Article by Joanna Sampson
Regional History – August 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine
In 1860 Colorado was lightning-struck with the excitement of newly discovered wealth. “Gold fever” reached epidemic proportions as soon as word got out that there was gold lying around on the ground just waiting to be picked up. Symptoms of the affliction were easy to spot: a far away look in the eyes, itchy feet, and an uncontrollable compulsion to head for the hills!
Armed with picks, shovels, and gold pans, this army of miners fanned out over the mountains of Colorado. Close behind them traveled the camp followers: gamblers, con-men, saloon keepers, red-light ladies, swindlers and thieves.
And close behind the swarm of camp followers marched a determined Methodist minister. Shortly after the stampede of prospectors began, a strong, middle-aged man walked into Denver from the eastern plains.
Broke and dressed in worn-out clothes, he was one of the most dynamic preachers ever to walk into the gold camps of Colorado.
The Rev. John L. Dyer, Methodist minister, had just walked six hundred miles across the prairie after his saddle horse foundered on a peck of corn in Newton, Iowa. Father Dyer did not have enough money to buy another mount, so he turned his face westward and started walking. He arrived in Denver on June 20, 1861, visited his son for a short time, traded his pocket watch for provisions, and then headed west again.
This time he walked another one hundred miles over the mountains to Buckskin Joe, a booming gold camp in South Park.
The Buckskin Joe gold district, near present-day Alma, is a land of narrow gulches and high, ragged mountains which are beautiful during the brief summer months and racked with bitter, Arctic blasts in the winter.
Born March 16, 1812, John L. Dyer was no stranger to circuit preaching. Before coming to Colorado, he had preached in the midwest, in Wisconsin, and Minnesota, holding regular Sunday services and revival meetings wherever he went. He set up the same vigorous rounds of preaching as soon as he reached the Colorado gold fields.
In 1863, Father Dyer was preaching on his circuit three times on Sunday and once or twice during the week. In his spare time he prospected in Pennsylvania Gulch. Before the winter was over, church contributions were at an all-time low and he was almost destitute.
In February 1864, Dyer contracted to carry the mail in addition to his church duties, and once a week he traveled the formidable trail from Buckskin Joe over Mosquito Pass to Oro City and Granite. Mosquito Pass, 13,188 feet high, barren and wind-swept, is difficult to negotiate even in the summer time. Traveling the pass in winter does not bear thinking about.
As the snows piled deeper and deeper that winter, Father Dyer fashioned for himself a pair of snowshoes, ten feet long, which were really Norwegian skis.
He wrote, “Of course I was not an expert. Some-times I would fall; and, on one occasion as I was going down the mountain to Gold Run, my shoes got crossed in front as I was going very fast. A little pine tree was right in my course, and I could not turn, and dare not encounter the tree with the shoes crossed; and so threw myself into the snow, and went in out of sight.”
The Indian trail he used over Mosquito Pass was covered with from three to twenty feet of snow that winter. “The mail’s weight,” he recalled, “was from twenty-three to twenty-six pounds of express matter. My snow shoes ran well when the snow was just right, but were very heavy when they gathered snow.”
As the snow deteriorated in late winter, Father Dyer found that the only way he could cross the pass was on the icy crust, and so he took advantage of the nighttime cold and skied over the mountain in the dark while the snow was frozen hard.
Faithfully, he made his rounds that winter with a heavy load of mail on his back and his beloved gospel resting lightly on his heart as he toiled over the mountains. Of his rigorous employment, he commented wryly, “I reached California Gulch in good health, weighed one hundred and sixty-three pounds, and when I left the States pulled one hundred and ninety-two pounds. I found out that a man at forty-seven, getting fat, could walk, work, and preach off all the fat.”
He held services in any building he could borrow for a few hours: primitive cabins, schoolhouses, or outdoors under the shade of pine trees if the weather was nice. Once when no other accommodations were available, he held services in a gambling hall.
