Tag Archive for: Eagle County Colorado

Holy Cross City: The gold camp built on hope

Holy Cross City: The gold camp built on hope, by Kathy Heicher

(Note: This story first appeared in the Winter 2023 edition of Vail Valley Magazine.)

The first hint that there was gold embedded in the geology of the Eagle River Valley appeared in 1874  via scribbled notes in explorer Ferdinand Hayden’s famed survey. In that document, geologists noted that men fishing the tributaries coming into the Eagle River from the south (Homestake Creek, Cross Creek, Beaver Creek, and Lake Creek) were finding placer gold in the gravel. That news prompted the quiet filing of a few mining claims.

However, on July 8, 1880, the Leadville Herald-Democrat newspaper reported that an experienced prospector, J.W. Lynch, had arrived in town with a 60 pound lump of ore to be processed. Lynch revealed his discovery of a gold-bearing quartz vein above timberline in the wild country southeast of the famous Mount of the Holy Cross.

The newspaper called for development of a new camp and mining district. Prospectors heeded that advice. Five weeks later, scores of miners had flocked to the area, filing enough claims to warrant the formation of the Holy Cross Mining District. The district (a governing entity) encompassed the headwaters of Cross Creek and Homestake Creek and about 100 square miles of the wild country in between.

Located at an elevation of 11,335 feet, Holy Cross City was a gold mining camp that was expected to boom when it first developed in 1880. However, low quality ore, expensive processing, and brutal winters turned the camp into a ghost town by 1884.

Mining camps populated by adventurous miners sprang up throughout the mountainous district. Among the most prominent of those camps was Holy Cross City. Located at an elevation of  11,335 foot in a meadow on the east slope of French Mountain, this headline-generating yet short-lived mining camp was the product of unfettered human optimism and the harsh reality of a shallow ore vein.

Creating the camp

Holy Cross City’s first year, 1881, was a time of development and splashy headlines. Newspapers described country “seamed with inexhaustible fissure veins of gold ore.” Even the names of the mining claims were infused with optimism: Grand Trunk, Solid Muldoon, Shamrock, Treasure Vault, Hunky Dory, and the Eureka.

Miners stayed in a boarding house or in private cabins. Most of the mining took place in the summer, although a small crew of 24 men stayed for the winter.

In a relatively short amount of time, newspapers reported there were 25 buildings in the camp including  a boarding house, post office, two general stores, assay office, blacksmith shop, a drug store, and several saloons. Two rows of residential cabins faced each other on either side of a short “street.” By 1882, the Colorado Business Directory reported a population of 200 people in Holy Cross City. There was talk of forming a school district. A sister mining camp, Gold Park, located four miles down the road claimed 400 residents. A flume with a cast-iron bottom connected the two camps. In theory, water in the flume would carry smashed ore from Holy Cross City to Gold Park for processing. However, there were issues with the grade of the flume, and the ore chunks tended to pile up unless a team of miners kept things moving.

Initially the ores extracted from the district were promising, with assay results convincing speculators that the “Mother Lode” could be located by just digging a little deeper. The Gold Park Mining and Milling Company was formed in 1881 and was incorporated with $500,000 in capital stock. Professional engineers and mine managers were recruited. The company gained control of 23 of the mining claims on French Mountain and put a large crew of miners to work.

 

“There are a great number of good properties in all parts of the district that would pay well if properly worked … we expect to see lively times among the gold mines of the Holy Cross District.”

Rocky Mountain News

June 9, 1882

During the initial mining boom, 400 men were employed in the mines at Holy Cross City.Gold was the ore that prompted the development of the mining camp in 1880, however, a “rich silver vein” was reported at Holy Cross in 1882.

But mine speculators often tend to be captured by the promise of riches, while ignoring reality. The unfortunate truth about most of the Holy Cross Mining District was that while the upper few feet of the ore veins were promising, the quality of the gold deteriorated quickly at deeper levels. Ore in the upper two feet of the vein assayed out at $100 per ton. But at the next lower level, the gold was mixed with pyrite, requiring more complex processing. The value dropped to $40 feet per ton. Two feet lower, the ore’s value was a mere $9 per ton. This scenario proved typical of the veins throughout the district.

