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The Homestake Horror of 1885

Article by Allen Best

Homestake Mine Tragedy – January 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

THEY ALL HOPED they could get rich quickly. The plan was simple enough. Endure a winter at the remote Homestake Mine, and by summer, when the snow had lost its icy fastness on this timberline perch, the ten men would emerge with their fortunes.

For a young man in Leadville in 1885, taking risks was the only way left to make a fortune. The easy money had all been scooped up, with claims staked for miles around. It had all happened so fast.

Only a decade before, in 1875, there had only been Oro City, and a visiting newspaper correspondent from Colorado Springs had insisted it could only be called a town through a “violent stretch of courtesy.” He viewed all of Lake County as “desolate in the extreme.”

Then assayers identified the black sand clogging Oro City’s placer sluices as rich in lead and silver. That was in 1876, and within four years the forest had been replaced by a true city. By 1880, some guessed that the population had hit 30,000 people, only a little smaller than Denver. But population aside, the people who flooded into Leadville during those years saw themselves as pursuing something bigger and grander.

The local newspapers — and by 1880 there were six dailies — sometimes called Denver their suburb, and they weren’t far from the truth. Did Denver have the Tabor Opera House, said to be the finest theater between St. Louis and San Francisco? When John Routt was governor, Colorado’s first, he spent most of his time in Leadville, working alongside his miners.

But that was the problem. By 1885, if you didn’t already own a mine or a business in Leadville, you were working for somebody else, usually from dawn to dusk, making only $3 a day. It was hard, often crippling work. So presumably there had to be another way.

Seeking that better way was the idea that sent a group of men to the Homestake Mine eleven miles from the comforts of Leadville in the winter of 1885. To get to the Homestake, they followed the railroad tracks north from Leadville until they could see Homestake Peak, then they trailed along West Tennessee Creek until it was blunted by the 13,000-foot ridge that defined the Continental Divide.

And just when a fellow started doubting that this mine really existed, a small lateral valley came into view, tucked into a rumple of the ridge. This was a wonderful place in the heat of summer, when the valley was thick with wildflowers. In August, the Continental Divide peered down on a mine site surrounded by slopes glossed heavily in green.

In the winter, however, everything was dead white except for the fronts of the three buildings, and even they were coated in snow. The men had not expected this. Tough and ambitious, most of them had been in Leadville long enough to know that winter could be surly. Last winter, after all, had been particularly trying.

But this winter’s ferocity still took them by surprise. And it didn’t help that they were above timberline. If they hadn’t been convinced that they were just around the corner, literally, from fortunes in silver, they might have pulled their few belongings together and headed for town.

Inside the bunkhouse, 24-year-old Horace Mathews sat down at the table, then opened the letter to his cousin in Ohio that he had begun the night before. Pulling the kerosene lantern closer, he put the paper next to the light.

“Snow, snow; will it ever stop?” he wrote. “It has snowed continuously for 13 days, and no sign of letting up. If I were to tell you the depth of the snow, you would say that I was drawing on my imagination.

“We have three cabins, all of which are covered with snow — a cook-house, a bunk-house, and a wood-shed. We have a tunnel driven into the snow for nearly 30 feet to get into these. This is a country where we cannot leave our canary bird out doors all winter.

“Yes, Bessie, there are other countries which I prefer to this, but, my dear girl, a poor man cannot always do what he wishes — not that I have to stay here, for I could go east if I was so minded. Mining is certainly a dangerous and uncertain business, but there is something about it that draws a man on, ever hoping to become rich suddenly.”

The miners

They were just ordinary men.

As befitting someone born in Searsport, Maine, Horace Mathews had first gone to sea and then worked in the lumber camps of Maine. Arriving in Colorado at age 21, he had worked first at a saw mill in the Ten Mile mining district north of Frémont Pass, and he later ran a lime quarry before moving into Leadville, the big city. In Leadville, his presence was recorded in the city directory of 1883.

The next year Horace was joined by his brother Josiah, who was two years younger. Josiah, like Horace, had been a seaman, but he had spent time at Minnesota’s lumber camps before following Horace to Leadville. Josiah didn’t intend to stay long. After making his fortune at the mine, he intended to return to Seaport to marry his childhood sweetheart.