Father Dyer hated liquor and preached against its evils in the brawling gold camps, though, by his own admission, he was born with a love of whiskey. He wrote, “I can not remember when, at the smell of whiskey, water did not gather on my tongue.”
The day he preached in the gambling hall, he found that he was to stand at one end of the room under a sign that said, “Good Whiskey.” He protested. He could not preach under that sign, and requested it be taken down. An obliging saloon keeper removed the sign, stashed it under the bar, and Methodist services were soon in full swing.
Father Dyer routinely went around to the gold camps and invited everybody to come listen to his sermons. When he found the miners playing cards, he would say, “Can’t you get through your game in twenty minutes, stack up you chips and give us a hearing?” Frequently they all came to the services, and Father Dyer reported that they all conducted themselves with propriety. “Indeed,” he wrote, “I never found it otherwise in these mountains.”
He enjoyed attending the yearly Methodist conferences in Denver and made an effort to get to all of them. Once he walked the one hundred miles to Denver to attend the conference because he did not have the ten dollar stage fare. What a treat it must have been for him to visit with other Methodist preachers who shared his views and ideals! The conferences were certainly a change from the booming gold camps where he sometimes wondered if his listeners ever took to heart the gospel he so laboriously brought to them.
Father Dyer’s legend began to grow while he was still in the gold fields. His strength was incredible, particularly since he was almost fifty years old when he began his mountain preaching. His escapades on skis stand as a monument to stamina and courage.
When he was sixty-six years old, he was still traveling most of his circuit on his “snowshoes.” In 1880, at age sixty-eight, he built his first church in Breckenridge. The church had no bell, so he rang the town fire alarm to summon people to services. The city trustees revoked that privilege, but Father Dyer rang the bell the next Sunday anyway. A steeple with its own bell was added to the church in 1890, but in 1891 the bell was destroyed by vandals.
In Breckenridge, Father Dyer tried mining in 1881. His mine was called the Warrior’s Mark, and was in Dyersville, a camp named after him, below Boreas Pass, near the foot of Indiana Gulch. The Warrior’s Mark was modestly successful at first, but like most mines, it failed eventually, and Father Dyer lost his investment.
Father Dyer spent the rest of his life in Colorado. Particularly fond of his “holy shoutings,” the Colorado state senate appointed him chaplain in 1885, and his stained glass likeness now appears in the Colorado state capitol dome in Denver.
At the age of seventy-eight, he closed his ministry at Cañon City, Colorado. Eleven years later on June 16, 1901, Father Dyer died in Denver. The eighty-nine year-old minister was buried next to his wife, Lucinda, and son, Joshua, in the little Castle Rock cemetery.
Years later, in the mid-1970s, writer Stephen Acker, along with friends Mike Johnson and Ed Fritz, made a winter trek over Mosquito Pass.
They used modern equipment, spent one night high on the mountain, and found the going extremely rough and dangerous. Aker later wrote in Empire Magazine that, “our reasons (for making the trip) were neither religious not materialistic; curiosity was the driving force.”
However, they came off Mosquito Pass with a deep admiration for that long-ago Methodist minister, and they were gratified that they could locate the monument to “J.L. `Father’ Dyer” atop Mosquito Pass.
Today thousands of skiers are attracted to the Colorado mountains every season, though few attempt that lonely trail over Mosquito Pass which Father Dyer blazed. Undoubtedly, he would be amazed by the weekend skiers swooping down the mountains in their high-fashion sun glasses and their sleek, brilliantly colored ski togs. Staunch, old-fashioned Methodist that he was, he might question the sanctity of all that fun, laughter and high spirits, skimming over the powdery snow drifts. Climbing the steep slopes on ski lifts, however, probably would meet with his approval.
Joanna Sampson lives in Boulder, and has written about Colorado’s history for many magazines, ranging from True West to Empire. A recent work, “Rock and Rail,” the history of building the railroad through the Royal Gorge and Glenwood Canyon, will appear in a forthcoming issue of Journal of the West.