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Tomichi lives on

Article by Catherine Lutz

Mountain life – December 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

FRANK CULBERTSON hauls the last armful of wood from his backyard to the old stable that he uses as a woodshed. After making sure the twelve cords stored so far are neatly arranged, he takes off his work gloves and wipes his sweaty brow. On his way out of the stable, Frank checks on the inverter — the brain of his homemade hydroelectric system — to make sure it’s properly producing usable power for his home.

Finally able to relax on the porch with a cold beer, Frank reflects on his day’s work. “In the summertime it seems like a full-time job just gathering firewood for the winter.” He pauses to take a sip. “There’s always more stuff than I can do.”

A few years ago, Frank was looking to escape the increasingly crowded Front Range, and drove by “a real nice valley up here.” The scarcely inhabited Upper Tomichi Valley parallels the Continental Divide near Monarch Pass, and winds several miles up from Highway 50 near Sargents. Close to the top of the valley, near the old town site of Tomichi, Frank bought a rustic, two-story log lodge, complete with rickety front porch, stables, and commanding views of the Sawatch Range.

Now, Frank works on Tomichi Creek Lodge year ’round, continuously improving it for the guests he’s hoping will be as impressed with the location as he is. “It feels like you’re way out in the wilderness up here. Basically I like it,” he says with a modest shrug.

The nearest neighbor in winter lives eight miles away, and twelve miles separates Frank from Sargents, where he picks up his mail. In terms of self-reliance, Frank lives like his predecessors in the region — the miners.

Tomichi’s Boom

Argenta — a derivative of the Latin word for silver — was the original name for Tomichi, a mining camp as full of lore, and devoid of staying power, as just about any in the region. Founded in 1880, the town boasted a few good lodes which quickly attracted miners from all over the country. By 1882 this bustling, brawling boomtown had its own post office, bank, and newspaper (which often had to be printed on wrapping paper). Some sources claim 1,200 to 1,800 men once inhabited the town, but those familiar with the valley’s geography say that’s impossible. Even back then, population numbers were inflated to prove to eastern investors the town’s importance.

From the beginning, difficulties plagued the promising mining camp. Transportation of ore was laborious and costly. The narrow gauge railroad ran only through Sargents, so wagons had to freight the ore twelve miles over rough roads to the railhead. The hardy men of Tomichi built a crazily steep and winding three-mile road to the Legal Tender Mine — at a whopping cost of $2,700 — over some of the most treacherous ground in the Rockies. Sturdy mules quickly wore out hauling the raw materials from the mountain mines to Tomichi. Unfortunately, much of the time the value of the ore was not worth the labor and effort it took to transport it.

Tomichi’s charming location — in a basin surrounded by the towering peaks of Stella, Granite, and Monumental mountains — actually proved to be its undoing. Granite Mountain, which loomed over the town’s west side, was clearcut for timber. By providing the massive winter snow buildup with a clear path down the mountainside, the miners subjected themselves to the law of gravity in a disastrous way.

On March 10, 1884, two avalanches hit the Magna Charta Tunnel and wiped out the mine’s buildings. Luckily the two lone workers in the mine that day — most of the town decamped at the onset of winter — were rescued. The snowslide hit Tomichi Creek with such great force that it immediately shot up and out of the creekbed, and finally deposited itself 100 feet high on the other side. This was the town’s first warning.

About 200 yards down a bumpy dirt road from the site of long gone Tomichi, Frank does not face the same hardships as the miners, but he is just as self-sufficient. A well provides his drinking water. Once a week or so, he makes the 90-mile round trip to Gunnison for food and supplies, always getting just a little extra in the winter just in case. The twelve or thirteen cords of wood he chops, hauls, splits, and stacks throughout the year fuels two wood stoves, the only sources of heat for the lodge — there are no electric or gas lines that far up the valley.

But Frank’s pride and joy is his custom-designed hydroelectric system. As Buckhorn Creek tumbles towards its confluence with Tomichi Creek, it meets a small dam which diverts the water into a stock tank. The water then flows 580 feet through 4-inch piping to a turbine near Tomichi Creek. The turbine is the heart of the system. The force of the water turns it, at about 4,000 rpm, to generate power, and then the “unused” water empties into the creek. A conduit channels the power to the inverter, which converts it from 48 volts DC to 120 volts AC for use in the house. Batteries store the extra power generated by the system.