One miner, apparently well aware of the peculiar nature of the Holy Cross district ore veins, dug several shallow holes along his claim. Of course, the upper level ore yielded assay results attractive enough to prompt a purchase offer of $50,000 from an Eastern capitalist. The investor paid half of the money up front, intending to pay the rest upon development. The seller took the initial $25,000 and disappeared … and is credited with being the only man to make a clear profit from the mines of the Holy Cross District.

 

Rough and rowdy

Visitors could find a room and meals at the Timberline Hotel. The camp also boasted a post office, general merchandise store, assay office, and a justice of the peace. The trip from Red Cliff to Holy Cross City involved traveling over 12 miles of rough road and could involve several days during the winter.

Mining camps, dominated by men with plentiful saloons tended to be rowdy and sometimes violent. A double murder at Holy Cross City made headlines in the Leadville papers on Dec. 10, 1881.

Economic issues were likely the start of tensions between the working miners and  the Gold Park mines superintendent, Mr. Turney, and mine foreman Harry Weston. Disgruntled miners made threats against the two men, prompting Turney to abruptly discharge 150 men. Many men left the camp immediately, but several heavily armed and angry ex-employees remained in the camp and threatened vengeance. In response, the mine operators organized a “vigilance committee” of 40 armed men to protect the mines.

One angry miner identified only as “Bagley,” shot and killed Weston, fired another shot at Turney, then fled to his cabin, pursued by the vigilantes who fired shots into the building. Bagley was fatally wounded. The coroner ruled his death a suicide.

That same day, somebody sent one of the laid-off miners, Jack White, a notice to leave the camp immediately. The angry White procured three revolvers, then proceeded to walk down Holy Cross City’s only street with a cocked gun in each hand and the third revolver in his belt, cursing and demanding to know exactly who had sent the notice.

The armed members of the vigilance committee lined either side of the street, prepared to shoot White down. Undeterred, White remained in the town two or three hours, then departed for Leadville.

The camp was in an uproar. The frightened night foreman of the mine, Bill Bates, locked himself in his cabin and refused to come out. Turney continued to order the laid-off miners to leave town. The newspaper rather gleefully predicted that “the prospect is excellent that one or two more killings will crimson the annals of that camp within the next week.”

Apparently, by 1883, things had settled down notably in the Holy Cross Camp. On April 18, 1883, the Rocky Mountain News reported, “The morals of the place are above the average of mining camps since the output of the mines has never been enough to attract the vicious elements which usually invade thrifty camps.”

 

The lady miner

Perhaps the most unusual miner to work the Holy Cross District was Mrs. Julia Edith Dunn, the daughter of an old and distinguished family from the East. Well educated and reared in luxury, Dunn excelled in music and painting. Newspaper reports suggest that a combination of health issues and a failed marriage prompted her to head west with her children. Deeply religious, she chose Holy Cross City as her destination. There she found a cabin and made enough money teaching music and painting lessons to file several mining claims. She hired a couple of miners and worked alongside them to develop the claims.

Two of the claims yielded gold and silver. When Dunn overheard her hired hands plotting to steal the nuggets, she procured a pistol, guarded the ore throughout the night, and sent the men packing to Red Cliff. Dunn sold her claims for a tidy profit, then invested that money in lodes closer to Red Cliff and Leadville. One of her mines was predicted to yield a minimum profit of $500,000. In a camp dominated by rough men, she was notable.

 

“Any mining man in the west might well be proud of what this woman has accomplished and considering he almost insurmountable difficulties she has had to overcome , the years of toil and struggle in the mountains, her achievements deserve to rank among the greatest in the state.”

Herald Democrat

 Jan. 1, 1904.

 

From boom camp to ghost town

A freight wagon driver steers a wagon full of ore to the crusher at Holy City. The wagon and horses are traveling on a wooden driveway. The processing mills at Holy Cross City and Gold Park serviced many mining claims in the Holy Cross District. The Treasure Vault, Little Mollie, and Pelican mines were among the most productive mines.

Although a few of the Holy Cross mines were briefly profitable, the area was never destined for great mining success. Mine profit depended upon the ability to process the mines at the site (rather than hauling wagonloads of heavy ore great distances). Unfortunately, most of the ore in the district was laced with pyrite, which could not be separated from the gold by any simple process.

The remoteness of Holy Cross City made accessibility difficult. A 12-mile road connected the camp to Red Cliff. However, in winter the snow depths were daunting. An attempt to move a woman and her two children from Red Cliff to Holy Cross City in February involved three days of precarious travel, eight horses, two sleds, and 10 men to help break a trail through the snow.

