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Boom Days celebrates a mining heritage

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Leadville – August 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Leadville continues to cling defiantly to its image as a miner’s mining town. Despite some polishing around the edges from a few trendy cafes and fern bars, it pretty much remains a rugged, blue-collar community where a handful of men and women still make their living drilling, blasting, and mucking metal ores from the earth.

Like all mining towns, Leadville has known its share of booms and busts. But unlike many of its frontier neighbors, Leadville survived the tough times. And on August 2-4, Leadville celebrates its own legacy during Boom Days, an aptly named festival that’s come to symbolize Leadville’s endurance as well as its optimism.

For many current and former residents, Boom Days is the annual “must-do” event. It’s something like a high school reunion, with people traveling hundreds, even thousands, of miles to visit with old friends, catch up on the news, see what’s changed over the past 12 months–and, of course, join in the fun.

But you don’t need a Leadville connection to have a rollicking good time at Boom Days. There’s plenty to do for visitors of all ages, from watching the mining competition and burro races to browsing booths at the street fair or participating in zany events like the “mosey.”

“People come to Boom Days because it’s a three-day party in a town full of friendly people,” says Joann Cirullo, president of the Boom Days Committee, a 25-member volunteer group which organizes the festivities. “And of course, there’s the mining heritage that Boom Days represents. Boom Days’ events like rock drilling and burro racing really reflect the history of Colorado’s frontier mining communities.”

As do many Leadvillites, who stroll the streets on Boom Days weekend dressed as proper Victorians, Civil War veterans, prospectors, or saloon girls. The Leadville Raiders, the festival’s roving ambassadors, add to the authenticity by donning ankle-length dusters, strapping on holsters, and staging lively and noisy frontier “shoot-em-ups” throughout the town.

A block off Leadville’s main street of Harrison Avenue, the roar of a jackleg drill signals the start of the mining competition. While dozens of working hardrock miners from around the West vie for thousands of dollars in prizes, announcers provide spectators with a crash course in the methods used to “break rock,” along with an introduction to the vocabulary unique to this profession.

The action begins with modern jackleg drilling, in which a miner, working against the clock, wrestles a 130-pound mechanical drill to the face of a 20-ton boulder of solid granite. The miner then “collars a hole” by training the rapidly rotating drill bit against the rock surface. As the crowd roars its approval, he or she (this is an equal opportunity competition; female miners compete right alongside their male counterparts) expertly punches a four-foot-deep hole into the huge rock.

Modern mining gives way to frontier-era techniques when competitors demonstrate spike driving, hand mucking and single and double jacking.

An individual miner “single jacks” by pounding a four-pound sledgehammer against the top of a long, pointed, chisel-like tool called a hand steel–hence, the activity’s alternate name, “hand steeling.” As the drill hole deepens, the miner must “change out” the steel by inserting longer steels into the hole. To keep the steel from getting stuck, the miner must also “shake” or rotate it a fraction of a turn in the split second between each hammer blow to reposition the cutting edge.

The best hand steelers strike the steel at an astounding rate of about 90 hammer blows per minute. In the five minutes’ time allotted, a skilled single jacker can drill a hole eight inches deep.

Multiply single jacking by two and you get double jacking, in which two-person teams, one member wielding an eight-pound sledgehammer and the other holding, shaking and changing out the steel, “make hole.” The most adept teams may drill a remarkable 20 inches in just 10 minutes.

Business executives shelling out thousands of dollars on fashionable corporate retreats could learn the real meaning of cooperation and trust (at no cost!) by watching a double jack team. Complete confidence in one’s partner is absolutely essential; the consequences of a hammer blow missing its mark by even a fraction of an inch are pretty obvious.

Competition announcers, particularly the “Grand Master,” former Climax training director Charlie Marshall, have rather colorful ways of easing the tension that builds during the final moments of a single or double jacking round. Marshall urges the audience to cheer on weary competitors with shouts of, “Take it down!” “Hit it! Hit it!” and (my favorite) “Jack Daniels! Jack Daniels!”–the last two chanted to the rhythm of each hammer blow.

In contrast to single and double jacking, hand mucking is more a test of pure, brute strength. Competitors shovel a half-ton of muck, or broken rock, into an ore car, then push the loaded car along a mine-gauge railroad track to the finish line. This contest includes both women’s and children’s divisions, the latter involving a miniature ore car, tiny shovels, and proud parents coaching aspiring miners to victory.

A different kind of competitor tests his or her mettle in the annual International Pack Burro Race. The men’s division follows a 21-mile course to the 13,183-foot summit of Mosquito Pass and back again, with the women’s race only slightly less grueling.

Contestants push, pull, cajole–anything but ride–their burros along the rugged mountain route. And while two-legged entrants consider this activity fun (just ask Colorado Central’s regular contributor, Hal Walter), some burros apparently feel otherwise. Might that have something to do with the 35-pound packs they’re required to haul up and down the mountainside?

For spectators, the real action takes place at the start and finish lines on Harrison Avenue. The race often begins with an ornery burro deciding to run its own course, in its own direction. And it frequently ends with two burros running neck and neck–until one suddenly stops dead with just yards to go. The recalcitrant slacker gazes placidly at onlookers, ignores the urgings, however vehement, of its human partner, and eventually crosses the finish line when it’s good and ready.

In addition to burro racing and mining competition, Boom Days includes a street fair with dozens of booths offering everything from handmade jewelry and local mineral specimens to enchiladas and honey-drenched Greek baklava. Musicians and dancers perform on Harrison Avenue near the site of contests like the “mosey,” in which entrants strut, stroll, hop, roll or otherwise propel themselves down the middle of the street. Rounding out the weekend are a parade, softball tournament, gun show, special children’s games and activities, and a bicycle race around nearby Turquoise Lake.

So come out and enjoy Boom Days, and see what Leadville and its frontier mining heritage are all about.

Lynda La Rocca, who writes full-time from Leadville, denies that she ever spent a week in bed recovering from Boom Days.