buster winter. One of the buried items which emerged from snowmelt turned out to be a train. The Denver & Rio Grande railway served Wheeler. Its shiny black narrow-gauge locomotives chugged along beside the rushing Ten Mile Creek to stop at the 1870s-created town, laid out below a big forested mountain. That mountain became Copper Mountain Ski Area decades later in 1972.
Judge John S. Wheeler, a rancher, had grazing lands at Wheeler Flats. Before the canyon's blustery winter arrived, Wheeler drove his cattle over the long Wheeler trail which mounts the Ten Mile Range and crosses the flanks of Peak 8 and 9 to south of Breckenridge. During the Big Snow Winter several Rio Grande rail cars froze into the snow at Wheeler. Terrific storms at the same time caused both local railroads to abandon service. But officials failed to account for one train. A stranded rail crew at Wheeler lived for two or three weeks, eating supplies from the merchandise car. Then, the men made skis from snow-fence planks and skied to Breckenridge. A remaining passenger later made an ill-starred attempt to reach Como. His body wasn't found till May.
Though autumn weather preceding the Big Snow Winter remained calm, the atmosphere in Breckenridge was anything but calm. On Aug. 4, 1898, on Main Street, prominent physician Joseph Condon shot beloved saloon keeper Johnny Dewers dead over an alleged "affair of the heart" between Condon and Dewers' troubled wife. The townsfolk united in grief and outrage. Exactly one week later, on Aug. 11, 1898, notorious thug Pug Ryan carried off a robbery of the popular Denver Hotel game room, where wealthy men of Breckenridge gathered to gamble at poker, faro and whist. They lost their gold watches and diamond stickpins but the sheriff's officers who tracked Ryan down lost their lives in a bloody gun battle. Pug Ryan himself escaped and remained on the run for the next 10 years.
Dr. Condon's trial for the murder of Johnny Dewers could not proceed due to heavy snows in 1898-99. By the next summer, money and power interests prevailed on Condon's behalf and a jury declared him not guilty.
Mary Ellen Gilliland's "SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado," has captured the colorful gold rush. She details the misbehavior of history's miscreants in her "Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods" and recounts the story of the region's first town in "Breckenridge." Gilliland is also the author of the popular guide, "The Summit Hiker." All are available from The Next Page Bookstore or online at alpenrosepress.com.