Also at the mine’s boarding house were the Borden brothers, 28-year-old Morton and 27-year-old Sylvester. They were miners, through and through. Originally from Renford, Nova Scotia, where they had learned mining, they had both arrived in Leadville in 1879, perhaps in time to witness the hanging of a man on the same night that Horace Tabor’s opera house first opened. But they were restless, as many miners tended to be, and Morton had reportedly lived in all of the “principal mining camps of the great West” before returning to Leadville to seek his fortune. Sylvester had likewise left Leadville for a few years, returning in 1882.

The Borden brothers had grown up with Charles Richards, 32, in Nova Scotia. He, too, had become a miner, and when the 1883 Leadville city directory first noted his presence, he was an inhabitant of a boarding house on the city’s east side. “Silent Charles,” some had called him. A good Catholic, Richards was known as somebody who worked hard and saved his money. He needed to. He was a family man, but his wife and their two children remained in Nova Scotia.

Two men were from England. Thomas Burt, 32, had been brought up as a miner. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1876, he arrived in Leadville in 1879. He was known as the wit of the party. As the wind howled across the Divide that winter and snow drifted through the bunkhouse cracks, Burt made the long evenings shorter with his bright sayings and funny stories.

John Locke had also come from England — and from a “good family,” some pointedly added. He brought a different skill to the team, as shown when his partners chose him to be treasurer of their lease. Lock, 26, was also a partner in a ranch a few miles from Denver.

ORIGINS OF THE FINAL THREE MINERS spanned the nation. From the Pacific came James Burns, 25, who had worked as a plumber in his native San Francisco until arriving in Leadville the prior Fourth of July.

C.H. “Chris” Harvey had grown up in Council Hill, Ill., where his father remained as the postmaster. Harvey had lived in Colorado for 13 years, most recently in Black Hawk, along with two brothers. In Leadville, Harvey had become well-known as a butcher, and was a member of the Butchers’ Association. An uncle of Harvey’s was registrar of the U.S. land office in Central City.

Finally, from the Atlantic came Brooklyn native Robert Campbell. At age 36, or perhaps 38 — sources differ — he was notably older than his associates. He had also been distinctly troubled.

A story in Denver’s Tribune-Republican said Campbell “had been having some trouble with his wife, who left him,” Then while in Red Cliff, the paper reported, “Campbell went on a protracted spree, and in his drunken delirium attempted to cut his throat.” In February, as the story goes, Campbell’s wife said that she was sorry and wanted a reconciliation. Thus Campbell went to work at the Homestake mine to get a stake so he could go back to Denver, “for the woman whom he idolized.” Or so the story was told at a respectful distance many years later.

It’s unclear how these men came together, although it’s probable that the boarding houses on Leadville’s east side where several of them lived acted as a nucleus. They were all known to have “fair educations,” and also to their credit, they “kept themselves informed on the different topics of the day.” Reporting later, the newspapers had found them “intelligent, straightforward, honest men,” which is as good a thing as can be said about anybody in a mining camp.

Said the Leadville Herald, “They were men of toil, and had always earned their bread by the sweat of their brow.” In other words, they were little different from the thousands of young men who had been drawn to Leadville, excited by the prospect of getting rich, but sometimes disappointed by the grimmer reality.

An unusual crankiness

At the Homestake Mine these men hoped to buck the odds.

The first argentiferous lead-producing mine in Lake County, the Homestake was patented in 1871, and had produced ores of such richness it induced another first, Lake County’s first smelter. Yet, except for the $5,000 each that the five original owners had made when they sold the mine, the money had come hard. The mine was just too remote.

The story of the Gallagher brothers seemed symbolic. In 1876 the brothers had chosen to stay the winter at the Homestake. Around the first of March, as they sat in the bunkhouse one night, an avalanche thundered down the mountain, narrowly missing them. So the Gallaghers fled to Oro City where they were in a position to make a fortune after the worth of the silver-bearing black sands was discovered.

