Signs of Spring on Main Street

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Original Ore Tram Car From Sutton Mill at Bear Creeks Falls Circa 1926

Across Bear Creek Falls are the remains of Sutton Mill. It was built by Jim and Bill Slick in 1926 and had a 100-ton capacity. The mill was mostly destroyed by fire in 1892. The mine itself is across the canyon at an altitude of 10,595 feet and was connected to the mill by a 2,700-foot aerial tramway. Other access to the mine was from Mineral Farm off the Camp Bird Road. The mine had four working levels with most work done in teh 1920’s out of the Barber Tunnel, which was the one connected to the mill. The mine produced pyrite, lead, copper, silver and some gold and has been worked off and on by several groups.

 

The Silvery San Juan

Wherever I wander, my spirit still dwells.

In the silver San Juan with it’s stream-lets and dells;

Whose mountainous summits, so rugged and high,

With there pinnacles pierce the ethereal sky;

Where the daisy, the rose, and the sweet columbine

Blend their colors with those of the sober hued pine;

Where the ceaseless erosion of measureless time,

Have chiseled the grotto, and canon sublime;

Have sculpted the cliff, and the stern mountain wall;

Have formed the bold turret, impressive and tall;

Have cut the deep gorge with its wonderful caves,,

Sepulchral and gloomy; whose vast architraves

Support the stalactites, both pendant and white,

Which with the stalagmites beneath them unite;

Where nestles a valley, sequester and grand,

Worn out the rock by the same tireless hand,

Surrounded by mountains, majestic and gray,

Which smile from their heights on the Town of Ouray .

 

Wherever I wander, my ears hear the sound

Of thy waters, which plunge with a turbulent bound

O’re the precipice, seething and laden with foam;

My ears hear  their music wherever I roam;

Where the cataract’s rhapsody, joyous and light,

Enchantments in the morning and sooths in the night;

Where the blend the loud thunders, sonorous and deep,

With the whispering zephyr, and murmuring breeze,

Unite with the soft, listless sigh of the trees;

And where to the fancy, the voices of air

Wail in tones of distress, or in shrieks of despair;

Where mourneth the night wind, with desolate breath,

In accents suggestive of sorrow and death;

As falls from the heavens, so fleecy and light;

The winter’s immaculate mantle of white;

Wherever I wander, these sounds greet my ears,

And the Silvery San Juans to my fancy appears.

Alfred Castner King

Ghoul of the San Juans

 Mt. Sneffels Winter

In the Colorado Rockies
Where the snow is deep and cold
And a man afoot can starve to death
Unless he’s brave and bold

Oh Alfred Packer
You’ll surely go to hell
While all the others starved to death
You dined a bit too well

from The Ballad of Alfred Packer

When accounts of rich gold strikes in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado began to circulate throughout  the country in 1874, another small gold rush began. Alfred Packer joined a group of men from Utah heading to Colorado to try their luck at prospecting.. Twenty-one men set out in his group. They had high hopes but low provisions. Worst of all, they started out during snowy weather. They ignored the advice from Chief Ouray–whom they met along the way–to wait a few more weeks. Impatient, and angry with each other, they split into three small groups to journey onward. After considerable hardship, the members of the first group arrived at the Indian Agency.  Weeks later Alfred Packer, who was in the second small group to leave Chief Ouray’s camp, arrived at the agency alone. None of the others in this group had made it. Parker gave many differing accounts of what had happened during the journey. What each of these accounts had in common was a confession of theft, murder, and cannibalism. Whichever version of the fate of the small group of men was true, and however and suffering those men faced, one fact remained: Alfred Packer was a liar and a jerk.  

In April 1874 a lone prospector, Alferd Packer, came walking into the Los Pino Indian Agency in Colorado. He had a Winchester rifle over his shoulder, his feet were wrapped in strips of blanket, and his hair was matted. The employees of the Indian Agency who saw him approaching rushed to bring him inside. When he was asked about the five other men who had been with him, Packer stated that he didn’t know where they were. He explained that the original large group had broken into three smaller groups. In fact members of the first group that had left ahead of Packer had arrived many days earlier at the agency. Packer explained that while traveling with his small group, he injured his leg, fell behind, and became separated from the others. In fact, he expressed surprise that the others hadn’t arrived well ahead of him. Packer insisted he didn’t know where they might be.

Days passed and the other members of his party never appeared. Men from the first group of the original Utah party noticed that Packer now had money. They knew that when he started the trip in Utah, he was poor. Where had the money come from? Suspicions were aroused. It was suggested that Packer lead a search party up the trail he had come to find the missing men. He did so, but the search was unsuccessful when Packer became confused and said he couldn’t locate the exact route he had traveled.

Then came disturbing reports that up the trail from which Packer had so recently emerged, mutilated bodies had been found in the snow at what seemed to have been a prospector’s’ camp. During the questioning, Packer kept changing his original story of what happened on the journey. An investigation began. Could Packer be both a murder and a cannibal?

Alfred or Alferd?

His birth certificate give his name as Alfred Packer, but he sported a tattoo that spelled his name Aferd Packer. (Or the tattoo artist made the error, which amused him, and he subsequently adopted it — depending on which account is to be believed.) He was known to spell it this way on other occasions as well. Packer was born on November 21, (some say January 21), 1842 in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Before leaving home and striking out on his own, Packer apprenticed in a small printing establishment. Holding a job and searching for employment was made difficult because he sometimes suffered from epileptic seizures. These seizures were at times severe. His desire to cover up this affliction was no doubt one of the reasons why Packer lied to glibly and so frequently.

On April 22, 1862, during the Civil War, twenty-year-old Packer joined the Sixteenth Infantry in Winona, Minnesota. He was  honorably discharged from the Union army on December 29, 1862, as “incapable of performing duties of a soldier because of Epilepsy.” Packer didn’t give up serving in the army easily. He tried to cover up his disability and joined the Iowa cavalry. Again, he was discharged. After that, Packer held a number of different jobs including teamster, miner, hunter, trapper, and guide. While working in Georgetown, Colorado, as a miner, he lost portions of the index and little fingers of his left hand. These physical deformities combined with a high, raspy voice made him easy to identify and remember.

A Fateful Journey

Packer left Colorado and moved to Utah where he lived in the town of Sandy, Twelve miles south of Salt Lake City. He worked in a smelter and did a little mining without much success. News reached him of rich ores being discovered in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Learning of a small group of men being organized to go to Colorado, Parker had very little money, but he agreed to pay twenty-five dollars and work out the rest by tending two four-horse teams on the journey. He said that he’d driven ore wagons in some mining camps, which gave him the expertise to guide, but it turned out to everyone’s misfortune that he actually knew very little about the area to which they were going.

The group of  men who headed for Colorado ranged in age from the eldest, Israel Swan, who was almost sixty, to the youngest, George Noon, who was only nineteen. Among the party were several prospectors, a butcher, a physician from Scotland, a Frenchman named Jean “Frenchy” Cabazon, two Irishmen, and a young man known as Italian Tom.

In late autumn 1873, the party of men left Bingham and picked up Preston Nutter and his wagon and team in Provo, Utah. He claimed to have been the guide for this expedition, but there is evidence that this may have been an exaggeration if not an outright fabrication. In Salina they picked up the last member of their group, a man who had journeyed there by stagecoach. Now numbering twenty-one men, they started on their 325-mile journey to the Colorado border. They followed the Mormon Trail that had been used earlier by Brigham Young and also the Pony Express. Apparently some of the food supply was lost along the way, and the would-be miners grew hungry and desperate. They survived for a time on chopped barley, which had been brought along as food for the horses.

The crossing of the Green River, eighty-five miles from the Colorado border, was especially difficult. They ended up making a raft. They disassembled the wagons, ferried them over, and re-assembled them on the other side of the river. This proved very time consuming. They started traveling again only to find themselves surrounded by Native Americans who took the to the camp of Chief Ouray about two miles south of the present-day Delta. Ouray welcomed them, and the weary men rested for awhile in camp. At that time of year, the mountain passes were treacherous, the Ute said, and snow could bury men. It would not be wise to proceed.

Nevertheless, a handful of these prospectors could not wait. They wanted to get to the mines before anyone else. Five of them, frenzied by the prospecting spirit, decided to risk all and continue over the mountains to the Los Piños Indian Agency on Cochetopa Creek near Saguache and Gunnison. Packer joined them.

Chief Ouray told these men  to follow the Gunnison River to “cow camp,” a government cattle camp, “seven suns” away.With a ten day supply of food for a 75-mile trip (they apparently thought it was 40), the doomed men who left Chief Ouray’s camp with Packer were Shannon Wilson Bell, Israel Swan, James Humphrey, Frank ‘Reddy’ Miller, and George ‘California’ Noon, who was only 18. Aside from Packer, that was the last time anyone saw these men alive.