Frank doesn’t have the glitter of gold in his eye, but just wants to make enough money to pay the bills. “Running a lodge seemed like a good way to make a living and live HERE at the same time,” he says, sweeping his arm toward the impressive vista from the front porch. Frank hopes the fascinating history of the Tomichi Valley, its spectacular scenery and promise of isolation will draw people to the lodge. Its location also makes it the perfect epicenter for various outdoor activities: hiking, mountain biking, high-altitude training, mountaineering, hunting, skiing (cross-country and backcountry), and snowmobiling.

Tomichi’s Bust

The first set of avalanches in Tomichi marked the end of its boom era. Mine owners never had the capital to fully develop the mines, which went unworked for about half of the year anyway. The transportation struggles took their toll, and high grade ore was never found. The silver panic of 1893 severely impacted the whole region. On the day Congress voted on the bill demonetizing silver, nervous miners gathered around telegraph offices throughout the West.

When news of the bill’s passage came, smelters almost immediately stopped accepting ore, and railroads and wagons dumped their shipments. Their worst fears confirmed, many miners packed up and left that same day, abandoning their homes and claims.

To nail the lid on the coffin, Tomichi had another — this time more violent — encounter with Mother Nature. In March of 1899 an avalanche tumbled off Granite Mountain and roared into town, burying it and its few remaining residents. The survivors heeded the second warning and moved to White Pine, two miles down the road.

THE REMAINING MINES struggled through the first part of the twentieth century, and demand for lead and zinc during the two world wars revived them for a time. But soon after that, everything ground to a halt and the depleted mines were abandoned.

“There was nothing left but Rocky Mountain granite,” says Gerald Hitt, long time summer resident of White Pine. In the 1950s, a wily developer by the name of Les Arnett acquired most of the property around White Pine from the defunct Callahan Lead-Zinc Company for a mere $40,000.

“And he died a millionaire,” laughs Hitt, recalling the day when he bought his cabin for $1,200 — a large sum of money in those days for the Air Force second lieutenant. The miners’ former properties were sold one by one as summer residences — each year for larger dollar amounts. Nowadays, White Pine can sometimes reach a population of about 50 in the summer, but not often.

Some of the residents of this picturesque village have had their cabins for almost 40 years, and they don’t plan to sell.

Day tourism is also making its impact. “If I had a dollar for every car that came by here, I’d be rich,” says Gerald Hitt. Tourists come armed with cameras to White Pine, searching for evidence of the old mining days. Despite some claims in tour brochures, White Pine is not a ghost town, and homeowners often have to remind visitors not to poke around on their properties for artifacts and souvenirs.

Things are much quieter two miles up the road at Tomichi Creek Lodge. The inhabitants of White Pine and most of the tourists depart by September, and by the end of hunting season, Frank is the only resident in the valley. Summer neighbors always ask him — in an incredulous tone of voice — how he deals with those long lonely months. He keeps himself busy with chores (shoveling snow away from first floor windows is a major task), reading, and his computer. Shrugging, he admits, “You know it can get a little lonely up here sometimes. If I wasn’t connected to the Internet I probably would go crazy.”

In the spring the snow begins to melt and Frank “can go two to three weeks at a time without anybody coming by at all.” By then he’s looking forward to the return of the summer residents. Tomichi Creek is starting to rush more loudly with its burden of snowmelt, and the firewood stash is getting low. Later in spring the hummingbirds come back, hovering around the numerous feeders around the house, filling the air with the delightful buzz of their wings.

About a century ago, the miners would be returning to Tomichi, confident that they would make their fortune this season. They would work ten- to twelve-hour days in the mines, and spend the evenings doing household chores. On Saturdays they visited the saloons, all day, often “paying” for drinks with the promise of a big strike. Dances were held in White Pine on Saturday nights. Fights often broke out and were settled by fist, knife, or gun, but Sunday was a day of rest.

“Miners didn’t have time to go to church,” explains Gerald Hitt.

None of the miners ever struck the big one in Tomichi Valley, but they left behind a wealth of history and more than a few intriguing tales. Nowadays, the mines are long closed, but the ghosts of the past still inhabit the region.

The riches to be found in Tomichi Valley are buried beneath the tombstones of old Tomichi cemetery, but live on in the stories summer residents tell visitors, and in the remembrances of men whose fathers and grandfathers were miners.

George Means, whose family has ranched in the valley since the mining days, sums it up perfectly: “There sure was a lot of history being made around here. But back then we didn’t know it was history; it was just a good day or a bad day.”

Catherine Lutz lives and writes in Boulder, but it should be obvious by now that she loves to visit the mountains.