Although the mines bustled in the summer, in the winter only small crews attempted to stay in the camp. The cold weather and isolation took a toll.

 

“Fred went down to Gold Park today after our washing [laundry]. He sent it to Red Cliff in about the middle of January. The weather has been so rough that we could not get it before. I wish I was through with this blasted country.”

Letter from an unnamed miner

March 7, 1885

Holy Cross City

 

By 1883, the Gold Park Mining Company acknowledged that the quality of ore was not sufficient to justify further investment in the area. The company pulled out, as did most of the miners.  In 1884, the director of the Denver Mint reported that only $6,400 of ore had been produced by the entire district. By the end of that year, Holy Cross City was a ghost town.

The mining company made a couple of attempts to revive the mines, and the local newspapers optimistically predicted that the area would boom again. However, the issues of ore quality, impassible roads, and high elevation living prevailed.

The Leadville Daily Chronicle reported on Aug. 5, 1890, that the camps of old Park and Holy Cross City were practically deserted.

 

“… were it not for a few hearty prospectors and miners who are now working among the mountains, the wolves and mountain lions would stalk the silent streets, monarchs of all they survey. “

Leadville Daily Chronicle

Aug. 5, 1890

 

  Yet, that same newspaper, noting that the mining company had abandoned over $200,000 in machinery at the site, predicted that men would soon figure out how to effectively process the ore, and that the Holy Cross District would once again boom. Although a few optimistic miners continued to explore the country, there was no second boom.

  These days, Holy Cross City is accessible by hiking or very skilled four-wheel vehicle driving. The remains of several buildings are scattered through the high country meadow. It remains a wild and beautiful country, with a history that captures the imagination.

Perhaps the true story of the Holy Cross District was best captured by a man with the initials “J.M.K.” who wrote a letter to the Herald Democrat newspaper on June 22, 1902, following a fishing trip in the Holy Cross District:

 

The whole of the ground on each side of the creek will pan gold, from Red Cliff to Gold Park … several claims were worked, but none were ever found from which even wages were taken out. The fishing, however, on the creek was far better than the placer mining.”

 

END

 

(Editor’s note: Kathy Heicher is the president of the Eagle County Historical Society and the award-winning author of four local history books. She “mined” the archives of the ECHS, Eagle Valley Library District, History Colorado, and Denver Public Library in researching this story.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night at the Museum August 25, 2022

Night at the Museum

Celebrating Eagle County’s Past, Present, and Future!

Rain clouds did not deter the crowd at our recent “Night at the Museum” event. Over 120 people turned out to enjoy the food, browse the exhibit, and answer some history trivia questions. An historic good time was had by all. (Photos courtesy of Wendy Griffith)

 

Save the Date: Night at the Museum August 25, 2022

Night at the Museum

Celebrating Eagle County’s Past, Present, and Future!

5-p.m. – 8 p.m.

 

The Eagle County Historical Museum has a new roof, new paint, and new exhibits. We’re ready to celebrate!

Join us for an evening of celebrating local history, including food and drink. Meet some long-time residents, make some new friends, and revel in Eagle County’s colorful history. Give our “History Trivia Wheel” a spin – answer a question, win a prize.

Live music

 Free admission, hors d’oeuvres, cash bar.

(Donations are always welcome.)

Find  your invite at https://tinyurl.com/Museum-celebration

RSVP’s encouraged (but not required) to help us anticipate food and drink quantities.

Direct questions and RSVPs to [email protected].

Eagle Valley History Preservation Award 2022

Eagle Valley History Preservation Award

When: Sunday, May 15, 1:30 p.m.

Where: Eagle Public Library

Honoring: Kathy McDaniel and Reed Perkins, donors of the Borah pioneer journals

Guest Speaker: Historian Marcia Goldstein will present a slide/lecture program, “Let the Women Vote!: Colorado Women’s Struggle for Suffrage”

Details: Free. Light refreshments will be served.

Eagle County pioneer Alfred Borah was a meticulous man who wrote a series of journals recording the daily details of his life from the 1880s through 1917.

Borah’s descendants protected those journals for well over a century, and recently donated the books to the Eagle County Historical Society and the Eagle Valley Library District. Hundreds of journal pages have been digitized, transcribed and are accessible online, providing an incredible local history resource.