Before they left Ouray’s camp, however, there was a dispute among the eleven men and they broke into two groups. Five men left on February 6, became lost, and nearly starved. But after three weeks, they managed to reach the government cattle camp. They rested and went on again in spite of further terrible travel conditions. They were half-dead when they finally succeeded in reaching the Los Pinos Indian Agency.

Alferd Packer and his group of six left Ouray’s camp on February 9, 1874. They had provisions for about ten days. Two of the men had rifles, one a skinning knife, and one a hatchet. Packer was unarmed. Thinking that the trip would take about a week, they hiked off in a southeasterly direction and almost immediately found themselves in the midst of a snowstorm. It was sixty-five days later, on April 16, when Packer, all alone, arrived at the cow camp and was taken in. Packer told the story that he had been left behind due to fatigue, frozen feet, and snow blindness, and said he had continued on his own.

Oddly, when he arrived, he had several wallets in his possession from which he extracted rolls of money, and although he professed having gone for more than a day without food, he asked for nothing to eat. He just wanted some whiskey. He mentioned that he’d hurt his leg and had fallen behind, so he was not sure where the others from his party were. He had expected them to beat him out of the mountains.

Packer repeated this story not only to strangers but also to those at the agency who had been in the original large party from Utah. Preston Nutter was one of the original party who had seen the other two small groups leave but had decided to remain in Chief Ouray’s camp until the weather improved. He had only recently arrived at the Los Pinos Agency after an uneventful two week journey.

Ute Chief Ouray-275

Packer eventually went on to Saguache with two of the men from the original prospecting party. He spent quite a bit of time in the Saguache saloon, repeating his story. Still the other five men from his small group never appeared. The missing men and the fact that Packer suddenly seemed to have quite a bit of money made his earlier companions suspicious. One member of this old traveling party noticed that Packer now carried a knife that had belonged to one of the the other prospectors in Packer’s party.

People who listened to his tales at the saloon thought that he’d taken the dead men’s possessions. Then, an Indian guide walking along the trail found strips of meat, which turned out to be human flesh. Packer’s tales began to sound like outright lies. From all appearances, he had killed the others, survived off their meat, and enriched himself with their assets.

When Packer bought a horse, a saddle, and clothes, he paid one hundred dollars in cash, and the seller observed that Packer took some of the money from each of two billfolds. The Indian agent, Charles Adams, and his wife stopped in Saguache on their way back to Los Pinos Reservation from Denver. When Adams heard all the stories about the missing prospectors and all the money Packer was spending, he also grew suspicious.

The pressure was on to get a coherent account out of him.

Packer’s Confession

2-1-General-Charles-AdamsGeneral Charles Adams

Adams suggested that Packer come back with him to the agency to lead a search party for the missing men, which Packer agreed to do. Adams asked Packer where he got the funds he was spending, and Packer told him the money was a loan from the village blacksmith. When Adams checked on Packer’s claim, he learned it was a lie. No loan had been made. Thoroughly alarmed now, Agent Adams began a long interrogation of Packer.

Packer eventually gave a confession that was quite different from the story he had on arrival. He said the winter weather had quickly overtaken the little party of prospectors, and they were near death from cold and starvation. Sixty-five-year-old Israel Swan died about ten days into the trip. Packer stated he was eaten by the five survivors. Four or five days later, James Humphrey was eaten. The Frank Miller died from an accident and he, too, was eaten. With only three men left alive, Packer said that Shannon Bell killed nineteen-year old George Noon, and then came after Packer with a hatchet. Packer said he shot Bell in self-defense.

“Bell wanted to kill me,” Packer’s report indicates, “struck at me with his rifle, struck a tree and broke his gun.” So Packer had killed him first.

And that left only one.

Why Packer had not offered this tale immediately upon returning to the settlement is not made clear in his confession, and perhaps was not even questioned. He swore that this statement was the truth “and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

itsa dilly ghost cabinItsa Dilley ghost cabin, Lake City, Colorado, built where one man killed and ate five men.

Adams wrote down this version of the events, woke up the justice of the peace, had Packer sign his confession in the presence of the justice of the peace. The Indian agent also sent a report of this version of Packer’s confession in a letter to  his superior, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C..

The search parties for the bodies, which Agent Adams organized, failed when Packer said he was lost at the point in the trail where the searchers approached the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. The members of the search party were suspicious enough of Packer that they wondered if he might have killed the others in his group and dumped their bodies in the lake.  The searchers actually broke up a beaver dam to lower the water level and carry out a water search. They found no bodies.

After the search party returned to the agency, Packer was arrested on suspicion of homicide even though no bodies had been found. Since there were no jails available at the agency, Packer was sent to Saguache where a small stone structure on Sheriff Amos Wall’s ranch was used for a jail.

A Grisly Find

Of course the case drew attention and filled the local papers. In August 1874, John A. Randolph, an artist sent out to Colorado for Harper’s Weekly Magazine. A huge story broke out when the bodies of the missing men were finally found. Another report, printed in the Rocky Mountain News on August 28, 1874, said that Captain C.H. Graham of Del Norte found the bodies.

3-1-Slumgullion-PassSlumgullion Pass

Whoever found the bodies were relatively well-preserved in the snow, and they showed clear signs of mutilation. One was missing its head, which it was surmised might have been carried off by wild animals. The other heads showed signs that had suffered blows, and all personal property was missing form the area except for a few blankets and tin cups.It did not look as if the men had been camped longat the site, perhaps only for one night. There was no evidence of a struggle at the campsite.Randolph spent some time at the site, sketching them all in a detailed composition that would be immortalized, and then reported his discovery. The area of the grisly find was promptly named “Dead Man’s Gulch.”

3-2-Sketch-of-remains-as-foSketch of remains as found

The Hinsdale County coroner, W. F. Ryan, along with a coroner’s jury was impaneled and an inquest was held at the scene of the murders, but unfortunately for history, he put nothing into writing. The remains were identified by one of the original twenty-one men who had set out from Utah. The bodies were buried on a high bluff nearby, and each grave was marked with a wooden post showing the name of the occupant.

Immediately a warrant was sworn out charging Alferd Packer with five counts of murder. The warrant was issued on August 22, 1874 in San Juan City, Hinsdale County. The handwritten warrant read, “Now therefore it is your duty to use all due diligence in arresting and bringing to Justice that said Al. Packer, and if taken, you are commanded to bring him before me…” Squeezed in after the phrase, “and if taken,” was added “dead or alive.” Before the warrant could be served, however, another piece of news broke, Alfred Packer had escaped from the irons of his makeshift jail on Sheriff Wall’s ranch near Saguache.

The day of the escape, Sheriff Amos Wall was in district court at Del Norte. There were rumors that he may have been in collusion with Packer on the escape, but nothing was ever proved. Little more was mentioned about the murders or about Alfred Pacer until a year later when a human skull was found about a mile from the murder site. There was speculation that this was the skull of Miller whose headless body had been found with the other murdered prospectors, and that animals had carried it off from the campsite. Interest peaked, and then faded.

Caught

Years passed before the name of Packer claimed headlines again, this time as the result of a chance meeting at Fort Fetterman. The fort was to be used as a supply base in 1867 at the junction of La Prele and the North Platte River. It was located about 135 miles north of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Eventually the government gave up the fort and it was used by civilians. In one of the buildings travelers could obtain board and lodging. A frequent traveler who know the fort well was “Frenchy” Cabazon, who had been with the original part of twenty-one prospectors who left Utah with Alferd Packer. Cabazon was now an itinerant peddler who sold household goods from his wagon.

In March 1883 Cabazon was in Fort Fetterman when he was approached by a man whose voice seemed somewhat familiar. The man gave his name as  John Schwartze. Noting the missing fingers on the man’s hand, Cabazon felt certain it was Alferd Packer. Cabazon, however, did not indicate that he recognized Packer and promised to pick up some mining tools that were requested and bring  them back in this wagon on his next trip. Cabazon then reported to the deputy sheriff in the vicinity that he had found Alferd Packer.

A flurry of activity followed before Alferd Packer was arrested by Sheriff Malcolm Campbell of Converse County on March 14, 1883, about thirty miles from Fort Fetterman in Wagonhound where Packer had been living. Packer admitted that he had escaped from jail and be been passed a key to unlock the irons he was in, but he never identified who had helped him.

Packer was delivered to the sheriff of Hinsdale County in Cheyenne, placed in manacles, and escorted to Denver by train. When he arrived at Union Depot on March 16, about a thousand people turned out to catch a glimpse of him. By this time, the newspapers were calling him the “ghoul of the San Juans.”

