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47 years of getting an ass up the pass

Article by Hal Walter

Pack-burro racing – August 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

How could something as ridiculous as the sport of pack-burro racing go on for 47 straight years? In 1999 — just four years away — the only sport indigenous to Central Colorado will be half a century old.

From the late 1800s well into this century, burros supported much of the mining industry in this part of the world. Mines were discovered by prospectors whose faithful burros carried their supplies and tools. Mines went into production with burros pulling the carts through tunnels too narrow for mules or horses. Burro trains packed dismantled machinery up twisting trails to remote operations, and carried sacks of ore concentrates down to the railhead.

But when the internal combustion engine became more efficient than donkeys in the mining camps, these ubiquitous animals were often turned out to fare for themselves — no pensions for burros, no matter how hard they had worked.

Often they became local nuisances. In some towns they flourished on hand-outs, but by the late 1940s, burros had become a rare sight in Leadville.

Dr. Bernard Smith, who lives south of Leadville, recalls that “They used to have burros walking through the east side of Leadville when I was a little kid. During the Depression, people were busy trying to feed their families … they didn’t have time to feed the burros,” and by 1949, “burros were pretty hard to come by” in Leadville.

Smith was looking for a burro in 1949 because that was the inaugural year of the Rocky Mountain Championship Pack Burro Race, and as an “18-year-old fresh high school graduate,” he wanted to compete.

He borrowed “a fat little jenny” from a family that lived between Buena Vista and Salida, and entered Colorado’s first official burro race.

Commercial folklore has it that burro races descended from some tradition of miners racing to the courthouse, donkeys in tow, to record their claims. In sober fact, the 1949 race was the brainstorm of merchants in Fairplay who wanted to attract more tourists for the fourth annual “Gold Days” celebration. Same scam, different decade.

“The boys in Fairplay originally came up with the idea, and there were some people in Leadville that went along and tried to help ’em out,” Smith recalls.

On July 30, 1949, twenty-one men and their burros assembled before the Lake County Courthouse in Leadville, with the goal of getting to the Prunes A Burro Memorial in Fairplay, 22.9 miles away.

Two competitors were disqualified before the start because they showed up with mules rather than burros; somebody found a rare Leadville stray for one of the assless chaps.

“I think all those fellows had walked around the hills and all of them had petted a burro recently — or at least seen one,” Smith says. “There were some pretty tough old boys that found out they weren’t as tough as they thought they were.”

The toughest turned out to be Melvin Sutton of Como. After a reserved start down Harrison Avenue to the right turn on Seventh Street, Sutton caught everyone along the Route of the Silver Kings, leaving competitors in the dust of historic sites as he passed — the Coronado, Little Chief, Robert E. Lee, Elkhorn, Evansville, Stumptown, the Dolly B and the Resurrection. He reached the summit of 13,188-foot Mosquito Pass in about two hours.

Ed Knizely of Fairplay was the only competitor to stay within striking distance. After a neck-and-neck duel on the descent through South London Gulch, Sutton and his burro “Whitey” pulled away near Park City and became the newborn sport’s first champion before a huge crowd that immediately engulfed him.

He crossed the finish line in five hours, 10 minutes, and 41.2 seconds. Knizely and “Prunes IV” finished second. Only 13 entrants finished that first race. Smith was among them; the muleskinner with the stand-in burro was not.

In addition to the $500 first-place prize and a trophy donated by the Rocky Mountain News, the bartender at the Hand Hotel in Fairplay donated a case of beer to anyone who actually finished the race.

Was it good beer? “You’d better believe it,” says Smith.

And so the tradition began. Now burros, the animals who once carried an industry on their backs, bore the weight of keeping alive the memories of an industry that once exploited them.

After four years of starting in Leadville and finishing in Fairplay, the two towns struck a deal to alternate the finishes. Thus in 1953, the race started on Fairplay’s Front Street and concluded at the Lake County Courthouse.

The races attracted some regional characters. In 1950, Dave Prather of Jefferson — an entrant who failed to finish the first race — won. The third race, in 1951, was won by Bill Copper, known as “Mr. Ski” in Leadville and the owner of Bill’s Sport Shop. Copper and his burro had finished both previous races.