Kathy McDaniel and Reed Perkins, donors of the Borah journals, stand in front of the one-room school on Brush Creek where Reed’s mother, Alda Borah, once studied. (Kathy Heicher photo)

Alfred Borah’s grandson, Reed Perkins and great-granddaughter, Kathy McDaniel, will be honored with the Eagle Valley History Preservation Award in a special program at the Eagle Public Library on Sunday, May 15, 1:30 p.m. Formerly known as the “Nimon-Walker Award,” the annual event recognizes people or organizations for their role in preserving local history.

EVLD History Librarian Matthew Mikelson noted that the Borah journals, accessible online, have already proven to be a valuable resource for local history researchers. Last year, History Colorado (the state historical society) recognized the Borah journals digitization as an exemplary and impactful project.

“Many families would throw away old, fragile books of this nature. The Borah descendants protected those journals, then did the necessary footwork  to bring them into the public domain,” noted ECHS President Kathy Heicher.

The Perkins-McDaniel family followed up their donation with a visit to the county last summer, visiting the Borah homestead and the old log one-room school on Brush Creek where Reed’s mother once studied. Reed and McDaniel also donated dozens of historic photos images depicting early-day life on Brush Creek, along with artifacts including clothing, letters and memorabilia.

“These are extremely valuable Eagle County artifacts. Our local history collection is significantly richer because of this family,” says Heicher.

Dr. Marcia Goldstein, Colorado women’s historian

Following Sunday’s award presentation, Colorado women’s historian Dr. Marcia Goldstein will present Let the Women vote! Colorado women’s struggle for suffrage

Colorado women won the right to vote in 1893, making this the first state to approve equal suffrage by popular election. Subsequently, Colorado women voted and ran for office for more than a quarter of a century before women’s suffrage became the law of the land in 1920.

And behind that major milestone is a fascinating story of the massive campaign for women’s rights that involved a coalition of very determined women and men. Colorado women’s historian Dr. Marcia Goldstein will don her suffrage banner and share this history.

Goldstein is an expert on the topic of Colorado women’s politics. She served as a consultant for One Woman, One Vote (part of the PBS series American Experience) and several local PBS suffrage documentaries. She curated and authored an online women’s suffrage exhibit for the Women of the West Museum and has taught American and Colorado history at numerous state and local colleges and universities. Her costumed presentations are lively and informative, tracing the bold footsteps of Colorado’s suffrage leaders and their experiences with what was then the all-male arena of party politics.

The public is invited to this free event. The program is suitable for audiences of any age. Light refreshments will be served.

Red Cliff women pose with a patriotically decorated parade float in 1919. Blanche Tippet is on the far right. Colorado women had been voting since 1893. (Courtesy EVLD/ECHS)

For more details about the event and the Borah journals, visit evld.org or eaglecountyhistoricalsociety.com.

 

Sarah Morton White Kempf: A Woman Pioneer

Sarah Morton White Kempf: A Woman Pioneer, 1847-1905

Compiled by Janice Tonz

 

One of Eagle County’s earliest and most successful pioneers, ranch owners, managers, and businesspersons was a woman.

Sarah Morton White Kempf

Sarah Morton White Kempf spent her first twenty two years in Platte County, Missouri.  Born in 1847, she lived a settled, luxurious life on her parents’ farm, and then in Platte City with her husband and first child.  She began the pioneer life in 1869, when she and her husband left Missouri for the new Territory of Colorado, traveling by rail and stagecoach.  They settled in Golden, where their second child was born.  By 1877, they moved further west to Georgetown, and after the birth of their third child, they relocated to Leadville in 1879.  Pregnant with her fourth child, Sarah and her three children temporarily moved to Denver in 1882 to escape the severe Leadville winter, her husband visiting the family when he was in Denver on business.

In the early 1880’s, after a discussion of their future, the security of their family, and how Sarah would provide for her children should something happen to her husband, they journeyed from Leadville to Brush Creek, most likely on horseback, where each filed homestead claims on one hundred sixty acres.  At the time, only two other families were living in that area.  A bachelor cousin of Sarah’s was asked to come to Colorado and file on an adjoining 160 acres, which they purchased after the requirements of the homestead law were met.  This gave them 480 acres for the start of a ranch, located on what is now the Eagle Ranch subdivision.  A cabin was constructed on each of the claims, and the claims were each fenced in.  Sarah’s cousin remained on the ranch, while Sarah and her family continued to live in Leadville.  The cousin grew hay and grain for the horses and some produce for his own consumption.