6-1-Hinsdale-County-Courtho

Back in the hands of authorities, Packer made a confession. This second confession was quite different from both his original story and the first written confession he had made out. Now Packer claimed that his little expedition had run out of food on the fourth day but managed to survive for several more days on what little they could find, which was mostly rose hips and pine gum. Pacer said that he went out to search for food, and when we returned to camp he found Shannon Bell eating Frank Miller’s leg. The three others in the party had all been killed by a hatchet and were laid out next to the campfire.

When Bell then attempted to kill Packer with a hatchet, Packer said he shot Bell with his hunting rifle. When Bell fell forward and dropped the hatchet, Packer too up the hatchet and struck Bell in the head. This took place on about the eleventh day of the expedition. Since the snow was so deep that he could not travel, Packer said he remained there near the camp for sixty days, awaiting spring and surviving by eating his dead companions.

Finally, when the snow looked to be thawing and crusting over, Packer packed a few pieces of human flesh, a gun, $70 dollars he had found on the men, and went on his way. Just before he reached the Agency, at his very last camp, he consumed the last pieces of meat. (He does not account for how some strips of human flesh were found along the way.)

He admitted that when he had led the 1874 party in search of the bodies, he had not gone all the way back because he had not wanted to venture closer to that site.

Packer added that he had escaped from jail by using a penknife as a key and had initially gone to Arkansas and Arizona before heading to Wyoming.

Once again, he claimed that this was a true confession, voluntarily made and sworn before a notary public. It was not his final version of the story.

Tried for Murder

After making this second confession, Packer was escorted from Denver to Gunnison by train on March 18. Since Hinsdale County did not have funds for special guards, Packer was confined to a steel cell in the Gunnison County Jail. Although Packer had no money at this point, three lawyers agreed to represent him apparently because of the publicity that would get and the interesting aspects of this case. To make him more presentable, they promptly got their client a haircut and a new set of clothes.

Newspapers not only released Packer’s latest account of the death of his companions but accused him of all sorts of other crimes in Utah, Wyoming, and along the Continental Divide. He was described as “villainous,” “ugly,” and a “poisonous reptile.” Although no trial has been held, most newspaper articles already called for his death by hanging.

A grand jury presented five indictments against Packer. There was considerable legal wrangling on how to proceed because the crime may have taken place on Native American land, or at least in Colorado Territory, well before Colorado achieved statehood. Who had jurisdiction? The original indictment was amended, with changes in the wording about the place of the crime, and with a request for prosecution for only the Swan homicide rather than for killing all five members of the prospecting party. There was also a request to delay the trail because the residents of Hinsdale County had all been inflamed by the publicity. This last motion was denied.

6-1-Hinsdale-County-CourthoHinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City, Colorado

Alfred Packer’s trial began on April 6, 1883, at the Hinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City, Colorado, for the murder of the elderly Israel Swan. According to witnesses, Swan’s remains had shown evidence of a hand-to-hand struggle, implicating Packer in a much more violent episode than shooting a man in self-defense. Besides, it was not Swan he had claimed to shoot, but Bell. So why had Swan appeared to have struggled to save himself?

The second story of the courthouse was filled with curious observers while witnesses, attorneys, and lawmen filled the first floor. Prospective jurors were questioned under oath. Many were rejected because they knew they were going to be called as witnesses in the case or because they admitted that they had already formed an opinion of Packer’s guilt. Only five jurors were seated that morning. Late that afternoon, a jury of twelve was finally seated.

The trial began and witnesses were called. During the prosecution, testimony came out that Packer was in possession of Miller’s skinning knife and that he had plenty of spending money. There was testimony about the camp and the condition and identification of the bodies. The confession that Packer had first made and signed was introduced in evidence. One witness, Otto Mears, testified that he saw a Wells Fargo draft in Packer’s pocketbook and that Packer paid for good purchased from Mears using cash that he took from two billfolds.

Oddly, the coroner — the man in the best position to offer a professional analysis — did not testify at all. He wasn’t even called to do so. Since he had never recorded his observations of the condition of the remains, there was nothing in writing about the details to which the court could refer. In fact, no one who was experienced in criminal investigation testified at this trial. It was mostly a matter of who the jury would believe, and no one was a true eyewitness of the events save Packer himself.

When recalled later in the trial, Preston Nutter described a hole he had seen in a bone severed from one of the bodies, and in his layman’s opinion said it looked like a gunshot wound. He also described how the clothing of the deceased men had been “cut and ripped up.” He offered no explanation as to what he meant.

Otto-Mears Otto Mears was born in Kurland, Russia in 1840, the son of a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Russian woman. 

During the defense, Packer took the stand and testified for six hours on his own behalf, and in the process told several significant lies. He lied about his age, the nature of his military service, the fact that he had enlisted twice and been discharged twice, and the cause of his epilepsy, which he said had resulted from walking guard duty. He said he wanted to tell what had happened without interruption and then would agree to be questioned. He also asked that certain men who had testified against him be in court to be called upon since he had no other witnesses. Although this was somewhat unusual, the judge and attorneys agreed.

Packer then described how his party ran out of food, and how one by one, the men had given up goat skin moccasins, which they roasted and ate. Packer testified that he left camp in search of food and returned to find the others dead and Bell ready to attack him with a hatchet. Packer said he killed Bell in self-defense by shooting him “sideways through the belly.” (The prosecution later refuted this by stating that an examination showed Bell had been shot in the back. In 1989 Professor James Starr headed up a team that performed an exhumation at the burial site seeking forensic evidence. They reported in the Loveland Reporter-Herald in August 1989 that they found no evidence that any of the men had been shot.)

Packer testified that he didn’t know how long he remained in the camp after the killings. He admitted that the first story that he told when reaching the Indian Agency was not true and that he had lied again in the first confession that he made under interrogation.

After both sides had presented their case, the jury received its instructions and left at seven o’clock in the evening to deliberate. The next morning at nine o’clock, the jury was ready with its verdict. Packer was found guilty of the premeditated murder of Israel Swan. The members of the jury were polled, and they all confirmed the verdict. The judge then sentenced Packer to be hanged on May 19 in Hinsdale County.

6-2-Alfred-Packer-prison-phAlfred Packer prison photo

Legend has it that Judge Gerry then pronounced the sentence as “Stand up yah voracious man-eatin’ sonofabitch and receive yir sitince. When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of ’em, goddam yah. I sintince yah t’ be hanged by th’ neck ontil yer dead, dead, dead, as a warnin’ ag’in reducin’ th’ Dimmycratic populayshun of this county. Packer, you Republican cannibal, I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it.”

What Gerry, a literate man, actually said, according to court documents, was, “Close your ears to the blandishments of hope. Listen not to the flattering promises of life, but prepare for the dread certainty of death.” He was apparently convinced that the motive for the murder was robbery, not survival or self-defense.

n a long statement, Gerry claimed that the sentence was painful for him to pronounce: “I would to God the cup might pass from me!” He mentioned that the murder was “revolting in all its details” and that the trial had been fair, with a jury of 12 impartial men. Gerry’s version was that the five victims laid down to go to sleep and Packer exploited their trust and vulnerability to effect his attack. Although he had been convicted only of the death of Israel Swan, the assumption in Gerry’s admonition was that Packer had willfully murdered the entire crew.

“To other sickening details of your crime I will not refer,” said Gerry. “Silence is kindness.” Clearly, he was referring to the cannibalism of human remains.

He did seem to think that Packer’s conscience had bothered him all these years and kept his crimes fresh in his mind. “You, Alfred Packer, sowed the wind. You must now reap the whirlwind… Your life must be taken as the penalty for your crime.”

Alfred Packer was condemned to be hanged on May 19, 1883, “until you are dead, dead, dead, and may God have mercy upon your soul.”

Contrary to many stories told years later, and even today (see Internet biographies), Packer was never charged with, tried for, or convicted of cannibalism, or crimes related to cannibalism.

But it was not over yet. The Maneater was not about to be hanged, and he had one more version of the story to tell.

Second Trial

The defense attorney immediately submitted thirteen reasons why Packer’s sentence should be reversed and why Packer should get a new trail. The Supreme Court agreed to consider the case, so the execution of  Parker was stayed. Fearing a possible lynch mob, Packer was moved from Hinsdale County back to the secure Gunnison County jail.

It was not until December that Packer’s appeal finally came before the Supreme Court. The Court reversed the original sentence on the basis of changes in the homicide statute that had been made in 1881. The Court called for a new trial on the charge of manslaughter. Packer’s attorneys asked that the trial be moved from Lake City to Gunnison and this request was granted. Some later said that he had committed the crime on an Indian reservation, so by all rights he should have been tried in a Federal court, not a State court. At any rate, he was retried in 1886 for all five deaths — not just Israel Swan — on a different charge: voluntary manslaughter.