Other investors in the Homestake found even indirect luck lacking, however. One source reported three bankruptcies and one suicide among the successive owners, and even if that report is dubious (possibly it was true of lease-holders, but not owners), the mine didn’t seem to build any mansions in Leadville.

That didn’t stop others from chasing the dream, though. The latest had been three men — O.H. Harker, Fred Chapman, and James Murray — who had started fresh in July 1884, taking on a few employees. But as the year turned, they decided that they had seen enough of this forsaken hole in a vastness of icy white. All of their efforts had yielded only ten tons of ore, containing 86 to 386 ounces in silver to the ton — not bad, except for the horrendous expenses.

Some of their employees, however, wanted to stay the course, working for themselves. This was their big chance. With a contract signed Jan. 10, 1885, the employees assumed the lease for $900 in unpaid wages and $200 in supplies. What they expected to find in the mine is less clear. One story passed along in the saloons of Leadville had a treasure within the mine buried by excavated rock. Their goal was supposedly to retrieve the treasure. But that seems unlikely.

Searchers later found exploratory work, but virtually no broken rock.

More likely those former employees, like others before them, hoped to coax out the kind of ore that had been discovered just 14 years before, when the silver content justified hauling ore on the back of burros across Mosquito Pass and eventually to Golden. This story, along with a friend’s account that in January the men had been hopeful and even buoyant, had been carried in the Leadville Herald.

“They expected by June 1 to have out a considerable amount of ore, which would net them a neat sum of money,” said the newspaper with its characteristically colorful prose. “And the good the dollars thus derived was to do! Families thousands of miles distant were to be sent for, and new homes built up for them in the great West.”

YET, AS HORACE MATHEWS had noted in his letter, this was a place too harsh even for a canary. He probably used the canary metaphorically. Some miners took canaries underground — particularly coal miners — so that if bad gas was present, the bird would be affected first, giving humans time to flee. Colorado mines, however, were rarely afflicted by poisonous gas.

Canaries were also kept by the homesteaders on the prairie, primarily as companions for women as their spouses worked the fields. Pictures from the era often showed the caged canary outside the front door, along with a sewing machine and whatever else the family owned displayed with pride. No canary left outside the Homestake Mine bunkhouse could have survived long.

“I commenced this last night, but failed to finish, so will try again to-night,” continued Horace in his letter to cousin Bessie. “I have become very cross to-day, which is very unusual for me. I am generally good natured. The longer a man stays in this country the more disagreeable he becomes — guess I have been here long enough to be perfect in that line. The climate is conducive to crankiness. There, little girl, I think you will be tired enough when you read this, so will close. Thank you for your nice long letters, and with love to all, I remain as ever, your loving cousin, H.W. Mathews.”

The letter was dated Feb. 21, 1885, but it was never postmarked. It never left the bunkhouse.

Snow, snow, will it ever stop?

Winter had hit hard in December and remained a brutal affair. This story of fierce weather was told by local newspapers, wich featured the troubles of the railroads since railroads were how people got around.

By Christmas Eve the branch lines were practically abandoned, with the rails to Red Cliff and Breckenridge blocked by five feet of snow. With a fervor, crews for the Rio Grande fought back. Four engines with 60 men chipped away the route to Red Cliff, while five snowplows and 80 shovelers knocked open passage on the High Line to Breckenridge.

By early January, the railroads were at work again, and it wasn’t any too soon, reported the Leadville Democrat. “During the two weeks layoff of the engines, the smelters have suffered no material loss, but the miners and mining men of Ten Mile and Red Cliff have felt the condition of affairs severely. The regular shipments from each of the camps averaged about five car loads per day, and the absence of the equivalent in money makes an apparent change in the circulation in very few hours.”

Much of the labor was done by hand. George W. Cook, superintendent of the Rio Grande, was the eyewitness as well as the boss: “There’s scarcely a man who has not had some of his extremities nipped by the frosts, and every now and then a blade of wind comes down the gulch that almost cuts and saws one to pieces,” he told a Leadville reporter. “It’s enough to melt the heart of any man, whether he be Christian or sinner, to go into the work train and see the fellows with limbs swollen out of all dimensions, misshapen and vast, and scarcely able to turn on his blankets.