Sarah White and Family

Then, in January of 1884, Sarah, 37, became a widow, with four children ranging in age from two to 16.  Knowing that the ranch must become a profitable business in order to support her and the children, she entered into the cattle business by purchasing a sizable herd of Texas longhorn cattle.  By the time her cousin was murdered in 1887 by a neighbor over a land dispute, she moved from Leadville into one of the three cabins.  Concerned with educating four children in a remote location, she sent her oldest daughter to a convent in Montreal, Canada to be educated by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and the other three children to Notre Dame.

Barn on the Sarah White ranch

Until the railroad reached Eagle in October 1887, she arranged to have the cattle driven 60 miles to the nearest railroad point.  Workers, including miners, prospectors, cowboys, and ex-convicts, were hired to do the hard and heavy work on the ranch.  Although she carried a pistol and slept with it under her pillow, she never had to use it.  Eventually she married the man (19 years younger than her) who had been the ranch foreman.

She purchased another ranch on Brush Creek, 10 miles away from the original ranch, on Salt Creek.  Her SW – branded cattle, considered to be one of the finest cattle herds in western Colorado, had improved from Texas Longhorns to Shorthorns, grazed on the open range, and drank from natural freshwater springs, and a creek.   By 1903, the Glenwood Post referred to her as “the owner and complete manager of one of the largest and best ranches in this country” and added “as a businesswoman she stands a peer and puts most of the sterner sex to shame.”

Still living in the cabin built around 1882, her financial status now allowed her to build a new home and workable out-buildings.  A nine room house with two baths, a parlor, living room, fireplaces and a furnace was completed in 1905.  Unfortunately, Sarah died in October 1905, at the age of fifty eight.  She was buried in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery, next to her first husband.

Sarah White gravestone

Undoubtedly, Sarah also contributed to the successes of her first husband, George Griffith White and her sons Benjamin Morton White and Hume Stanley White.  To learn more about these men in Sarah’s life, check out family memoirs and photos in the digital archives at www.evld.org, and the April 2020 blog on Hume White at www.eaglecountyhistoricalsociety.com/hindsight.com.

 

Sources:

Ancestry.com

Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection

Findagrave.com

Family memoirs and photos in digital archives of www.evld.org

Winning Spirit

We can’t resist bragging just a little more about the award-winning Alfred Borah Journals digitization project, a joint effort by the Eagle County Historical Society and Eagle Valley Library District. The project won the 2021 Josephine Miles award from History Colorado (the State Historical Society) which recognizes exceptional history projects in Colorado.

This week History Colorado posted an article titled “Winning Spirit” on their website which describes last year’s award winners. The home page features a photo of the ECHS’s Trail Gulch History Hike, offered in conjunction with the Eagle County Open Space Department and Eagle Valley Land Trust. Take a look!

https://www.historycolorado.org/story/2022/02/18/winning-spirit

Brush Creek history hike, July 2020

 

Book Signing!

Local History Author Kathy Heicher will sign her new book,

Gypsum Days: Pioneers, the Poor Farm & Progress

Saturday, Jan. 15, 2-4 p.m. Gypsum Library

Order on-line at eaglecountyhistoricalsociety.com. Also available at the Gypsum Town Hall, at DJ’s and Dahlia’s in Gypsum, at Batson’s Corner in Eagle, and at the Bookworm in Edwards, and at the book signing event.

 

Save the Date!

The Eagle County Historical Society

and

The Eagle Valley Library District

present a free concert with Eli Barsi and John Cunningham on Thursday, January 13th at 6PM, Eagle Public Library.

 

Castle: A Little Town with Big Ambitions

   

        Castle: A Little Town with Big Ambitions

Richard Perske, December 2021

The town of Eagle has not always been known by that name. The small community went through several name changes in the 1880s and 1890s  before being incorporated in 1905 and officially becoming the town of Eagle, Colorado.

Photo by Alda Borah captures Castle Peak in 1910

The journey began in 1885 when William Edwards developed a townsite and a U.S. Post Office near the junction of the Eagle River and Brush Creek. Edwards named the settlement “Castle.” The settlement was situated adjacent to Edward’s ranch on a level and nearly treeless rise with a nice view of Castle Peak to the north. Early wagon road access to Castle came from Squaw Creek over Bellyache Ridge and down the fertile Brush Creek Valley.

