Sidebar by Allen Best
Homestake Mine Tragedy – January 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine
Hundreds of miners lost their lives to avalanches in and near the mining camps of the West. Colorado’s recorded deaths began as early as 1860, southwest of Denver, and have continued until as recently as November 1986, when a miner working in the La Plata Mountains west of Durango went to an early grave. During the last 14 years, Colorado averaged six deaths per year, nearly all among recreationalists.
As gruesome as the Homestake toll was, (and assuming it was, indeed, an avalanche, rather than a building collapsed by heavy snowfall), it was surpassed both before and after. In March 1884, a snowslide swept across a tank town called Woodstock on the west side of the Sawatch Range, between Buena Vista and Gunnison. Fourteen of the 17 people caught in the snow died.
Silver Plume’s carnage came in 1899, when ten miners, all of Italian descent, died in a Sunday morning slide in a gulch above the town. Three more miners, all from the British Isles, perished about a week later.
The greatest episode of avalanche deaths in Colorado occurred in Telluride during late winter in 1902. Successive slides caught hundreds, and when all the counting was completed, the death toll stood at 18 in what one newspaper called the “valley of death.”
Those Telluride deaths were another blow to a town which had been one of the bloodiest in the West’s war over labor unionism. Striking miners once forced “scabs,” as non-unionists were called, to march at midnight across 13,000-foot Imogene Pass. George F. Gardner, an adjutant general of the Colorado National Guard, described the snowslides as a “judgment of God upon the miners of that section who have for some time past conducted a reign of terror there….I am not a religious fanatic, either,” Gardner told a reporter in Denver. “But I believe in the words of Scripture, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.'”
Both the labor strife, and the avalanches, continued across the West. The greatest toll may have been at Alta, Utah. Steep-and-deep snow conditions have earned Alta an unparalleled reputation among 20th century powder skiers. In the mining years of the late 19th century and early 20th century, those same conditions may have killed nearly 250 miners, according to one research paper.
Yet according to research by M. Martinelli Jr. and Charles F. Leaf, the death toll from avalanches in Colorado was only marginally higher during the heyday of the mining years than it is now. Excluding the San Juans, where their work is incomplete, the death toll in the Boulder-to-Gunnison area was only 5 people per year between 1880 and 1916.
In recent years, Colorado has easily led the nation in avalanche deaths, an average 6.07 per year compared with 3.85 in Alaska, and 2.6 in Utah.
Since the mid-1980s, snowmobilers account for the most avalanche deaths, followed closely by climbers, and then backcountry skiers.
As you might expect, the Alpine countries lead the world in avalanche deaths. France, during the last 14 years, has averaged 28.1 deaths annually, followed by Austria with 24.2, Switzerland with 21.2, and then the United States at 19.4, Italy at 17.6, and finally Canada at 10.07. –A.B.