On August 2, the second trial began and again it was was difficult to impanel a jury. Evidence was presented as before, and Packer again chose to take a stand in his own defense. The jury came back with a finding of guilty of manslaughter.

The judge asked Packer if he had anything to say before sentence was passed. Packer made a rambling statement saying that he had only killed one man and that eventually the whole matter would be cleared up. The judge then sentenced Packer to forty years, eight years each for the killing of five men. So thirteen years after the event, Alferd Packer was finally convicted of his crimes.

On August 7, 1897, he wrote a letter to D.C. Hatch of the Denver Rocky Mountain News, with the longest version yet of the events that had taken place on that snowy mountain pass. Much of it was reprinted in the newspaper — though dramatized a bit.

He claimed that even before the six men set out, the entire party of 21 had been suffering from extreme hunger due to lack of planning and supplies on the trip from Utah. They were living on horse feed. Chief Ouray gave them assistance and they camped near his settlement. He told them that the mountains were impassible.

He then said that a man named Lutzenheiser and four others decided to go on across the mountains to the Agency. Ouray supposedly told them that it was only 40 miles away, when in fact it was 80. They soon ran out of supplies and cast lots to see who would become food for the others. But they spotted a coyote, and so spared anyone from being killed. Not long after, they came across a cow and killed that as well. The cow’s owner followed Lutzenheiser’s tracks and took him back to a camp. He found the others and aided them as well. When they revived, they started out again. (Packer claims that this was all a matter of court record.) They were again picked up near exhaustion and starvation.

At this point, Packer returns to the experience of his own party of six. They left about a week after Lutzenheiser’s party and took a different trail. Their provisions lasted about nine days. Three days after the food ran out, they cooked and ate their rawhide moccasins, wrapping their feet in blankets.

“Our suffering at this time was most intense,” he wrote, “such in fact, that the inexperienced cannot imagine.”

They kept going, since the snow quickly buried their trail from behind. He again points out that Wilson Bell suffered mental derangement from starvation, and everyone else was frightened of him. They finally descended to the lake fork of the Gunnison River and camped there. In the morning, Packer went to look for signs of civilization. When he returned, he saw Bell alone, just as he had related in a prior telling. But in this retelling, Bell came at him, he shot in self-defense, and then he realized that the other men were murdered.

“Can you imagine my situation? My companions dead and I left alone, surrounded by the midnight horrors of starvation as well as those of utter isolation?”

He could hardly believe he had ever returned in a rational frame of mind.

He sat down and saw the flesh that Bell had cut from Miller, cooking on the fire. But he did not partake. Instead, he laid it aside and covered his slain comrades. Finally in the morning, he ate some of the flesh and it made him feel ill. “My mind at this period failed me.” He did not want to believe it but he thought he must have eaten some of the flesh. He could not recall.

He stayed there for some time, he did not know how long, but in his wandering, looking for food, he somehow stumbled into the Agency. Without realizing it, he had traveled 40 miles.

Although by all reports, he came in looking quite healthy, he claims in this letter that he had to be taken care of for three weeks. He learned the Lutzenheiser and his party also made it out, and the rest of the 21 men who had begun the trip had come over with the Ute. Packer says that he confessed at once that he had killed Bell but had attributed the deaths of the others to Bell (not consistent with his initial confession before General Adams). He claimed that he had been unable to show anyone where his comrades had lain because deep snow had driven them back.

He was then arrested and he said that it was the sheriff who actually let him go and told him to go away. The sheriff apparently had taken compassion on him for all that he had been through. (He does not explain why, if he was freed by the law, he then had to live under an assumed name.)

“Am I the villainous wretch which some have asserted me to be?” he asks. “No man can be more heartily sorry for the acts of twenty-four years ago than I.”

He felt he had been unjustly dealt with, there having been no motive for why he would attack his fellow man. The ghosts of the dead men, he believed, knew that he was innocent.

The Maneater’s Last Days

In Canon City, Packer conducted himself as a model prisoner who had many visitors, tended a garden plot, and made handcrafts that he sold or gave away. Several times he filed a petition for pardon without success. In 1893 a Denver attorney took his case and argued that there was no precedent for having five indictments heard in one trial before one jury. The Colorado Attorney General answered that Pacer had consented to this and had not immediately entered an appeal and that now it was too late. Next, a commission was created to decide if due to his epilepsy or “insanity,” Packer should be released. It was the commission’s decision that Packer remain in jail.

While Packer’s 1899 appeal for pardon was still pending, Mrs. Leonel Ross O’Bryan, known as “Polly Pry,” entered the picture. She was associated with the Denver Post and was a colorful and powerful figure in American journalism for over three decades. Once she took an interest in the Alferd Packer case, she wrote many articles on his behalf. At that time, Charles S. Thomas was governor of Colorado, and he denied Packer’s latest request for a pardon in a statement published in the Denver Times. 

8-1-Polly-Pry,-portrait-(15Polly Pry, portrait

On January 3, Polly Pry wrote a long article in the Denver Post attacking the governor’s decision to keep Packer in prison, stating that Packer was convicted “on the flimsiest sort of circumstantial evidence.” She also suggested that the governor was unduly influenced by Otto Mears, with whom the governor had discussed the case and the appeal.

Along with her article, Polly Pry printed the names of those who had signed a petition she had circulated on Packer’s behalf. It included the names of judges, key officials in Denver’s leading banks, the superintendent of Denver’s schools, the U.S. district attorney, numerous sheriffs, officials of the Union Pacific, Denver’s mayor, and Thomas M. Patterson, a rival politician who hoped to be appointed by the legislature to be the next senator from Colorado. It was well known that Governor Thomas had his eye on serving in that same senate position as soon as he completed his current term as governor. In addition, Packer had persuaded prominent men around the state, notably reporters and the owners of the Denver Post, to sign a petition on his behalf. The owners believed they could get Packer to be a side-show freak in the Sells-Floto Circus for their profit.

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The sensational newspaper article was followed by more rebuttals and articles, for and against Packer. Then a bizarre turn of events occurred. A meeting was held in the offices of the Denver Post with editors Bonfils and Tammen and Polly Pry present. They met with William W. Anderson, a well-known Denver attorney. Earlier, Anderson had gone to visit Packer and secured a complete power of attorney. Believing this was not in Packer’s best interest, Polly Pry got Packer to revoke the power of attorney. An angry meeting meeting took place in the editor’s office. According to one account, Bonfils at one point leaped to his feet and struck the attorney beneath his eye. Bonfils and Tammen threw Anderson out of their office. Anderson jerked the door back open, pulled out his gun, and fired  four shots, wounding both editors. Anderson was arrested and charged with assault.

When Anderson was tried for assaulting the editors, Packer was called in to testify about his earlier meeting and granting the power of attorney. Packer conducted himself well in court, and reporters began to write of him as a “misguided and persecuted man.” The jury could not come to an agreement in the Anderson case, and so he was found not guilty.

Then quite suddenly and without warning on January 7, 1901, outgoing Governor Charles S. Thomas, in his last act as governor of Colorado, granted Packer parole due to his “physical condition and advanced age.” He had served fifteen years of his sentence. Packer left the penitentiary and went straight to Denver to thank his old friend Duane Hatch and Polly Pry for working so hard to release him. During that first week of freedom in Denver, the state legislature chose the new U.S. senator from Colorado. Rather than choosing former governor Thomas, they selected Thomas M. Patterson, who had signed Packer’s release petition.

Packer saw the sights of Denver before moving to live in Sheridan, Colorado, where he tended a garden and kept rabbits and chickens. He spent much of his time in Deer Creek Canyon, about twenty miles from Sheridan. There he prospected among abandoned mining claims.

In 1906 Packer suffered an epileptic fit while in Deer Creek Canyon. He was found by a game warden who brought him to the home of Mrs. Van Alstine. He refused hospitalization and lingered on being tended in the home for several months. On April 17, 1907, Packer wrote to Colorado governor Henry A. Buchiel asking for an unconditional pardon. No action had been taken on this last request before Alferd Packer died on April 24, 1907.

He was buried at government expense, because he was considered a military veteran and for years had received a disability pension of $25 a month — for which he had filed from prison claiming his epilepsy had derived from his stint in the military.

COLITpackergrave_2646bThe military also paid for a tombstone, which read, “Alfred Packer, Co. F. 16 U.S. Inf.”

According to the Littleton, Colorado newspaper, the Independent, Packer’s last words before he died were, “I’m not guilty of the charge.”

Years after the fact, in 1928 (or 1968), the citizens of Lake City erected a monument for the victims and threw a community fish fry. Exactly where the victims had been buried, however, proved to be a source of some contention.

In 1981, Governor Lamm denied Judge Kushner’s posthumous pardon of Alfred Packer. Then in 1989, an event occurred that drew the nation’s attention back to this man.