The arrival of the railroad brought big changes to Castle. Construction of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad through the lower Eagle River Valley involved thousands of workmen, horses, and mules, creating an economic boom in 1886 and 1887. Edwards envisioned a thriving town serving both the coming railroad, nearby ranches, and the mines of the promising Fulford mining district. Castle eventually passed through a succession of ambitious and wealthy owners whose personal fortunes rose and fell with the value of their silver mines.

A locomotive powers across the railroad bridgeinEagle in the 1930s. The wooden trestle was replaced in 1934.

The 1887 arrival of the railroad connected Castle to the outside world. All railroad facilities were carefully mapped and named  to ensure the efficient delivery of passengers, freight, and mail to locations along the tracks. Within four years a series of actions by the D&RG and the U.S. Post Office re-identified the little community of “Castle” as “Eagle” (the more commonly used name). That’s the name that eventually stuck, although there were some in-between names, also.

The D&RG extended tracks 30 miles down valley along the north bank of the Eagle River from the mines at Rock Creek (Gilman) to just above Castle, where a substantial railroad bridge was required to cross the Eagle River. In August 1887, the D&RG established a watering stop and siding near this bridge that it initially named “Eagle River Crossing.” The railroad siding served Castle, the Brush Creek agricultural community, and the new Fulford mining district. All Rio Grande passengers, freight, and mail bound for those destinations were ticketed to “Eagle River Crossing” (not “Castle”). That began the Castle community’s name transitions.

The Colorado Business Directory of 1890 lists Eagle River Crossing with a population of 25.

Clark Wheeler gets involved

In 1891 Aspen millionaire B. Clark Wheeler invested heavily in the Fulford mining district, purchasing Edward’s ranch as well as the original town site of Castle. He believed that centrally-located Castle would soon become the Eagle County seat and planned to build a branch line railroad up Brush Creek to serve his promising mining properties.  Wheeler began by enlarging adding and selling additional lots to the Castle community. A.H. (Art) Fulford acted as Wheeler’s “attorney,” on the real estate deals. Fulford was also the construction superintendent for the wagon road from the Brush Creek forks to Fulford. Art and his brother Mont had recently built a modern livery stable in Castle. The Fulford family owned a ranch and stage route “halfway house” located just below the Brush Creek forks (currently the site of the Sylvan Lake Visitor Center).

In 1891 the D&RG upgraded their original siding, adding a station platform with ore bins and renamed it “Eagle Station.” In August 1891 the Post Office name was officially changed from “Castle” to “Eagle.” From this point on the community was universally referred to as Eagle, Colorado.

Among the artifacts in the ECHS/EVLD collection is this envelope addressed to F. E. Grant. Note that the writer took care to write the address of both “Castle” and “Eagle” on the envelope, likely ensuring that it would reach its destination during a time of community name transition.

Art Fulford died in a backcountry avalanche on New Year’s Eve Dec. 31, 1891, just as the Fulford mining district and town of Fulford were starting to develop. Many gold mines were dug into the hills around Fulford in 1892 and 1893 but no bonanza ore bodies had been located.

By August of 1893, the Silver Panic and steeply declining silver prices idled many Colorado silver mines and smelters. Lower grades of silver ore could not be mined, transported, and smelted at a profit. Wheeler, facing mounting losses from his Aspen silver mines, sold his Eagle County holdings. Fortunately, he found a newly-made Eagle County millionaire, Alexander Angus McDonald, willing to invest in the still-thriving gold mines. In December 1893 A. A. McDonald bought Wheeler’s enlarged townsite of Castle and took leases and bonds on Wheeler’s Nolan Creek (Fulford area) mines. McDonald also embraced Wheeler’s vision that Castle should become the Eagle County seat. He announced plans to improve his little town by building a “brick block” business section and planting thousands of shade trees.

The McDonald era

The man on the far right, top row in this late 1890s photo is believed to be Alexander Angus McDonald, who once owned whatis now the town of Eagle.