“This is the life of the Snow-bird, though. Do you want a job?”

The winter’s severity had not been entirely unexpected. With the similarly harsh winter of 1883-84 fresh in mind, mine and smelter managers had stockpiled large quantities of wood, coke, and coal, while grocers had sufficient nonperishable reserves, and many individual householders even had “their mess boxes crowded with substantials and their decanters full up to the mouth,” according to one newspaper.

MINERS AT THE OUTLYING CAMPS generally understood the dangers. Horrendous deaths from avalanches had already occurred in the decades that miners had been crawling across Colorado’s high country. Without aid of books or workshops, they fundamentally knew what to be wary of, when to stay put, and where not to build.

But just as the temptation of virgin powder sometimes overpowers the education of skiers today, there was that draw of potential wealth at Homestake.

— And by summer they’d all be done with this business of working for somebody else.

On the Continental Divide, the wind screamed from the north and the west, scouring the tundra slope and dropping the snow on the lee side in the amphitheater above West Tennessee Creek. The miners, seven of them at work during late December, had been forced to tunnel between their cabins and the mine entrance.

Faces that told stories

And so the winter continued. Snow reached its daily maximum during March in Leadville, but by April it was in full retreat. Up high, however, the slopes were still frozen.

Friends of the ten miners began wondering about them. Nobody could definitely recall hearing from the men since Feb. 10, when Sylvester Borden and James Burns had been into Leadville to retrieve and dispatch mail. If they had been back, no one could remember. Their mail, including more letters from Horace’s young cousin in Eaton, Ohio, had stacked up.

Uneasy about this, M.F. Sweeney and Michael Conerty, friends of the miners and perhaps relatives of several of them, set out on the morning of April 24, a Friday, from Eight-Mile House, an inn located in Tennessee Park in the area of today’s Rancho Escondido. Wearing snowshoes, they followed the snow-covered creek until they faced a wall of mountain.

When it seemed like there was no place left to go, the creek veered right, and they ascended into the amphitheater. Above the trees, everything was white.

The men sensed something wrong before they got to where they remembered the mine to be. There should have been footprints, but there were none.

Up higher, there were no cabins, no mine dump, no evidence that there had ever been a mine here — with ten men, working and sweating, laughing and cursing. All Sweeney and Conerty saw were slabs of wind-blown granite and pillows of white. They fired their pistols, and cried out, but got no response, save for echoes.

Horror-stricken, the two men returned to Eight Mile House, several miles away. First their faces told the story, then their mouths did. Frank Sanderson, the proprietor, refused to believe them. He knew every foot of that country, and he insisted that the two were mistaken. They had probably gone up the wrong valley.

BEFORE THEY FRIGHTENED Leadville with their story, Sanderson wanted to investigate himself. He set out the next morning at 4 a.m., while the snow was still firm as a boardwalk. Within five hours he had reached what he knew was the mine site. Returning to Eight Mile House, he said nothing at first, nor were questions asked. Then finally, he told Sweeney and Conerty that they were right. But the snow was already too mushy that day, he said, and so the best thing would be to summon help in Leadville.

[Leadville men pulling sled with bodies. Denver Public Library Western History Collection]

The news, along with Sanderson’s request for three hand sleds with six-inch runners, was posted at the post office. There was an immediate clamor of volunteers. Shortly after 4 a.m., 60 to 100 men left on a special train composed of an engine and two coaches. From Eight Mile House they trudged up the valley to the mine site.

Excavations were started in three different areas shortly after 8 a.m. But even with many shovels at work, the going was slow, for the snow was 40 feet deep in places, and packed so densely that axes were necessary to cut through it. It took a full hour before the searchers broke through into the kitchen — one of three cabins at the mine entrance.

No bodies were found, and bizarre hope surged.

Some of the men familiar with the mine knew a passageway connected the kitchen to the bunkhouse, so digging began in that area. Shortly after 1 p.m. the first body was found, and all hope died.