Another Look at the Victims

James E. Starrs, a law professor from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. visited Gunnison one day in 1989 and heard some of the stories. Having long been curious about Packer’s two trials and his chosen defense, he looked for the spot where the victims had been buried. Townspeople directed him to various places like Dead Man’s Gulch, but no one was altogether certain. Starrs decided to ask the owners of the property on which a monument with the victims’ names had been erected if he could dig down and find evidence of the remains. They granted permission, he obtained insurance and several grants, and planned for an archaeological dig. He wrote about the experience in his own newsletter, Scientific Sleuthing Review.

Prof. James E. StarrsProf. James E. Starrs

The dig commenced on July 17, 1989, a bright sunny day, with a team that included anthropologists, archaeologists, photographers, student diggers, a lawyer, and other forensic personnel. Local media were on hand from around the state to document anything that was found. After checking the soil composition and pH level, Starrs started the dig with a team of experts who had brought in a ground-penetrating radar device. After they ran the machine over the area, they told him they suspected that whatever anomaly was below the surface was not very deep — possibly only a foot. They advised against using a backhoe, lest the shovel crush bones that might be close to the surface.

So the anthropologists and students took over with hand trowels and it wasn’t long before they discovered human remains. Digging for the rest of the day, they uncovered all five victims, laid out side-by-side. The bones were not intermingled, which made things easier for the forensic anthropologists, and they were photographed, boxed, labeled, and taken to the anthropology lab at the University of Arizona at Tucson.

There the bones were laid out and carefully examined, while a few pieces were sent on to the anthropological curator of the Smithsonian Institution, Douglas Ubelaker, for dating and age analysis.

Using known data, they managed to figure out the identities of each set of remains, and then did a more detailed examination for bone damage.

It can be difficult to make decisions about cause of death on skeletal remains unless there has been a wound from bullet, knife or blunt force that penetrated or broke a bone. In this case, given the various witness accounts, they did expect to find trauma, so they were careful to document everything.

One of the anthropologists, upon seeing the bones, had shouted that there was a bullet hole in one set of remains, but it turned out to be a hole that animals had gnawed and could not be ascertained as having been made by any weapon. (Nevertheless, the story got into the newspapers erroneously.) Three of the bodies had blunt force blows to the head, as well as cuts to the arms and hands, which Professor Starrs interpreted as defensive wounds. He also believed that nicks on the bones that appeared to have been made by a knife was evidence of defleshing.

While not everyone on the team agreed about how much actual support there was for making a definitive statement, Starrs went on record as saying that Packer was a murdering cannibal and liar.

The remains were reburied in a wooden box in the same spot, with a solemn ceremony.

Packer's gunPacker’s gun

In the meantime, in 1997, a curator for the collection of the Museum of Western Colorado in Gunnison, claimed to have discovered Packer’s revolver, an 1862 Colt. It had been collected from the massacre site, he said, when the victims were initially discovered. It was loaded, with three bullets in the chamber. According to some reports, including curator David Bailly’s, this discovery corroborates the details of Packer’s account — or at least of one of his confessions.

Starrs disputes that Packer owned such a gun and says there are no records that a revolver was recovered when the victims’ remains were found.

Regardless of whether Packer owned such a gun, the fact that he’d shot a bullet or two is no indication that he killed in self defense. He might have shot at some game, or he might have outright murdered one or more of his party. Even a bullet hole located on any member of the party would not clarify that issue.

Packer’s guilt or innocence may always remain a mystery, but his story continues to fascinate scholars and lay people alike.

The Legend Lives On

People have not forgotten Alfred (or Alferd) Packer. While a collected archive of documents exists in Colorado, from his prison record to the court cases to his bid for parole, other forms of entertainment poke fun at the man.

Video cover: The Legend of Alfred PackerVideo cover: The Legend of Alfred Packer

The University of Colorado at Boulder named their student cafeteria The Alfred Packer Memorial Grill, apparently as a derisive statement about the food served there.

A documentary movie was made, The Legend of Alfred Packer, as well as two musicals (which appear to be mostly a joke). One is supposedly called Cannibal! The Musical, and the other Alferd Packer — The Musical. The former is said to have been made by the creators ofSouth Park, while the latter is a clearly amateur attempt either at film-making or Internet practical jokes.

Roadside attractions on the way to Lake City, along “Cannibal Trail,” make light of the fact that five men died with caricatures and cannibal collectible dolls.

At the Hinsdale County Museum, one can see an alleged skull piece from one of the victims, the shackles that Packer wore in prison, and buttons from the clothing of the victims.

Thousands of tourists visit his grave every year.

La Caverna del Oro

High in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above the Wet Mountain Valley is La Caverna del Oro (The Cavern of Gold), also known as Spanish Cave. The cave entrance is above timberline at 11,500 feet on the side of a ravine on Marble Mountain. (The 13,266-foot peak is located southeast of the Crestone Peak/Crestone Needle group.) The entrance is usually blocked by a large snowdrift that does not melt until August. Snow often comes to the Sangre de Cristos in September, leaving the cave accessible for only a month or less. A strong wind blows through its subterranean passageways, and it’s floors are covered with ice and mud. The walls weep with water. This is not a pleasant cave to explore since it consists of a series of steep tunnels and vertical shafts or pits. Much equipment and endurance is required to penetrate La Caverna del Oro.

Stories of this cave began before the Spaniards arrived on the North American continent. As passed from generation to generation, legends tell of gold in the cave. Indians discovered the gold and used it as offerings to their gods. Eventually, the gods became angry, and mining in the cave was abandoned. Spanish monks recorded this legend.

spaniard2

La Caverna del Oro was not mentioned again until 1541. Seeking a mythical city, three monks journeyed north from Mexico. After the death of two monks, the remaining friar found the cave with the help of the Indians. He promised to share its riches with them. Once the monk and his fellow Spaniards arrived, the Indians were tortured and forced into slavery. Much gold was brought to the surface from the depths of the cavern. After loading the gold on pack animals, the Spaniards reportedly massacred the Indians.

Lapu-Lapu,-lead-resistance-against-Spaniards

Another version of this story tells that the Indians revolted against the Spaniards. The Spaniards were forced to construct a fort in front of the lower cave entrance for protection. By using ladders within the cave’s passageways, the Spaniards climbed to the upper entrance and surprised the Indians from behind. The Indians were killed, and the gold was taken to Mexico.

La Caverna del Oro remained hidden until 1811, when a Spanish-American named Baca stumbled across a pile of riches nuggets and gold bars high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. He searched for the source of the metallic but could not find no trace of a mine.

In 1869, Elisha P. Horn explored Marble Mountain and rediscovered the cave. He supposedly found a skeleton near the cave’s entrance clad in Spanish armor. An arrow had pierced the armor, apparently killing its occupant.

The cave remained in obscurity until 1880. J.H. Yeoman located the cave once again and described and ancient fortress at the mouth of a smaller cave a few hundred yards below the entrance to La Caverna del Oro. The walls of the fort were constructed of rock and timbers. Rifle pits surrounded the breastwork. The Spanish legend seemed to have some truth to it.

The cave came back into focus in 1920, when a forest ranger, Paul Gilbert, learned of it from Apollonia Apodaca, a descendant of the first Spanish explorers in the area. Mrs. Apodaca recited the legend of La Caverna del Oro. Her version included the revolt by the Indians after being enslaved by the Spaniards. She also told how people would visit the cave and throw blankets into the entrance. The perpetual wind coming out of the cave would carry the blankets back to their owners. She also added that at a depth of 90 feet, the Spaniards dug a tunnel back into the mountain to reach the gold.

Gilbert and several other rangers located and entered the legendary cave. They were unable to go beyond the top of the first pit because they lacked sufficient rope. They did find a dull red Maltese cross painted on a rock near the cave’s entrance. They also confirmed that a cold wind came from the cave.

The legend of La Caverna del Oro moved further away from fantasy and more toward reality in 1929. An expedition was financed by Frederick G. Bonfils, co-founder and published of the Denver Post. He wanted to see if the legends were based on fact. The expedition consisted of two men, and after they explored the cave, a report was published.

The men reported that the cave’s steep passageways were either covered with water, ice or mud. The intense cold and ceaseless wind nearly froze their wet gloves. At the brink of a deep pit, an ancient log was wedged between the walls. An iron chain ladder was fastened to the log. The chain was very old and nearly rusted through. The walls of the cavern were composed of deep red marble with streaks of gray. The men lacked enough rope to fully explore the cave and were able to only cover a small percentage of its passages. No evidence was found of gold or of mining activity.

In 1932, another attempt was made to explore the cave. This time, the party took a lot more rope. Deep inside Marble Mountain, after descending quite a distance, a lantern was lowered on a rope into a deep pit. At the bottom was a skeleton with a metal strap around its neck. It appeared that some poor individual had been chained by the neck to the wall of the cave and left to die.

