Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: Big Snow Winter leaves 20-foot walls of snow into July
December 22, 2015
Editor's Note: "Summit's Historic Yesterdays" is a new column running weekly on Sundays by local author Mary Ellen Gilliland. Excerpts from her books will begin this winter with stories of The Big Snow Winter and the anecdotes from the early days of Summit skiing, all these from her historical book, "SUMMIT."
During the famous Big Snow Winter of 1898, when flakes began to fall in November and fell steadily to mid-February, people daily cleared snow tunnels to get around Breckenridge. Those snowshoeing on the surface above found their heads level with the tops of two-story buildings! But lack of groceries, news of the world, whiskey for the saloons and normal activities began to override the Big Snow's novelty.
Fed up with nearly three weeks of isolation, Henry C. Foote and his friend, H. W. Mott decided to hazard the wind-whipped Pass to reach Como and the railroad to Denver. As they started up the Pass, a blizzard swirled around them, with white-outs that obscured vision and disoriented the men. They had begun at 8 a.m. and arrived in Como at 6 p.m. that evening. "Each one carried over 30 pounds of baggage. . .," a February 22, 1899, Denver newspaper reported.
"The snow in the vicinity of Breckenridge is from 4 to 40 feet deep," says Mr. Foote, "and the wind is frightful, blowing continually at the rate of 50 miles an hour over the ranges. There hasn't been a train into Breckenridge since two weeks ago last Sunday. We have not had any mail up there at all. Why, you may not believe it, but we haven't even had a newspaper to tell us what is going on in the outside world.
"Provisions are running low! The merchants are completely out of butter, eggs and ham, and when a miner can't have a little ham or eggs, it's mighty hard to get along. At the present time, there is scarcely any feed for the live stock, and unless the railroads succeed in getting in within the next few days, the stock stands a very good chance of perishing from starvation."
Despite heavy snows and relentless hard winds, Summit mines continued to operate. Tucked away in their burrows, the miners produced ore and let it pile up, awaiting the snowmelt and transportation to a working railroad.
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Starved for fresh food, mail and supplies, the men of Breckenridge volunteered about March 1 to shovel out the wagon road over Boreas Pass to Como. The task took 10 days of backbreaking labor, but succeeded. Breckenridge had finally regained access to the outside world. The escape route: An 1860s-built stagecoach and freight road, still called The Wagon Road today as it snakes through Spruce Valley Ranch south of Breckenridge. Though largely abandoned when the railroad arrived in 1882, it remained a possible solution to Breckenridge's snowbound situation. Chronicler Ed Auge later wrote:
About March 1, all able-bodied men both young and old, volunteered to shovel out the wagon road over Boreas to Como. All the men and all the horses in town completed the job in about 10 days, and all the mail and necessities were freighted by team over Boreas until the train arrived.
Women booed and men cheered when townspeople greeted the first freight wagon, only to discover it carried a load of whiskey!
The trains remained stuck.
A SNOWSHOE TREK
A plucky party of 12 said goodbye to snowbound Breckenridge in early March and laced on their snowshoes for a trip to Denver. (The long, heavy and cumbersome wooden cross-country skis of that era were then called "snowshoes.") Among those scaling blustery Boreas Pass were Charles A. Finding and his two daughters, Agnes and Tonnie. A March 8 Denver Times report lauded the group with a story headlined, "Dozen People Escape from Snow-Beleaguered Town." Tonnie did not travel on her own skis: "The younger Miss Finding and her father came through on one pair of skis, going as the mountain men called it 'in tandem.' She stood on the skis just a little behind her father and he, being an expert, carried her through without mishap." Agnes "kept up without difficulty."
The travelers arrived in Denver very sunburned.
The Denver, South Park and Pacific narrow gauge railway remained closed.
The most awesome threat to the early days of the D.S.& P. rail service to Summit County had always been the ill-tempered and unpredictable Boreas, mythical god of the north wind, who guarded his stronghold atop Boreas Pass in blustery grandeur. Bitter cold and superabundant snowfalls above timberline on Boreas Pass presented one challenge; the relentless breath of Boreas, sweeping acres of snow across the track and sending temperatures plummeting through wind chill made the winter maintenance of train, track and station at the summit a grueling task.
Limited supplies and mail continued to come via The Wagon Road by sled. Meanwhile, rail crews attacked the prodigious drifts. They labored for six weeks, using a rotary plow pushed by as many as 12 straining engines, to open the Pass. The 79-day rail blockade ended on April 24.
Then began a long snowmelt. People in summer clothes appeared in June 1899 photographs, still using snow tunnels. Twenty-foot walls of compacted snow barricaded high passes. Stagecoaches carried excursion groups from Denver into the mountains in July to ooh and aah over the massive snowpack. But no one plucked wildflowers.
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.