Summit’s Historic Yesterdays: Breckenridge survives the Big Snow Winter
Editor’s Note: Summit’s Historic Yesterdays is a column running weekly on Sundays by local author Mary Ellen Gilliland. Excerpts from her books begin this winter with stories of the Big Snow Winter and anecdotes from the early days of Summit skiing. Today’s excerpt comes from her history, “Breckenridge, 150 Years of Golden History.”
Autumn lingered long that year in Breckenridge. The first snowflakes drifted from the sky the evening of Nov. 27, 1898. Snowfall gained momentum during the night and Breckenridge residents awoke to a full 5 feet of snow by 9 a.m. Nov. 28. This was the opening number of a snowstorm extravaganza unparalleled in known Summit history. Snow poured from the skies every day from Nov. 27 to Feb. 20. The final tally: 32½ feet.
Breckenridge resident E.C. Peabody reported seeing no sunshine that winter — a dismal experience.
As early as December, the railway found its track blocked by snow. But the Leslie Rotary Snowplow, technological wonder of its time, managed to break through. Denver, South Park & Pacific trains tried valiantly to surmount snow-choked Boreas Pass. The trains encountered 40- to 50-foot drifts in South Park, then faced the wall of snow that inundated Boreas Pass. Seven locomotives rammed the rotary against the windpack. Right behind them, the angry Storm King Boreas blew his blustery breath, burying the freed track with huge drifts.
Finally, on Feb. 5, 1899, after a week’s lapse, a train groaned into Breckenridge. That train was the last for 79 days. The blockade cut off Breckenridge from mail deliveries, fresh food and all other supplies until April 24, 1899.
Because the Summit County Journal ran out of newsprint, we have few accounts of the Big Snow Winter. Ed Auge, E.C. Peabody and Jess Oakley chronicled its events later. Jess Oakley, whose story appeared in print in 1939, volunteered to ski to Como where trains operated and bring back the most important letter mail. Breckenridge people added their contributions to banker George Engle’s donation and came up with about $12 for Jess — which was ample compensation. Three meals and a night’s lodging cost $1 in 1899 and, as importantly, 25 cents bought the skier two whiskeys.
Jess Oakley’s Close Call
Oakley almost didn’t live to spend his $12. When he reached the summit of Boreas Pass, more than 10 miles from Breckenridge, the skiing mailman needed shelter, a rest and a cup of hot coffee, To his dismay, he could see no sign of the town in the swirling snow. Finally, Oakley discerned a small wisp of smoke. The smoke stack from the massive one and one-half story section house lay below the 20-foot deep snow. Happily, a curl of smoke had caught Oakley’s attention.
He made it safely to Como and back. However, in late February food supplies in Breckenridge reached a critical state. Around March 1 a mass town meeting was called to organize a shovel brigade to clear the 1860s wagon road. At 7 a.m. the next morning the bell at Firemen’s Hall summoned a crew of more than 100 men and several horse teams to attack the prodigious snow. Ten days later with the road open, Breckenridge saw meats, fresh vegetables and even some luxuries appear on grocers’ shelves.
Blockade Finally Broken
The Blockade Winter ended. When the first train chugged into town weeks later, everyone heard the locomotives’ whistles blow. E.C. Peabody, who was a 15-year-old schoolboy, remembered: “Stewart dismissed school It was like an ant hill disturbed, 200 school children and most of the citizens going to the depot to see the first train arrive after the blockade.”
But deep snows remained in the High Country through July. Tourists came on stagecoach tours to view the drifts. Sadly, not until summer did searchers locate the body of Loren Waldo, a young grocery clerk who skied the pass to visit a newly-married wife in Denver. His body lay just a short distance from the Boreas section house. The section master had pleaded with him not to continue his ski trek alone after dark but to stay. Because his bride lay ill in Como, he ignored those pleas and pushed on, but only 50 feet from the section house. There swirling winds and early winter darkness disoriented the exhausted traveler and he could not find the section house to return. Waldo succumbed to the cold, buried in Breckenridge history’s deepest known shroud of snow.
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.
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