 Born in Canada of Scottish ancestry, McDonald’s path to a miner’s riches had been rocky. In May 1884 his home and boarding house (Glengarry House) in Leadville burned to the ground in a major fire. In June, his wife took their two young daughters back to Silver Cliff and filed for divorce. McDonald was fond of drink and enjoyed a party when he could afford it. He relocated to Battle Mountain and Gilman, taking up small stakes and leases in existing mines. In early 1891 he secured an exclusive lease and bond on the Belden mine, one of the original Battle Mountain mines. The locals considered it to be “a worked-out proposition”.  McDonald re-timbered the old workings, re-started production, and explored deeper for new ore bodies. Belden soon began paying off. He also discovered an extremely rich ore body that he blocked out and kept in reserve for future development. The terms of his lease required that a 25%  royalty from the Belden’s ore smelter income be paid to the mine owners in Boston. McDonald shrewdly limited his ore production to the tonnage necessary to pay off the bond and acquire full ownership of the Belden. By March 1893 he was the sole owner of the Belden. He then increased ore production and began shipping his richest ores without the need to make royalty payments.

In April 1893 the Leadville newspapers reported that several single carloads of the rich Belden ore set smelter records with returns of over $2,100 each. The money started rolling in. Belden’s amazing success was reported statewide. By June 1893 McDonald’s monthly income was reportedly $75,000 and Belden’s ore reserves were estimated at $1.5 million.  During the worst of the 1893 panic the very rich Belden ore could still be produced at a profit. That summer, McDonald kept all the Battle Mountain miners working and on his payroll by getting creative with work shifts. The miners were very grateful for steady work despite smaller paychecks. McDonald became a very popular Gilman millionaire.

                           

                      BULLY FOR THE BELDEN

              It is Keeping all of the Battle Mountain Miners at Work.

  The report of the closing down of the Belden mine at Red cliff was an unfortunate error into which our reporters were led. It is not only not closed, but is in full operation and the mainstay of the Battle mountain district, not only giving employment, by rotation, to nearly every miner in camp, but contributing largely toward keeping the American Smelter, in this city, in blast. The owner of the Belden , Mr. A.A. McDonald, has a contract with this concern for sixty tons a day, and is working three eight-hour shifts, employing 120 men, but dividing the work among all of the industrious miners of the district, to the end that none may suffer for the necessaries or be compelled to move out, pending the settlement of the silver question.

Leadville Herald Democrat                             

 August 25, 1893

 

Now a state senator,  B. Clark Wheeler owned the Aspen Times newspaper, the Aspen Mining Stock Exchange, and several silver mines in Aspen. Wheeler had also invested heavily in the Town of Castle and the Nolan Creek Mining Company properties in partnership with A.H. Fulford.

Wheeler was well connected politically and keenly aware of the economic impact of the silver crash and coming recession. He was financially over-extended in mining and land speculation and was absolutely delighted to sell some of his holdings to McDonald.

 

                             NEWS OF THE MINES

   A.A. McDonald the bonanza owner of the Belden mine at Gilman has proposed to the Aspen Belt Mining and Milling company to sink a big deep shaft on five claims of the company located at Fulford for a $50,000 bond and a three years’ lease. The directors will meet in Aspen today to authorize and execute the papers.   J.H. Good, J.A. Campbell, Captain W.F. Kavanagh, and B. Clark Wheeler are the heavy stockholders of the company. Mr. Wheeler has sold the townsite of Eagle and the adjoining ranch to Mr. McDonald, who will soon inaugurate a campaign of improvement at Eagle in the way of a brick block and several thousand shade trees. Next fall the county seat of Eagle county will probably be changed to Eagle.

                                                  Aspen Weekly Times                             

December 2, 1893

There were just a few buildings in Eagle in the mid-1890s. The tent structure on the left may have been McDonald’s July 4th dance pavilion. The original railroad bridge is on the right, adjacent to the two-story building.

 Contrary to popular legend, McDonald did not “buy the town site for back taxes”. He bought the undeveloped town lots from B. Clark Wheeler and paid the back taxes Wheeler owed. Initially Mr. McDonald had very ambitious plans to improve the little community that included his idea for a new name: “McDonald.” In 1894 he had a revised town site land survey prepared, platted, and filed with the Eagle County recorder as the town site of McDonald. However, the post office, D&RG Railroad, and everyone else continued to call the community “Eagle”.

McDonald promotes Eagle

Now connected by the railroad to the world beyond, the community of Eagle would soon be impacted by economic and political events far beyond Colorado. The population of Eagle was still less than 100 with a school enrollment of about 30 students. McDonald devised a grand plan to put Eagle on the map. In 1894 he spared no expense to host a gigantic 4th of July celebration featuring $1,000 in cash prizes for drilling contests, horse races, bicycle races, and even some traditional Scottish athletic contests. McDonald lavishly advertised the event in newspapers statewide and negotiated with the D&RG railroad to provide special half- priced passenger fares. He also constructed a racetrack and erected a large canvas dancing pavilion. It was Flight Days on steroids and a huge crowd was anticipated.

