Essay by Martha Quillen
History – May 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine
Immerse yourself in history, and you notice a few things. The murder rate in Colorado mining camps was horrendous, far worse than any Detroit or Washington D.C. can match today.
For instance, if we accept the most generous estimate of Leadville’s population in 1880, say 40,000 people, then it had a murder rate of about 340 per 100,000 residents. Washington, the nation’s capital of capital offenses, had a 1990 rate of only 78, about a quarter of boom-town Leadville’s.
(In fairness to old Leadville, its rates of assault and larceny were comparable to a modern violent city’s, so much of its murder rate may reflect improvements in medical care since then. A wound that was fatal in 1880 can often be treated in 1990.)
ANYWAY, MEN CAME and turned the mountains inside out, seldom worrying about cyanide leeching or unsightly slash.
They cut down trees for timber until denuded slopes slid downhill, and unchecked avalanches crushed them.
They nearly wiped out the game animals, some of which had to be protected for decades after the turn of the century.
The society was primarily one of young men, not held in check by the presence of mothers or sweethearts. Horse races down main streets, and target practice on streetlights were primary entertainments in those pre-nationally-televised-sports days.
Every camp had a few women to rival Madonna — women who didn’t just sell pictures of sex.
Towns adopted laws to prevent lewd behavior and soliciting in public, but the red light districts generated brawls, knife fights, free for alls, and court appearances.
Most men didn’t make millions like Hod Tabor. Most miners made a mere $3 to $4 a day, and the work was more dangerous than combat is today.
The life expectancy of a man born in 1880 was 42. Diseases not yet under control included cholera, diptheria, smallpox, whooping cough, measles, scarlet fever, syphilis, rheumatic fever and tuberculosis — a host of plagues far more endemic than AIDS.
Yet in the 1860s, 70s and 80s, men seemed ready to take on the world, to rebuild it, mine it, dam it — or perhaps even ruin it — with enthusiasm.
Whereas we wallow in self-pity.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why so many of us feel sorry for ourselves because other people suffer in Yugoslavia and Somalia. Nor why we live in fear of AIDS and stray bullets when our chances are so much better than they’ve ever been. Nor why I, even as I read of lynchings and accidents, think of those as the good old days — when people still triumphed over adversity.
History may have taught me a few things, but it sure didn’t teach me how to put things in perspective. As soon as I finished writing the museum stories, I started fretting about finishing my tax returns.