The building had been crushed, but this body bore no trace of injury, reported the correspondent for the Denver Tribune-Republican. “Death must have resulted from cold or suffocation and possibly from fright. The body stood erect, the head thrown slightly forward as if listening; the arms half raised as in defense, the whole position indicating apprehension.”

Nearby was another body lying face down in a bunk, several large logs had crushed him.

Three hours of digging opened up the opposite side of the bunkhouse where three men were found in an upper bunk, clasped in each other’s arms. The rescue party suspected suffocation.

[Rescue party digging through snow. Denver Public Library Western History Collection

Again, the Tribune-Republican spared no grim details: “The limbs of the poor unfortunates were so strongly interlocked as to require the united efforts of six or eight men for full half an hour to separate them.”

FROM THERE the researchers tunneled to another corner, where a man was found beside a bunk in “the attitude of prayer,” said the paper. “Death came by freezing or suffocation.”

In the bunk were two of his companions, showing no signs of having been disturbed from their sleep. Two more men were found in another corner, both badly bloodied in the crush of timbers.

Faces of all ten victims were covered with a half-inch of white mold.

Stopped clocks had timed the snowslide. A watch found in one of the pockets of the garments showed 3:15. An alarm clock found above one of the bunks showed 2:50. Set for 6 a.m., it rang shrilly when picked up. All ten victims were found in night dress, with their outer clothes deposited near the bunks in which they slept. They reportedly retired at about 9 p.m.

But the date of their deaths was still uncertain. In taking over the lease in early January, the men had taken three months’ supplies. From the looks of things, they had eaten their way through seven weeks or so. Then there was the mail. Although Leadville friends remembered only the Feb. 10 visit from the men, the bunkhouse contained a letter from Horace’s cousin, Bessie Charles, dated Feb. 10 and a copy of the Police Gazette dated Feb. 14. Then there was Horace’s response to Bessie, found at the foot of his bed, dated Feb. 21, and written over the course of two days. And finally there was a valise that had belonged to Sylvester Borden. In the valise was a time-book for the mine, which was kept with unusual neatness. The last work done by the men had been on Feb. 15. All of this adds up to a supposition tendered by the Leadville Herald that the avalanche occurred at 3 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 23.

Looking back, people remembered severe weather at about that time, which may have kept the men occupied shoveling the roofs of their cabins. There had also been other avalanches then; one had thundered down Chalk Mountain near Frémont Pass blocking the railroad tracks shortly after Horace wrote his letter.

But was it an avalanche? There was some argument later on that the men had been crushed by the collapsed building, and subsequent snows had buried them. But all the evidence points toward an avalanche, even if the result was to crush the cabin. A site inspection today strengthens this theory. Nowadays, there are laws against building in such places.

In deference to mortality

Although it was still a young city in 1885, Leadville had seen its share of death and disaster, for mining was — as young Horace Mathews wrote to his cousin Bessie — “certainly a dangerous and uncertain business.”

And so was life in that era. Under a headline of “Their Boots on,” the Chronicle listed 47 victims, nearly all men, who had died violently within a six-month period. Many were shot to death, some committed suicide, while one was “run over by the stage,” and another’s death was ruled “killed by whiskey.”

But the tragedy at Homestake hit Leadville hard. In the ensuing days, speakers raged at the very concept of mortality. Latecomers couldn’t even find room to squeeze into a community meeting at the courthouse to hear J.T. Horton describe the burial as a “public duty and a public privilege, not a matter of charity in any sense of the term.”

Robert Bunson, a mine manager, began a subscription for burial expenses with a $100 contribution.

A committee issued resolutions that spoke of the “spark of the divine nature loaned to man but for a season.” Another resolution called the slide “one of the dire calamities used by death to subjugate the race, and by means of which ten of our fellow citizens, in the prime of life and the hope of young manhood, have been suddenly rushed into the unknown future.”

This occasion “brings us to remember that we are members of one common family, and in this terrible instance causes us to feel that the human remains discovered in that cold, white Homestake tomb are the remains of our brothers.”

