Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/08

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At Cherry Creek.—1859

MY credentials from the company to their local representative, Dr. J. M. Fox, solved at once the important question where I should be able to secure satisfactory board and lodging. The doctor offered to provide both for me in the office-building at a low charge, and there I lodged and took my meals during the next three months. My host was a Missourian, about thirty years old, formerly a medical practitioner, but for some years in the employ of Russell, Majors & Waddell. He was a very intelligent and resolute man, though somewhat inclined to lethargy. He never failed in attentive kindness to me. More than twenty years later, it was in my power to show him my gratitude by taking him into my employ in various positions in California, Oregon, and Montana, one of which he fills at this writing.

Let me describe our abode. It had a splendid position on the edge of a high bluff rising abruptly from the bed of Cherry Creek, and commanding a grand view of the mountains. It was the rudest sort of one-story cabin, built of cottonwood logs, thirty feet long and fifteen wide, and divided by a log partition into two equal compartments, the front one being devoted to office purposes, and the rear one used for cooking, eating, and sleeping. Its roof consisted of logs covered with dirt and gravel. Ingress was had through two doors without locks. It had no windows of any sort; indeed, there was no window-glass then or for months afterwards to be had on Cherry Creek. If the outer light was wanted, the doors had to be left open. Mother Earth furnished the floors, as no lumber of any sort was to be had. Nor had we any other resting-place. Every night buffalo robes were spread on the ground in the rear room, on which, with saddles and (later on) hay for head-rests, we made ourselves comfortable. The furniture consisted of a crude table made out of a packing-box, with small casks serving as seats. Our cook was a half-breed from New Mexico, speaking only Spanish. His knowledge of the culinary art was not great, but, even if it had been greater, it would not have done us much good, inasmuch as his material to work with was very limited at first. Buffalo and antelope meat, bacon, canned fruit, “flapjacks,” and bread were for weeks our uniform fare. Later, coffee, tea, canned vegetables, and potatoes from New Mexico were added to it. The express messengers and stage drivers shared our table and sleeping quarters. A “corral” with the stages and mules was immediately behind the building, the “long-ears” regularly disturbing our rest by their plaintive outcries.

The hearsay description of Denver and Auraria proved to be substantially correct; but Auraria, which occupied the left bank of Cherry Creek down to the South Platte River, was far ahead of Denver, which was laid out on the right bank. It contained several dozen scattered habitations of every sort, one- and two-story structures of rough-hewn logs, combinations of dugouts and tents, “adobes,” and log walls with canvas roofs, interspersed with wigwams. In Denver not over a dozen structures were up. It seemed as though Auraria would surely get a permanent start of its rival, but it turned out just the other way. Auraria contained all the business places, including some stores with very limited stocks, a tailor's, a shoemaker's, and even a watchmaker's shop, and last, not least, a printing-office, brought from Omaha, and started but a few days before my arrival. From it a readable weekly, the Rocky Mountain News, was already being issued, that subsequently grew into a very flourishing and influential concern and exists to this day under the same title. Its then editor, William N. Byers, became a prominent political character in the Territory and State of Colorado.

As was natural, the people of the two towns consisted almost exclusively of males from the several Western States; the five women and seven children, all told, among them were looked upon as curiosities. Very few, apparently, were used to toil with their hands for a living, while the others relied on their wits in the struggle for existence as tradesmen, town speculators, and mining promoters, with a sprinkling of followers of the professions of law and medicine.

