ONCE UPON A TIME...
A very long time ago, there existed a way of life in the high mountains of the American west that seems unimaginable today. It’s hard to believe it was ever real. However, it wasn’t a myth. It was real, it lasted for just a short time, and only the toughest of the tough survived; even fewer thrived.
After the conclusion of the American Civil War, the great westward expansion began in earnest. Many had already come west in the twenty years before secession. Some returned to the north or the south in the months following the election of Abraham Lincoln to support the fight that was coming. After the war ended, men and their families—who, in many cases, had little to return to—were promised a new life and the chance to “strike it rich!” in the west, and so they came. They came to whatever frontier boomtown advertised itself the loudest. Moreover, they kept coming. They came by the hundreds of thousands to a completely untamed land to make their wild-eyed dreams come true.
Many never made it, dying along the way. Tens of thousands died along the Oregon Trail and other migration routes. Even more quit the trip and returned home before they ever saw the mountains. Those who pushed on despite the incredible hardships had no idea what to expect in the vast and deadly frontier that awaited them.
Those who came and stayed were a different breed. They dug into the earth with little more than their bare hands in the beginning. They built their homes in the highest of the high places which were virtually impossible to reach and where it was viciously windy and frigid much of the year. They were often very transient and would move quickly from one big strike to another. In the beginning, they typically lived in nothing more than tents surrounding the latest hole in the ground dug open by a prospector or by a sluice along a river. If they stayed for more than a few weeks, they would build tiny, crude cabins close to a well-producing mine. If those mines produced long enough, they would send for their families (who often stayed out east at first) and would eventually build entire communities complete with governments, town plats, named streets, saloons, schools, churches, stores, more saloons, post offices, assay offices, newspapers, blacksmith shops, and even more saloons.
They also built cemeteries, and they filled them quickly. From mining disasters to “miner’s consumption”; from everyday accidents and street violence to disease and high infant and child mortality rates, people died in these places. They died frequently and in great numbers. It was not a life for the timid.
These determined people built lives in the most inhospitable, untamed, and stunningly beautiful places. They lived, and they died. They worked, and they played. They laughed, and they cried. They sang, and they danced. They wrote diaries and even complete books about their experiences. They had lots of children and buried far too many of them. Some went to churches to remember; some went to saloons to forget. Most lived and died anonymously, and no one knew their names. Others were loud and boisterous, and we still read about them today.
But they all had a story.
Through pictures and prose, I hope to help to preserve this history by telling the stories of those who came to mine the western frontier in the nineteenth century and of the towns and mining camps that they left behind.