                                           The Eagle Will Scream

Mr. Frank Farnum, general road overseer of Eagle county and an old-time resident of Red Cliff is in the city. “Business has been very quiet with us, but we have tried to forget our troubles and are arranging a gala Fourth of July celebration at Eagle, about thirty-five miles below Red cliff.” said Mr. Farnum. “There is a large force of men at work building a race track, dancing pavilion, etc.”

  “Crops in the valley are looking fine and the farmers look for a big season.”

 

                                             Leadville Herald Democrat                            

 June 28, 1894

In June 1894 Mr. McDonald placed advertisements in almost every newspaper in western Colorado, inviting everyone to Eagle.

 

Although sizeable crowds were anticipated, the gala event experienced a major last minute problem when railroad labor disputes and riots in Chicago resulted in a rail strike. All rail traffic in western Colorado stopped on July 2, 1894. McDonald’s special trains were not available. The people who did manage to attend reportedly had a very good time.

McDonald the politician

 In 1895 McDonald entered the political arena. He vigorously campaigned for the office of State Representative and initiated a special election to move the Eagle County seat.                                      

  A petition is being circulated in Eagle county asking for the calling of a special election to change the county seat from Red Cliff to the town of Eagle.  A.A. McDonald, the owner of the Belden mine, is the principal mover in the enterprise, having bought the town site from B. Clark Wheeler.

Aspen Weekly Times                                     

June 8, 1895

The county seat question was placed on the November 1895 ballot. At this time Eagle’s population was slightly less than 100. Considering populations of nearly 400 in Red Cliff, 450 in Gilman, and 200 in Minturn, it would seem that little Eagle would not have a chance at winning.  However rural voters from Basalt, Gypsum and Brush Creek supported the move to Eagle and there was a rivalry between Red Cliff and more the populous Gilman on Battle Mountain (Mr. McDonald’s home base). Eagle did receive the most votes for the county seat, but lawsuits, injunctions, and court appeals by Red Cliff prevented the move. In 1899, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the 1895 county seat special election was unconstitutional because voting had been limited to “taxpayers,” preventing many from voting. That decision ended the first legal battle in what became a 25 year long Eagle County seat war between Red Cliff and Eagle.

McDonald also ran for office as State Representative on the Republican ticket in 1895 but was narrowly defeated.

In December 1895 Mr. McDonald sold one-half interest in the Belden mine for $600,000 and turned the mine’s daily management over to the buyers. He then began investing in mining property and real estate, but lady luck had deserted him. Within a few years his lavish spending, generous loans, and speculative mining investments exhausted his fortune. He advertised his remaining lots in Eagle for sale and listed Frank Doll (another prominent Eagle County pioneer) as his real estate agent.

McDonald had remarried in 1895 and was the father of two small children when he suddenly died of pneumonia at Gilman on April 3, 1899, at the age of 43. His death was reported statewide and his large funeral service in Red Cliff was well attended. McDonald had recently taken another mining lease on Battle Mountain and was anticipating a big strike and a financial comeback. His obituary noted that McDonald’s unbounded generosity and his boastful “gasconading” style had contributed to his downfall. He had always been a gambler and risk taker.  He began as a miner working for wages.  The Belden bonanza, his ultimate success, made him a millionaire for a few short years before he gambled it all away.

Eagle finally became the county seat in 1921, ending the bitter 26-year war that A. A. McDonald had so eagerly started. The bonanza owner of the Belden did win in the end and a much larger town of Eagle, once a pioneer community named “Castle,” marked its 100th year as the Eagle County seat in 2021, thanks to efforts and ambitions of Alexander Angus McDonald.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the winner is…

Quilt Raffle Winner!

Lana Corll of Eagle purchased the winning ticket for the “Underground Railroad” quilt that was raffled by the Eagle County Historical Society. The quilt, made and donated by the High Altitude Quilting Guild, raised about $800 for the Historical Society, which will be used for updating and improving museum exhibits. Many thanks to all of those who stitched the quilt and to those who purchased tickets. We appreciate the support!