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Deadly jobs in Park County, 1872-1913

Article by Gary Minke

Local History – August 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE HUMAN MIND has a way of sidestepping fears. Even though we all know that more people die in motor vehicle accidents in our counties than almost any other activity, we don’t think twice about getting behind the wheel. Yet we wonder why so many men took on very risky jobs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

To find out which old-fashioned occupations took the most lives during the 41-year period from 1872-1913, I had the opportunity to review the Park County coroner records (some of which were about to be discarded). If you guessed that being the town marshal was the most risky job, you’ve been watching too many western movies.

Those who believed operating steam locomotives would top the list of hazardous work are getting warmer. Those who recall reading the article on South Park Coal Mining in the October 2005 issue of Colorado Central Magazine were probably already shouting that underground mining was the riskiest job of that era.

Just as in modern times when there are jobs that the locals would rather not do, men were imported from other countries to work in those coal mines. At Como and King the Italian and Chinese miners were willing to brave the dank underground tunnels to blast, dig and load coal for a steady income. They had all seen men die, but they probably told themselves that it wasn’t going to happen to them….

By far the most hazardous job in Park County was working the slope coal mines at King, the little mining village in Park Gulch three miles east of Como. In the eight-year period from 1885 to 1893 at least 67 coal miners died in accidents at the slope mines. Sixty of those deaths resulted from underground explosions. The worst accident was in Mine #1 in 1885 when 35 Chinese miners perished in an explosion followed by a cave-in. Their bodies were never recovered.

On January 10, 1893 an underground explosion in the #5 Mine claimed 25 more lives mostly from the Italian mining community. That accident might have been avoided if more care had been taken with the blasting operation, which was intended to free up more coal. Blame for the accident was placed on Stephen Conti, a coal digger who drilled the holes and set off the charges, but the fire boss, Robert Blythe, was there and died with the other men. Mr. Blythe was in charge of directing the blasting operation according to company procedures.

The second most hazardous job was railroading. Transporting heavily loaded ore cars on steep grades with difficult to operate braking systems often resulted in run-away wrecks. Eight men were killed in train wrecks. Five people died after being struck by moving trains and an additional four were killed in railroad work accidents.

Park County also had its share of homicides in the 41-year period covered by the coroner inquests. There were 16 murders, 7 justifiable killings, and two deaths from the careless firing of pistols.

Hall Valley turned out to be a fairly dangerous place in those early days. Unknown vigilantes hanged two miners in 1873. One can imagine “citizen justice” served on supposed claim jumpers, but the details will never be known. Also in Hall Valley in 1873, Isaac Woolverton was shot and killed by his partner, Bill Criley, who was practicing drawing and shooting his pistol. In 1883 in the same locality a Mr. Brazille was shot and killed by Jacob Beyard after a card game, an argument and some drinking. Trouble at the Concord Chief Mine in the Gibson Gulch area of Hall Valley during 1886 resulted in the shooting death of Michael Feeney, but John Galligher claimed the shooting was in self-defense.

SEVERAL TEAMSTERS were also shot and killed driving their wagons between Grant and Hall Valley. In 1887 Charles Reid and his accomplice, Charles Goodwin, gunned down Fred Wallingbury (a teamster from Grant). Another wagon driver, John Smedley, was shot and killed in Beaver Gulch seven miles above Webster by Charles Brymer. I assume these murderers were found and prosecuted.

Likewise, binge drinking took its share of men in those early years. At least seven fellows literally drank themselves to death. Como, with its many saloons, saw many men drink to their ruin. In 1880, Joseph Lamountaine of Como died of excessive drinking of alcoholic liquors. Joseph Laflam in Como in 1882 got drunk and was run over by a train while he was resting on the track. James McCaffrey perished in the Como Depot in 1884 from a combination of lung congestion (pneumonia) and excessive alcoholic beverage. In 1885 Robert Rossman of Como started quarreling with Bob Combs over a bar bill. After some name-calling and aggressive action, Mr. Rossman was shot and killed by the town marshal, W.C. Bradley. James Sullivan was found dead in 1898 in the Como switch shanty. The coroner’s jury determined that he died of asphyxiation induced by excessive alcohol.

Possibly as a result of depression from mining or farming failures, poor health, loneliness, financial reverses, or perhaps even mere cabin fever, there were 10 suicides in the 41 years of historic inquest documents. Five of the suicides were by gunshot. Three people took self-administered doses of poison. In the case of the Barns family of Grant where the mother, father, and child were found dead of poisoning in 1899 we don’t know the details. Did the husband and wife make a suicide pact and then feed their child a dose of poison? Or did Walter Barns poison his wife and child before ending his own life? Two of the men committed suicide by cutting their own throats. Of the suicide victims 8 were men and 2 were women.

Even my little town of Jefferson had its moments of violence. Mrs. P. A. Martin shot herself in 1882. Thomas Shields was struck and killed by a Colorado & Southern train one mile east of Jefferson in 1901. Mr. Uplide Vallie, the Colorado & Southern Railroad station agent in Jefferson, was murdered by Ulay Baker who dealt him fatal blows to the head with a hickory cane in 1901. Mrs. Vallie was suspected of being an accessory to the murder of her husband, Uplide, but evidence was insufficient to convict her. The following year James McMahon got into an altercation with rancher and saloonkeeper, W.R. Head. Willard Head, a former stagecoach driver, ended up shooting McMahon in self-defense.

Ranching was generally a pretty safe business but one had to be careful with horses and lightning. While working on a ranch near Richards Spur in 1898, Daniel Proffite got kicked by a horse’s hoof in the abdomen. He died that evening of internal bleeding. Joseph Hartsel was killed by lightning while prospecting on his well-known ranch in 1901. Henry Delft was stringing fencing on the Nelson Ranch 4 miles from Fairplay in 1909 when he too was killed by a lightning strike.

SOME OF THE SENSATIONAL HOMICIDES in the Tarryall Valley (along Park County Road 77 between Highways 285 and 24) from 1897 to 1902 are the backdrop of interesting stories and legal cases in Park County history. One case involves a tavern owner, Peter Cox, who was gunned down in Puma City (now Tarryall) in 1897 by two men who would be set free. This story I refer to as “Double-crossed and shot in the back in Puma City.”

Another fascinating account is the murder of the popular Canadian telegraph operator and station agent, Uplide Vallie, who was employed by the Colorado and Southern Railroad in Jefferson in 1901. Some said his young wife, Ella J., was not playing straight with him, but they couldn’t prove it. This one I call, “Cheated on and done in at Jefferson in 1901.”

Or were poor Ella and the Puma boys as innocent as newborn lambs?

If you want to hear these stories and get filled in on other historical events which happened in the early days of Park County, plan to attend the 2-day South Park Symposium that will be held in Fairplay next summer (2007). The schedule will be announced and publicized before the event.

Gary Minke researches Park County’s history from his home in Jefferson.