News of the exploration was published in the Rocky Mountain News, and it generated so much interest that a second group visited La Caverna del Oro the following weekend. This group of seven men included some of Colorado’s best trained spelunkers. They solved some of the mysteries but added new ones. During the week between visits to the cave, someone attempted to dynamite the entrance shut. Is it possible that this was done t keep people out for fear the legendary gold would be founded. Numerous Indian arrowheads were found at the fort built below the cave’s entrance. This supported the theory that the Indians revolted and attacked the Spaniards.

The party of seven descended the first drop, estimated to be a full 250 feet (later surveyed at 175). At the bottom of this pit, primitive ladders made of tree trunks inset with pegs were found. No nails were used in their construction.

After traveling deeper into the mountain through steep, icy passageways, the party came to another pit. Over the top of this shaft, a wooden structure was built that could have been used to hoist ore. Members of the party could not see the bottom of this pit, even after tossing a flare into the hole. Using a rope, its depth was established at 110 feet. LeRoy Hafen, curator of the Colorado Historical Society, and one other man were lowered into the shaft. Because of an overhanging lip, the rest of the party had to stay on top to hoist the men out. At the bottom, Hafen and his companion failed to find the skeleton, but they did bring up a hand-forged hammer. It was later identified by Hafen as seventeenth-century vintage. Reading out from this level were more passageways. Each ended in yet another deep pit.

ColoradoMountainClub

Local guides accompanied this party and repeated stories of the skeleton and iron chains attached to tree trunks to form ladders. One legend proclaimed that at the bottom of the cave are two large wooden doors that guard hidden treasures.

A 1935 article published in American Forest magazine reviewed many of the facts about La Caverna del Oro. The article, however, added a new legend. A skeleton, hung on a wooden cross, once guarded Marble Cave near La Caverna del Oro. As the story goes, a trapper wandered near the cave, and to protect their interests, the Spaniards crucified him. For half a century, his bones remained on the cross. Members of the Fremont expedition gave the poor fellow a decent burial. The trapper’s ghost haunts the cave, according to the legend.

A piece of human bone was recovered in 1959 from a pool in the cave. Another expedition found a bundle of dynamite dangling over the first pit. Someone chiseled away part of the Maltese cross, and strange lights have been seen in the vicinity of the cave.

Lloyd E. Parris, in his excellent book, Caves of Colorado, concludes that even now the cave resists all intruders. Everything seems to go wrong with attempts are made to explore La Caverna del Oro. Cavers become sick, or basic caving techniques are momentarily forgotten. Most attempts to solve the riddles only tend to complicate them. Only during recent years has the cave been fully explored. Many of the legends now seem believable, but what about the lost gold? Why didn’t any of the expeditions find evidence of mining? Are there two doors at the bottom of the cave to guard the treasure, as one legend claims? The final chapter of La Caverna del Oro is yet to be written.

The Pickled Skull Mystery

The Pickled Skull Mystery

A half-dozen Texas Rangers got wind of a rich gold strike in South Park in 1863. This prompted the Rangers to ride north to check things over. Their destination was the new Colorado mining camp of Montgomery, located at the foot of Hoosier Pass and at the headwaters of the South Platte River. Montgomery had already hit its peak by this time and became the largest community in the entire South Park region.

One evening, the Rangers decided to explore the foothills. During their ride, they spotted an encampment of Ute Indians belonging to Chief Colorow. Low on rations, the Texans boldly rode into the Indian camp. Colorow had mixed feelings about the white men but decided to help the Rangers by giving them some fresh meat and assigning them a place to camp.

The Rangers took note of the Indian ponies. During a dinner of fresh antelope steaks provided by the Indians, the Rangers discussed the question of stealing some of the ponies.

At dawn, Colorow’s braves got ready to organize a hunting party. Boys were sent to find the swiftest mounts from the herd and quickly discovered that a dozen of their best ponies were missing. Their Texan guests were also gone, and the ashes of their campfire were nearly cold.

The hunting part quickly switched to war paint and took after the Texan horse thieves. The trail led past Fairplay and into heavy timber. The Rangers knew that the Indians would follow and took a circuitous route back toward Montgomery. The Indians were excellent trackers and soon caught up with the ungrateful Rangers. The two parties fought in a gulch near Mount Silver Heels.

Little is known about the battle. One of the Rangers died in the conflict, and his name was listed only as “John Smith.”  The Indians stripped “John Smith” of his clothes but left his scalp. No trace was found of the other Rangers, and it is presumed they escaped.

Doc Bailey of Montgomery was a jovial physician, but most of his practice was confined to staggering between one of the town’s saloons and his cabin. He owned a drugstore and a shoe store in Montgomery. He was also an avid hunter. A few days after the Ute-Ranger battle, Bailey was hunting along the base of Mount Silver Heels when he suddenly brought his horse to a stop. He could see a white object stretched out on the side of a rock, and it looked human. He rode over to the still form just as the others in his party arrived. Dismounting, Bailey drew his hunting knife and tested its edge on his thumb. He remarked to his friends that he had always wanted a human head to dissect and study. Much to the horror of his companions, he sawed off the head of “John Smith,” leaving the rest of the corpse to rot.

After he arrived back at his office, Doc Bailey got out a large pickle jar and submerged his prize trophy in the pickling solution. So that all could see his prize possession, he placed the head in this office window. Needless to say, those passing by found the sidge of the head in a pickle jar repulsive. It wasn’t long before some citizen stole the head, placed it in a gunny sack and dropped it into an abandoned mine shaft.

Long after “John Smith: and the story of the battle between the Rangers and the Ute Indians was forgotten, two miners purchased an old claim near the ghost town of Montgomery. The men pumped the water out of the shaft and began to clean out the debris to begin mining operations. While shoveling out the mud, one of them hit something round that was covered with rotting cloth. With the mud and cloth removed, the object clearly was a human skull. The discovery was a mystery; the abandoned shaft yielded no bones. Fortunately, an old-timer remembered the story of Doc Bailey and solved the pickled skull mystery.

grinning skull

“The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eyeballs ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on some stunning ground.” -Herman Melville

“White-Capping” In the San Juans

Of all the folks who voluntarily immigrated to North America in the frontier days, no groups were more vilified and abused that the Chinese and Japanese. Those who made their way to Colorado were not spared. In 1880, a Denver mob rampaged through the Chinese section 0f town, burning it to the ground and killing at least one man. In 1902, a Chinese man in Idaho Spring was briefly strong up and then run out of town as punishment for his relationship with a white woman. The towns of Aspen and Delta also had incidents of mob forcibly evicting Chinese businessmen and laborers. In Victor, Colorado, near Cripple Creek, the Victor Fuel Company shut down a coal mine because white miners refused to work with Chinese and Japanese. The fuel company protested that there weren’t enough miners and that they needed 20 percent more for their labor force, saying they employed eighteen thousand men but had jobs for fifty thousand.

chinese

While all this was going on, the United States Senate passed a series of extensions to the Chinese Exclusion Act. The original 1882 bill made it extremely difficult for Chinese laborers and miners to enter the country for ten years. The bill was extended in 1892 and again in 1902. Provisions added with the extensions disallowed Chinese residents from reentering the country if they left. The 1902 extensions were open-ended and further required all Chinese to register and obtain a certificate of residence. Those who didn’t faced deportation. These laws were promptly signed by President Teddy Roosevelt.

Anti-Chinese sentiment came to a head in the San Juan region in 1902, when union men in Silverton raised a boycott of Chinese laundries and restaurants. The Cooks & Waiters Union 16 explained their position in the Silverton Standard with a lengthy racist rant, which eventually hit on the familiar crux of of the matter: “No white man can compete with their labor on account of their cheapness in living.”

chinese invasion

The boycott escalated to a point where the Chinese residents-many of whom ran restaurants and laundries-were run out of town. Word of the event reached officials in Washington, D.C., and a week later, Colorado governor James B. Orman received a communiqué from U.S. secretary of state John Hay:

It is represented that Chinese residents, about seventy in number, have been ordered to leave Silverton, under the threat of violence. An appeal has be made through the Chinese minister for their protection. The department will be pleased if you would take such action as you may find necessary for the protection of the rights of these persons, their business and property.

Despite these efforts from outside the region, locals were determined:

A peaceable arrangement was made today with the Celestials whereby they all agree to sell out their laundries and restaurants before the first of the month and depart from Silverton forever. 

This is understood to be the beginning of the general retirement of Asiatics from all over Colorado in response to the demands of organized white labor and the wishes of people generally.