It took me but a few days to get acquainted with everybody, and to collect and write up all the “gold” news there was. There was not much of it, in fact; no additional evidence of the existence of mineral wealth in the neighboring mountains had turned up for some months. Unmistakable and general discouragement consequently prevailed. Dr. Fox had exerted himself to the utmost to secure some placer and nugget gold for shipment by the first return stage, but succeeded in getting only a score or so of ounces, which was all there was in the two places. There was shaking of heads and confidential admissions on the part of the most intelligent men that the outlook was almost hopeless. Still, the influx of gold-seekers continued. Every day, and at all hours of the day, they came in from the East over the Platte route and from the South over the Arkansas route, in trains of from three to twenty wagons. The arrivals increased to several hundred a day, and the unoccupied parts of the town sites were dotted with the tents of the new-comers. Quite a number of “hand-carters” were brought in by the wagon-trains, having been picked up at various points on the Plains in the direst distress. The month of May came without any signs of improvement. Hopelessness took possession more and more of people's minds, and the general abandonment of the country became the subject of frequent discussion. This dispelling of all my confident and high-flown personal expectations gave me also the “blues.” In this mood of mind, on the second Sunday in May, I was sitting in the Express Office, in company with Dr. Fox and Joseph Heywood, a well-known Californian, formerly of Cincinnati. We were just discussing the unpromising aspect of affairs when a short, slender, heavily-bearded individual, in miner's garb, entered the room and inquired for letters. He was invited to a seat, and soon got to talking about the resources of the country. Contrary to expectation, he seemed to believe firmly in its mineral wealth. Being asked for his experience in the mountains, from which he claimed to have just arrived, he stated, after a few moments of apparent hesitation, that a little more than a week before, while following up the north fork of Clear Creek, a tributary of the South Platte, in company with John H. Gregory and several others, he had discovered gold-bearing dirt in the vicinity of streaks of quartz rock, that ran over the mountains, in a ravine adjoining the valley of the creek. The dirt, he asserted, had yielded him as much as a dollar's worth of gold to the pan. Perceiving a manifestation of incredulity on the part of his listeners, he produced, in corroboration of his statement, a bottle containing about forty dollars worth of flour gold, and also several fragments of a hard substance which he designated as decomposed gold-bearing quartz. Mr. Heywood stepped out-doors with one of the pieces for the purpose of examining it with a magnifying-glass. He soon called out Dr. Fox, whom he told that the specimen he held in his hand was as fine quartz as he had seen in the richest quartz veins in California. Several persons having, in the meantime, entered the office and shown, upon hearing the miner's tale, a disposition to doubt its truthfulness, the latter grew rather excited, repeated what he had said, and asserted most emphatically that he would warrant one dollar to the pan of dirt to any number of men who would follow him to the locality in question; adding that they might bring a rope along and swing him up in case he should be found to be a liar.

This was the first news of the discovery of gold-bearing quartz veins in the mountains to reach the Cherry Creek towns. The gulch where the discovery was made took the name of “Gregory Mine.” The miner returned the next day to the mountains, accompanied by several Auraria men anxious to obtain confirmation of his story. Nothing more was heard for several days, but, on the fifth, one of the party, one Bates, formerly of Dubuque, Iowa, returned, bringing with him a vial full of scale or placer gold, equal to about five ounces, which he claimed to have washed himself from thirty-nine pans of dirt obtained not far from the spot where Gregory had found a “paying” lode. Bates being known as a reliable man, his story found general credence as he was taken from door to door to repeat it. Exuberant hope took at once the place of the prevailing despondency. Persons on the streets shouted to each other: “We are all right now,” “The stuff is here, after all,” “The country is safe,” etc.

On the following day, a general exodus took place in the direction of North Clear Creek. Whoever could secure provisions enough for a stay in the mountains started off without delay. Traders locked their stores, barkeepers set out with their stock of whiskey, the few mechanics that were engaged in building houses dropped their work. The county judge and sheriff, lawyers and doctors, and even the editor of the Rocky Mountain News, joined in the rush. Naturally, I did not stay behind, but started out on a fine mule, borrowed from the Express Company, with my bedding strapped on behind, and with three days supply of hard bread and bacon, and ground roasted corn, which, mixed with water, furnished a very cooling and nourishing beverage, much used in New Mexico.