The funeral was held on Sunday, May 3. Sunshine dominated the sky, but Leadville was dark. “The scene was picturesque in its unfathomable gloom,” reported one newspaper. “At noon the members of the various societies began to assemble at the rendezvous points and thousands of people were monopolizing the sidewalks. The machinery at most of the mines was stationary and men who had not known a day’s retirement from the recesses of the hills for many months had emerged to do homage and reverence to the unfortunate men.”

[The Monument at Evergreen Cemetery. Photo by Allen Best.]

It was the most grim and sorrowful ceremony that young Leadville had ever seen. Stores and buildings were draped in black. People wore crepe around their hats and arms. Every military society in the city made a show of arms, as well as some from surrounding towns: the Pitkin Light Cavalry and the Rocky Mountain Rifles, the Ladies Relief Corps of the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Confederate Veterans.

From the civic societies came the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Patriotic Order of Sons of America, and the Turnvereins. Then there were the Knights: of Pythias, of Robert Emmet, of Labor. And also the Independent Order of Miners’ Union, the companies of firemen, the aforementioned Great Western Band, and still others.

SO MANY PEOPLE turned out for the funeral — by one estimate 10,000 — that room along Harrison Avenue was insufficient for all who wanted to watch the cortege proceed to Evergreen Cemetery. “A mournful silence, broken only by the sad tolling of bells, pervaded the entire city,” reported the Herald.

At the cemetery there was music from the Apollo Club, with singing by the Leadville Male Chorus, and prayers from five of Leadville’s ministers.

“Here,” said the Rev. Dr. Gray, “are the sermons, written with a living pen — the brevity of life, the surety of death.”

Father Ponsardin, although too recent an arrival to America to clearly articulate English, likewise stressed that “every step we make brings us nearer to the grave. Our sentence is already pronounced, and the execution of it is only deferred for a short time.”

The Rev. J. H. Phillips, pastor of the Congregational Church, asserted a noble purpose that may well abide for the year 2001: “And may the records of our well spent lives in the memories of those who knew us be the brightest monuments that could be erected over our moldering clay.”

The eulogizing done, the lessons of Homestake told, the Weekly Carbonate Chronicle ended its story: “The sound of the earth as it fell upon the graves grew fainter, and in their narrow confines the bodies of the victims of the most shocking horror in the annals of Leadville were shut, to be seen upon this earth no more forever.”

The aftermath

Altogether $1,890 was collected from Leadville-area residents. Of that $400 was sent to Nova Scotia to the widow of Charles Richards; $642 was paid for funeral and burial expenses, and the remainder of $847 went to the White Bronze Company to defray the $1,572 spent to create the 3,200-pound monument at Evergreen Cemetery. Standing six and a half feet in height, it supported a life-sized figure of Grief, represented by a kneeling woman with her head bowed.

After funeral services in Leadville, the body of James Burns was returned to San Francisco, and Christopher Harvey was taken to Central City to be buried in a mound behind the Opera House. Three hundred mourners accompanied their caskets to the Rio Grande station, and union members hired the Great Western Band to lead the procession.

Leadville, and the state of Colorado, responded to the death of the ten avalanche victims with profound sorrow and unequaled magnanimity. The question lingers — Why?

Perhaps people saw in the ten men something of themselves. The ten hapless victims were young men seeking their fortunes. The newspaper reports assured citizens that the Homestake crew had been made up of very ordinary, hard-working men — who had dreamed of wealth until their hopes were crushed.

There is one final chapter in this story about community grief, however. At news of the tragedy, the townsmen had readily collected money for a monument to the eight men buried in Evergreen Cemetery. But some months later, with money still in the bank, there was a question about whether to proceed with the monument or divert the money to survivors — principally the widow in Nova Scotia.

At that point, a newspaper editorialist, in a remarkable turnaround from the laudatory prose of a few months earlier, endorsed abandoning the monument. After all, he declared, what special thing had these men done with their lives aside from happening to end up collectively in an avalanche?

Allen Best has edited newspapers in Kremmling, Winter Park, and Vail, and now tries to get by in Arvada without a day job.