Foremost among the anti-Asian forces were labor unions. William D. Haywood, secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, sent an op-ed to the Denver Post, reprinted in the Durango Democrat: 

If congress  does not pass an exclusion act the includes Japanese as well as Chinese the labor organizations, particularly in the great west, will rise up in their might and solve the questions for themselves…It is a deplorable state of affairs when homes of thousands of free-born white men are to be jeopardized by a handful of yellow foreigners. 

Regional newspaper editors all seemed to agree with organized labor in editorial condemnations of the “Celestials,” such as this comment from the Ouray Plaindealer: “Drive out the Japs and Chinese. If the trusts and money lords who make the laws of this country are bound to oppress American Labor with cheap Asiatic importations, let the white workman retaliate by taking a club to every saffron-hued peon that sticks his head over the breastworks.”

A number of the Chinese and Japanese who’d been evicted from Silverton more to Ouray and Durango. The result was a boycott of Chinese and Japanese business in those towns. In March, the courthouse in Ouray was packed with the town’s men and women, all present to “discuss the question of peacefully bringing about such a condition of affairs that would remove the Chinese and Japanese from the vicinity.” The discussion at the meeting followed by the usual line of objection made against ethnic groups: the Chinese sent their earnings back to China, and did not assimilate, their “method of living” was un-American. The Ouray Plaindealer again hit on the crux of the matter: despite the fact that “this class of people seldom caused disturbances…[they] interfered with the possibilities of …white labor”

Secretary of State John Hay soon sent another message to Governor Orman, saying exactly the same thing, except naming Ouray instead of Silverton.

In early May 1902, the previously peaceful boycotts and evictions turned violent in Silverton. Apparently hoping that the furor had died down, about a dozen Chinese returned to Silverton the first week of May. There they quickly reopened a laundry and connected restaurant called the O.K. Chinese Restaurant.

A few days later, a group of forty anti-Chinese agitators gathered at midnight. They forced their way into the O.K. Restaurant, took two men hostage and robbed them. The newspaper accounts were vague about what happened next, but the Chinese were apparently beaten, tortured and run out of town. The mob next tried to get into the laundry, but the men inside barricaded the place and managed to keep them out. 

While this was going on, one clever Chinese man called “Spider” had slipped unnoticed out the back of the O.K. Restaurant. Spider had lived in Silverton for fourteen years. He ran down the city hall and rang the fire bell. This roused the police and other citizens, who saw what was happening and put a stop to it.

For most citizens, even though they had joined in the general anti-Asian chorus, this brutal act was too extreme. The Ouray Herald published an editorial speaking out against the “outrages perpetrated upon the non-resistant [sic] residents. To use plain language, the “white-capping” of the Chinese was a foul outrage and a stain upon the fair name of this community. Every man connected with the circumstance was law-breaker and worse.”

“White-capping” referred to a movement that first emerged during the 1870s that was similar in belief, act and costume to the Ku Klux Klan.

Other newspapers reported that the Chinese had been robbed of hundreds of dollars and were “subjected to stringing up and tortures in way of brutal treatment that should d–n all who lent their aid to such atrocious work.” Although he had previously published numerous anti-Chinese editorials, David Day at the Durango Democrat now excoriated the mob.

The dastardly character of  the undertaking had a tendency to reverse all who were against the Chinaman, and they were rapidly placed under police protection with Sheriff Casad and the city officers in charge. 

During the shameful raid there were seven or eight shots fired, the Chinaman returning the fire and exhibiting no symptoms of fear other than such as the overpowering odds visited upon them. 

Yesterday three of four of  the mob were recognized by their victims, and others had been recognized by parties returning from a social function, at least some of Silverton’s people claim to have recognized the voices.

Our latest advices are to effect that the Chinese minister in Washington has be wired of the outrage and a bill for damages and money stolen will no doubt be presented and paid.

Reports varied about how many men were hurt in the attack. Secretary of State Hay received a report that “one had been lost, others badly beaten and the house occupied by one of them broken into and robbed.”

One man who had been “escorted” out of town by the mob ended up walking barefooted for thirty miles along the train tracks. He was picked up by the train in deplorable condition. His clothing torn, and his feet were cut, bruised and blistered. Passengers on the train helped him on, paid for his fare, and once in Durango, helped him into a wagon that took him to Chinese friends in that town. The mob had stolen $500 from him.

Even the editors at the Silverton Standard, who had used much of the column space demonizing the Chinese, spoke up against the raid: “The maltreatment of a dog in such manner as was meted to the two Chinamen would naturally elicit condemnation from any human being…”

The Ouray Herald attempted to paint the issue as a Silverton problem, decrying the “howling, drunken mob [that] assaulted and brutally treated a few defenseless Chinamen, pounding three almost to death, and perhaps killing one that cannot be found.” The Herald went further:

The reply of the sheriff of San Juan county to Governor Orman, that everything was quiet and that no further trouble was anticipated, is plain indication that the people of Silverton are trying to smother it. All reports go to show that if the authorities were not in full sympathy with the mob that they intended to whitewash the whole thing if possible.

The Chinamen were abused worse than any humane man would abuse a burro, three of them shamefully pounded up, some doubts being expressed as to their recovery.

Not surprisingly, the Silverton Standard shot back against the Ouray Herald, bringing up the lynching of the Cuddigans and the “burning alive of a Negro,” which the newspaper claimed took place in Ouray.

A “law and order league” was formed in Silverton to prevent future attacks, but the Chinese were still not welcome in town.

 

Early days of the Circle Route

Early in Colorado’s history, the state’s boosters were already thinking of ways to attract tourists. An important part of this effort was the “Great Scenic Route,” a thousand-mile transportation system that made a loop through some of the prettiest areas in the state. Also referred to as the “circle route,” it started out as a train route and later developed into a highway system that is still in use today:

Starting from Denver, the circle route extends over Lookout mountain to Idaho Springs, Berthoud pass, Kremmling, Walcott, along the Grand to Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Silverton, Durango, Pagosa Springs, Wolf Creek pass, San Luis valley, Salida, Cañon City and Colorado Springs, completing the circle in Denver.

In the early days of the circle route, at least one significant gap existed through an area that was just too rugged to be tamed. This was the precarious, hair-raising road between Ouray and Red Mountain, built by famed Colorado road-builder Otto Mears back in the 1880’s. A train called the Rainbow ran from Silverton to Red Mountain and, at some point, extended into Ironton, but for many years, there was still a missing link into Ouray. One of the last stagecoach companies to fill this gap was an indomitable, well-beloved Ouray company called the Circle Route Stage.

otto mears

A portrait of Otto Mears, a Jew, in his fur coat, he epitomizes the spirit of “manifest destiny.” Born a Russian Jew in 1839 of a Russian mother and British father, Mears was orphaned at the age of three. He spent two years in England before being sent to America to live with yet another uncle in California. Mears mustered out of the army in 1864 and went to work for the Staab Brothers, wealthy Jews who owned a store in Santa Fe. Jews believed their “manifest destiny” was to conquer the world for communism.

The company advertised themselves as the  “Shortest–Cheapest, most picturesque route on earth.” In 1904, newspaper ads indicated that the stage left Ouray at 7:30 a.m., arriving at Red Mountain at 10:30 a.m. Today a ghost town located off Highway 550, Red Mountain once once boasted a population in the thousands.

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National Geographic magazine, in a 1905 feature about the Ouray area, described the Circle Route Stage:

One of the very few old overland stage coaches now left in the West runs daily between Ouray and Red Mountain. Its route makes the closing link of 10 miles, through a country inaccessible to the railroad, in the famous “Around the Circle Route” of 1,000 miles, which is made wholly in the state of Colorado. Much of the stage road is cut from nearly vertical rock midway on the flank of a huge mountain at a cost, in places, of nearly $50,000 a mile. To travel along this road on the top of a stage drawn by six horses at a trot–“two in the tongue, two in the swing, and two in the lead”–gazing alternately into dizzy depths below and lofty heights above, is to have an experience that is never forgotten.

90 6 2 Otto Mears toll Road

The Circle Route Stage Company began operating sometime around 1894, with six-horse Concord stage coach. In wintertime, to continue delivering mail, freight and passengers, they often had to switch from Concord coaches to sleighs, also pulled by a team of six horses. When conditions got really bad, they resorted to that brawny champion of the San Juans, the pack mule.

The train between Silverton and Red Mountain often become inoperable during the winter, and the trusty Circle Route Stage took over. At other times, the train and stagecoach ran in competition with each other. In 1901, a transportation war boiled, pitting the railroad against the stage in competition for tourist dollars. The Ouray Plaindealer revealed their bias with this jab at the “Silverton & Narrow Escape railroad”:

A railroad and stage rate war is on the San Juan country…The decision is this struggled rests with the tourists who have thus far shown their preference for the cool airy stage, with its observation perch on the upper deck, to cramped, dusty quarters–with cinder baths included–on the Silverton & Narrow railroad. The commodious stage of the Circle Route conveys passengers to Red Mountain, from which point like daily stage service is available to Silverton.