The Gregory Gulch was, in an air line, not more than thirty miles from Cherry Creek, but the only practicable route at the time was a roundabout one, measuring fully fifty miles. The first sixteen miles were very easy. The ground rose gradually for twelve miles to the so-called foot-hills. I could keep my mule steadily on a trot over the intervening natural meadows in their bright spring garb of fresh grass and the greatest variety of high-colored wild flowers. The foot-hills I found a range of elevations to the height of ten hundred to fifteen hundred feet above the prairie, covered with tuft grass and scattering pine, and separated from the main range by a beautiful valley about a mile wide. Riding up this valley for a couple of miles, I reached Clear Creek, a turbulent mountain stream, about fifty feet wide and four to six feet deep, with a powerful current. My animal proved averse to trying the ice-cold water, and I got him across only with great difficulty and after swimming him down-stream for several hundred feet and getting wet to the hips. A mile from the crossing, the trail turned abruptly up a very steep mountain side, rising to a height of at least two thousand feet above the valley, to climb which my mule found a most arduous task, taking several hours to accomplish. At least a hundred other prospectors were toiling up at the same time, some even trying to bring up wagons drawn by oxen. Once up, the rest of the journey proved comparatively easy over broad mountain tops, rich in grass and pine woods, and I managed to reach my destination the same day just about dark. I had a severe sick-headache during the whole afternoon, and was obliged to stop several times because of nausea. This was the effect of the high altitude — between nine thousand and ten thousand feet above the level of the sea — which I felt several times afterwards on trips through the mountains; but I finally got over it. I asked my way to Gregory's camp, introduced myself, and begged a place to lie down for the night. He complied at once, and assigned me a corner of his tent. My animal required no care, as he had had plenty of grass and water on the way, and, after picketing him, I spread my blankets and was asleep in a moment.

In the morning, I took in the situation in a few hours. The “Gregory Mine” was located at an altitude of about nine thousand feet, on the steep southern slope of a narrow ravine, grass-grown and pine-covered, like all of the Rocky Mountain world except the highest peaks. It was washed by the head waters of the north fork of Clear Creek, forming a brook not over six feet wide and two deep. Although but two weeks had elapsed since Gregory had washed out the first “pay dirt” in his pan, there were already many scores of men busily engaged in ripping open the mountain sides with pick and shovel. Dozens of huts of pine branches had been erected and tents pitched. Sluices, “long toms,” and “rockers” were in full operation, ditches crossed the gulch, and slides were being constructed — in short, the very picture of a busy, promising mining camp was before me. One of the first things I did was to induce Gregory — a slight, wiry, red-haired, and full-whiskered Georgian — to relate to me his own experience as a gold-seeker. As he deserves to be remembered as the Sutter of the Rocky Mountains, I will preserve his statement as an original contribution to the history of the State of Colorado by reproducing it here.

I left my former home in Gordon County, Ga., in August of last year, for the purpose of going overland to the Frazer River mines in British Columbia. Various untoward circumstances detained me en route, and I felt obliged to winter at Fort Laramie [a military post about 250 miles to the northwest of Cherry Creek], While there, the news of the discovery of gold on the South Platte reached me. I thereupon determined not to go further West, but to make for Pike's Peak. I set out from Fort Laramie early in February, and prospected extensively as I travelled along the base of the mountains. Not finding any trace of gold, I pushed on till I reached the mouth of Clear Creek where the town of Arapahoe was springing up. Here I made up a party of fifteen, and we started up Clear Creek. After toiling for several days up the cañon, we left the main stream and followed a branch coming in from the north. Near its sources we found indications of quartz veins streaking the sides of the gulch down which it flowed. We speedily uncovered and opened one of them with our picks and shovels. After removing the surface rock to the depth of several feet, we came upon a pocket containing a dirt-like, decayed rock, which on being taken to the creek and washed, yielded four dollars to the pan. We were sure then that we had found what we were after. All our party at once staked off and opened claims on the same lead, and commenced work in dead earnest. We were first prevented by ice and snow from working regularly, but for a week the weather has been warm enough. A great many, as you see, have tracked us to the gulch and taken up claims on other veins and are working them.

I spent nearly a week in Gregory Gulch, enjoying the hospitality of the miners. I visited every “lead” and “claim” then opened, witnessed the digging, hauling, and washing of “pay-dirt,” washed out many a pan myself, saw the gold in the riffles of the sluices, and was daily present when the workers caught the quicksilver used to gather the fine gold from the sluices and heated it in retorts into gold-charged cakes. Thoroughly convinced by all this ocular evidence that the new Dorado had really been discovered, I returned to Denver, and felt justified in spreading this great news with all the faith and emphasis of conviction.

A perceptible change had already taken place in the Cherry Creek towns. Building was being resumed. Tradesmen and mechanics were busy. Gold from Clear Creek began to circulate. The caravans of new-comers from the East made direct for the mountains. Several large trains loaded with miscellaneous provisions and merchandise had arrived and reduced somewhat the ruling enormous prices for necessaries, as, twenty-five cents a pound for flour, forty to fifty cents for sugar, five dollars a bushel for corn, etc. In short, a general stir and bustle had taken the place of stagnation.

