The Purple Mountains’ Fading Majesty

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The period between the First and Second World Wars was, for the Rockies, a time of cruel suspension and uncertain change. Not even we children could pull the covers over our heads and pretend that the bogeymen were not there, for we were surrounded with the wreckage of hopes that once had blossomed as brightly as our own.

The most graphic of the ruins lay in Colorado’s Red Mountain district, a six-mile sprawl of abandoned workings along one of the headwater streams of the Uncompahgre River. By horseback across the intervening high ridges, Red Mountain was not far from TeIluride, where I lived, but by car it was a long drive around through Ouray and up the resounding Uncompahgre Gorge. Occasionally my stepfather would go there to examine moribund mining claims in which he held an interest, and the trip gave my brother and me and perhaps a friend or two an opportunity to scamper off along the weed-grown bed of the silent narrow-gauge railway for an hour of delicious prowling amidst acres of junk.

Laced among lifeless cabins were long dumps of waste rock, running like petrified tongues from the mouths of the deserted mines that the railroad had once served. Weighted down by each winter’s heavy snowfall, the mill and mine buildings, the stores, the little bell-towered church—everything—leaned a little more perilously each year, until one summer we returned to find that another landmark had collapsed into a heap of splintered boards.

We never found much inside the cabins except broken-handled implements, cracked dishes, and oddments of homemade furniture, for the departing residents had removed whatever was usable. Now and then among the waterlogged layers of newspaper that had been tacked to the walls for insulation we would notice a section of print that was still legible, and we would read, without much interest, of what had been happening down in Silverton in 1906. We investigated the wooden snowsheds that led from each house to its privy. We stirred our shoe toes through the heaps of crumbling tin cans outside the kitchen doors and occasionally saw, without being aware of their value as collectors’ items, old whiskey and catsup bottles whose glass had been stained a delicate purple by years of sunshine. Then we’d hear my stepfather honking the car horn and we’d scurry back. We sensed vaguely that we had brushed across lost dreams, and after we returned to Telluride we realized, during uneasy moments, that the stuff of our own lives was slipping away just as inexorably.

For we could detect the grim note that came into the voices of our elders when they mentioned that another mine up in Marshall Basin had closed. We stood around with our mothers while they watched the neighbors across the street move away, leaving behind a For Sale sign that no one ever lifted from the desiccated lawn. Then another, and another, and pretty soon one of the groceries on Colorado Avenue closed, and after that the lace curtains disappeared from the windows of one of the huts, called cribs, down on Pacific Avenue, “the line” where the prostitutes lived.

By August, 1929, the Bank of Telluride was insolvent and the examiners were on the way in. At that point the bank’s president, Charles Delos Waggoner, had an inspiration. By a dizzy manipulation of cashiers’ checks drawn on the Chase National Bank in New York, he paid off his own bank’s obligations and headed for western Canada, half a breath before the alarm was sounded.

Telluride’s only benefit was a brief lift in spirit. One of their backcountry boys had outfoxed the city slickers, and for a time the name of their town was on the front page of every major newspaper in the land. In the end, though, Waggoner was caught; he went to prison and the doors of his bank never reopened.

By the beginning of the 1930’s the brump of the stamp mills above the town had ended, and no amount of shouting could drive the silence away. Those who were left in the town tried. After all, Telluride was the county seat and a certain amount of county business, financed by taxes on the railroad and on the neighboring cattle and sheep ranches, had to go on until mining came back. All over the Rockies people were chanting that litany, which no doubt the inhabitants of Red Mountain had once chanted too: “Mining will come back.”

We leaned on frail reeds while we waited. A brief upswing in livestock prices ended in 1927 and the market resumed its long postwar slide into the Depression. Desperate for revenue, many cattlemen took to crowding their animals onto smaller areas and renting the balance of their land to sheep growers. Equally desperate for revenue, the sheepmen let their herds crop to the roots both the rented forage and the grass on the public domain, reducing the range’s carrying capacity and creating, with the cattlemen’s help, serious problems of erosion.

The rangeland crisis in the mountains was intensified by the same fierce drought that during the early thirties turned the high plains east of the Rockies into dust bowls. Spurred by the disaster, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act—named for Edward Taylor, a long-time congressman from western Colorado—thereby placing federal controls over whatever public domain still lay outside of the national forests and national parks. Henceforth the most vital single factor in the swift spread of the American frontier—free land— was no longer available. Men could use the nation’s natural resources only under the supervision of gigantic federal bureaus.