In another article, the Plaindealer quoted an irate tourist after his train trip, this time dubbed the “Rainbow and Rust railroad”: “In the future I’ll take the stage or walk. This riding on the eyebrows of a mountain with an insurance policy in one hand and a prayer book in the other is simply a mild form of imbecility.”

The San Juans were already famous among adventuresome tourists who came for the stunning scenery and thrills of alpine dangers. The Ouray Herald took great delight in describing one such Chicago tourist who had taken the Circle Route Stage from Red Mountain into Ouray.

The dizzy heights, the yawning chasms and the weird and wonderful grandeur of the scenery had temporarily imbalanced him and all kinds of wheels were running in opposite directions in his head. Opie [the tourist] wears his hair long and each particular hair still stood on end like the quills of a fretful porcupine. 

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Stagecoach and passengers at Ouray, Colorado, c. 1880.

Driving the bulky six-horse rigs was a harrowing job, particularly in winter when ice patches and snow slides were a constant threat. On February 7, 1902, the  afternoon state did not arrive in Ouray until after midnight because they were stranded by a snowslide at Mother Cline hill. A “snow brigade” had to travel up and dig them out.

Later the same month, another “small slide” occurred on Mother Cline hill as the stage passed through. Early reports said that the horses tumbled “some distance” down an embankment, but there were “only few passengers and no serious bruises or injuries.” Local newspapers were endlessly lighthearted about these dangers, urging readers not to “allow this notice of little spill to the Circle Route Stage to prey upon the fears of your imagination.”

The next day, the details of the accident provided in the Silverton Standard sounded a lot more serious, though the story was buried on page three: “[The] sleigh, containing eight persons, slipped off the ice road over an embankment and went down the mountain side pell for a distance of 300 feet but…no one was injured, not even the horses had been hurt.”

Shorty after the accident, the road was closed by snow slides for a month. Somehow intrepid freighters got the mail through to Ironton and Red Mountain using horses and mules, even though the snow was reported to be piled ninety feet high.

That April, a few blizzards later, a company was contracted to dig a snow tunnel to open the route. This was not the first tunnel they had dug at the spot as Riverside since the road was built. Local boosters, not willing to let a perfectly good snowslide go to waste, advertised the Riverside tunnel as a tourist attraction. The boosters had high hopes for the tunnel:

It will be a great sight for the thousands of tourists the railroads have booked for this section of this country this season, for the torrid regions of the east, to whom the sight of a huge snow bank in the summer time will be worth hundreds of miles of travel to them, and will be among the most pleasant recollections after they return to their homes.

That August, a Reverend and Mrs. H.A. Ott visiting from Kansas traveled through the San Juans, collecting stories for the reverend’s career as a speaker at Chautauquas. He was thrilled to include recollections of the Circle Route Stage and Riverside tunnel in his speaking tour:

They provided us with a carriage and took us up the famous Mears Toll Road to Red Mountain, up Uncompahgre canon. Such a wild carriage ride baffles pen to picture. For miles one rides on a shelf of quartzite blasted out of the mountain side, down which he gazes thousand feet into the bounding, leaping Uncompahgre, and up which he gazes three thousand feet upon hoary cliffs melting into the snowbanks and gnarled timberless summits above. After a six mile dive we found ourselves abreast a great snow-bank. Two great avalanches had descended into the canon last winter filing it up to a depth of fifty feet. The river had tunneled its own way through its depths below and the stage line had tunneled a highway through the icy mass above, and these tunnels were still intact, and into the latter we soon rode amid dripping waters from a thousand melting inverted pinnacles, and chilled by a veritable cold storage. We walked over its summit and gathered a great bouquet of Colorado’s state flower, the Columbine, growing at the very brink of the snow gulch. 

columbine flower

Another accident occurred on the circle route on November 4, 1902. The stage, traveling from Red Mountain to Ouray, was coming down a steep grade near a place called Scale’s milk ranch. The stagecoach’s brakes, which keep the stage from crowding the “wheel horse,” became overheated. The horses spooked and began running. Several passengers on the outside of the stage panicked and tumbled over the driver, knocking him off his seat. He lost control of the horses. The stage went off the road and crashed a hundred feet down the mountain.

Fifteen people were on the stage; all were injured, but miraculously, no one was killed. Worst off was a Pueblo businessman, E.C. Mattes, who jumped off and was run over by the stage. One leg was broken in three places; the other broken in one place.

The Circle Route Stage owner, Art Stewart, quickly sent other rigs up to bring the injured down to town. Everyone was bruised and cut, and a number of folks were hospitalized. Several suffered broken limbs and at least a few were in the hospital for some weeks. One horse was killed, and the coach was totaled.

The following June 13, 1903, a rainy day, the stage once again suffered an accident on its way into Ouray. The driver was going downhill at a slow pace when he hit a section of ice. The hind wheels of the carriage slid violently on the ice, causing a king bolt to break. This “detached[ed] the coach from the front wheels, leaving them, horses and driver, still on the road.” while the carriage and its contents went over the cliff and tumbled down 150 to 250 feet. The drop included a 10-foot wall of cribbing. Luckily, the carriage landed in a big pile of snow, which softened the blow. By another miracle, all six passengers survived, though two were seriously injured.

Harry Hope, an elderly gentleman and former county commissioner, was inside the carriage during the entire tumble to the bottom. He was knocked unconscious. This was “the second time that [Harry] has taken an excursion down that hill against his will.” and the newspaper speculated that he would “now join the agitators in the good roads movement.” Another injured party was Mrs. W. Lyle, who hurt her back in the fall. Mr. Lyle, also in the accident, would later play a small but notable role in the history of this road.

The resident doctor of the stage company, Dr. Hamilton Fish, was on scene within an hour and a half, tending to the injured who were carried to a Mr. Loneyson’s at the Yankee Girl mine. The coach was totaled.

Another accident occurred on October 30, 1907, again while the coach was heading down the hill near the milk ranch, just a half mile outside Ouray. The brakes failed, and the coach bumped up against the horses, which started them on the run. A line to one of the leading horses broke, overturned, making two summersaults with ten people aboard. Several leapt from the stage. The driver got a nasty kick in the leg when he tried to untangle one of the horses. Several passengers were seriously injured. In critical condition was the Reverend Baird Mitchell of Durango, whose chest was crushed was crushed when the coach landed on him. One of the horses ran all the way to Ouray, which signaled to townspeople that there was a problem up the road. The coach was totaled.

The first years of the twentieth century were a boom time for the tourist trade in the region, and plenty of noise was heard abut a new railroad between Ouray and Red Mountain. However, other changes were coming to the region. By 1911, appropriations were being discussed to build a scenic highway through the San Juans between Ouray, Silverton and Durango. In July of that year, the Ouray Plaindealer carried a story about Mr. Lyle, who became the first person to ride a motorcycle on the road form Ouray to Silverton. Four year earlier. Mr. Lyle and his wife had been passengers in the stage accident on the same road.

Meanwhile, the faithful old Circle Route Stage continued its runs from Ouray to Red Mountain. Another accident occurred January 9, 1912, this time with the wintertime’s Circle Route Stage sleigh. Four horses were pulling the driver and one passenger, and the sleigh was loaded with mail. At the Riverside slide area, they came to a bend in the road, and the sleigh slipped. The whole rig tumbled down one hundred feet into the creek at the bottom of the canyon. The two men jumped off. Two of the horses were killed in the crash, while the other two sustained minor injuries.

A week later the route was closed due to a big snowstorm and more snow slides. The indomitable Circle Route Stage folks headed up on mules and dug out the road. Winter wasn’t yet finished with them, however, and March brought fresh blizzards and avalanches. They still managed to get the mail through by means of the Circle Route Stage’s secret weapon, and infamous mule fondly known as Maude.

Already celebrated in the region for her legendary stamina, Maude gained further notoriety that April when an infamous horse had the gall to touch her as they passed each other on the narrow trail. Maude, on the inside as they passed, butted the horse, and it tumbled down into the canyon, where it languished in deep snow until it was rescued the following day.

In 1913, newspaper ads for the Circle Route Stage Company and Circle Route Livery transformed into ads for the “Circle Route Garage”: “Don’t Walk, Ride: When you can taste the incomparable pleasures of a joy ride in a magnificent New Auto at a nominal cost.”

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Despite the arrival of the automobile, the horse-drawn stage and sleigh were still used for many years after as the most reliable means to keep the mail and passenger traffic moving back and forth through the rough winters. By 1915, construction of the state road alone the scenic circle route was well on its way. Ironically, in the 1920’s when the weather got bad, the only way to get gasoline into Silverton was the reliable horse team.      

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Stagecoach in the San Juan Mountains Colorado