He was a fourth-generation Leadville native. His son Paul, who now operates the sports store, said Bill was in excellent condition from his year-round sideline job. “He went from old Turquoise Lake Dam over the other side to check water flow at the head of Ivanhoe Lake,” and had to hike over the pass again for the return trip. In the winter, he made this trip on skis. “They paid him $35 a week, so it was pretty good money for one trip.”

The first woman to finish the race did so in 1951. Edna Miller of Alma was among nine entrants; she and her burro “Pill” crossed the Fairplay finish line about 6:30 that evening. In 1952, she was again the lone female entrant and finisher, this time with “Nugget.”

By 1954, four women were among the 36 competitors, and they all finished, with Miller joined by Beverly Weeks of Colorado Springs, and Leadville residents Eve Perkins and Jackie Stevens. They didn’t finish among the winners, since there was no women’s division. But they attracted press coverage; it was newsworthy that women then would even attempt such a race.

Joe Glavinick of Leadville won his first title in 1955. He would go on to win nine championships, the most by any competitor in the sport’s history. Glavinick, known for such antics as getting down on his hands and kissing the finish line, was a force in the sport for nearly three decades. His last victory came in 1976, but he remained a serious competitor into the 1980s. His sister, Helen, was the top female competitor in 1956.

The first official women’s race came in 1955, with ten female entrants in a field of 40 racers. Stella Smith of Rosita, which sits southeast of Westcliffe, took home top honors with her burro “Jackie.” Her husband, Walter, finished fifth in the men’s division after finishing fourth the year before.

Walter Smith pulled it all together the next year, winning the first of three consecutive titles from 1956 to 1958. Only three other racers have won three or more consecutive titles: Glavinick won in ’62, ’63, and ’64; Ardel Boes of Golden with five in a row from 1983 through ’87; and Tom Sobal of Leadville, with a record six from 1989 through ’94.

In the late 1960s, something more than Mosquito Pass began to separate Fairplay and Leadville. A rift began over the race. Each town argued that it was working harder to organize the race while the other town reaped all the benefits.

Moreover, the town that hosted the start emptied quickly as all the festivities — and resultant tourist dollars — moved to the town with the finish line.

It is widely held, though impossible to document, that Leadville’s Tabor Days committee decided to terminate the partnership with Fairplay and to hold its own race. A new course was mapped to the top of Mosquito Pass and then back down, up the hill by the Little Jonny Mine and back to town via everybody’s favorite Superfund site, California Gulch.

Leadville christened its new 22-mile route the Leadville International Pack Burro Race. Later Tabor Days became Boom Days, and the approach to Mosquito Pass was moved from Seventh to Fifth Street.

Fairplay experimented with different courses, including a race over Hoosier Pass to Breckenridge, 21 miles away, and an out-and-back race to Quartzville, near Hoosier Pass. The records show that Steve Mathews, a marathon runner, won the 1972 race in 2:50:46, the shortest finishing time on what must have been the shortest course in the sport’s history. Mathews had also won on the original course in 1965 and ’66.

In 1973, Fairplay adopted its own new course, the current 29-miler that puts a chill in the hearts of most burro racers. Fairplay called its new event the World Championship Pack Burro Race and billed it as the planet’s “highest, longest, roughest, and toughest” race.

The course leaves no room for questions. Besides its length, an ultramarathon by any standard, Fairplay’s route boasts more than 3,000 feet of vertical gain and descent, two miles of above-timberline grind across a tundra field known as American Flats, two crossings of Mosquito Creek, and a climb up a narrow path through a rock glacier to the summit of Mosquito Pass.

Along the way, Fairplay’s Gold Days became Burro Days, and that’s pretty much how it stands now. The courses and characters have changed over the years, but it’s still a contest of man and beast against distance, time, and the high-altitude environment.

Ridiculous? Maybe not. Anything that’s lasted 47 years must have something going for it.

Hal Walter raises burros near Westcliffe and plans to race with one in Fairplay (10:30 a.m., July 30, Prunes memorial on Front Street) and Leadville (11 a.m., Aug. 6, Lake County Courthouse on Harrison Avenue).