About a week after my return from the mountains, a notable event occurred in the arrival of Horace Greeley, the famous editor of the New York Tribune, accompanied by Albert D. Richardson, a well-known correspondent of the Boston Journal. They came in one of the express stages, and had met with a singular and perilous accident. In driving through a herd of buffaloes, the animals, probably maddened at the sight of the red color of the coach, had attacked and upset it. Greeley had received a severe cut below his right knee, crippling him for several weeks, and both journalists were bruised all over. They found quarters in the Denver House, the only “hotel” in Denver, that had been got ready for the reception of guests just before their arrival.

This establishment was about sixty feet long and thirty wide. Its four sides consisted of rough-hewn logs. It had a slanting, skeleton roof covered with canvas. In the interior were neither floors, nor ceilings, nor walls, nor solid partitions to divide the space; but canvas nailed on frames served to set it off for different purposes to the height of seven feet. The front part was occupied by a bar for the sale of strong drinks only, and a dozen gambling-tables, at which various games were conducted by experts in the profession. Several individuals who had been hanging about the towns, and whom I had taken to be men of means awaiting their chances for a respectable use of their money, appeared in this part. Next to the bar-room came another space, enclosed by canvas partitions, where the meals were served. Immediately behind it, six apartments for sleeping-purposes, divided only by the same light material, were set off on each side of a passage. Outside, at the end of the building, the kitchen, presided over by a white male cook, was carried on under canvas. There was no furniture but the gambling- and other tables and benches and chairs, made out of rough boards. Bedsteads were provided of the same material, without mattress or pillows, and also tin wash-basins, which the guests themselves filled out of barrels of water standing in the passageway, and emptied, after use, on the dirt floor.

Altogether, that hotel was a unique institution, and, of course, without comfort or quiet. In the absence of ceilings and with the thin partitions, a sound in any part of the building was heard all over it. Greeley was carried into this hostelry — he could not use his wounded leg — and put into one of the sleeping-chambers described. The “Tribune philosopher,” as he was known to the entire American public, had naturally a most gentle temper, which he lost only on rare occasions and under the greatest provocation. His benign countenance, indeed, usually wore an expression typical of resignation and forbearance. But, what with the pain of his wound and the endless racket in the place during the entire twenty-four hours, and the special irritation produced upon the apostle of strict temperance and good morals generally by the drinking and gambling going on day and night within a few feet of him, those Christian virtues gradually lost their control over him. I called on him several times a day, and noticed this change of temper distinctly. It gradually expressed itself in swearing at his disturbers so violently that I dared not believe my ears. His wrath culminated on the third night of his tortures. I was fortunate enough to be with him, and thus became an eye- and ear-witness of what happened. About ten o clock he got up, and insisted on limping to the bar-room. His appearance, though his presence in the building was generally known, created surprise and instant silence. He begged for a chair, and, “Friends,” said he, “I have been in pain and without sleep for almost a week, and I am well-nigh worn out. Now I am a guest at this hotel, I pay a high price for my board and lodging, and am entitled to rest during the night. But how can I get it with all this noise going on in this place?” Then he addressed one of the most pathetic appeals I ever heard to those around him to abandon their vicious ways and become sober and industrious. He spoke for nearly an hour, and was listened to with rapt interest and the most perfect respect. He succeeded, too, in his object. The gambling stopped, and the bar was closed every night at eleven o'clock as long as he remained.

Another anecdote connected with Greeley's stay in Denver occurs to me. A German barber, plying his art there, who styled himself Murat, and claimed to be a descendant of the King of Naples, was called in to shave Greeley, and, when he had finished the job and was asked for his charge, coolly named two dollars and a half as the regular price for shaving outside of his shop. Greeley gave him a bland look, pulled out his purse, and handed him the money, saying: “Well, I guess I can afford to pay something for the privilege of getting scraped by royal hands.”

After resting a few days longer, Mr. Greeley felt strong enough to undertake a trip to the Gregory mines, and I volunteered to conduct him and his companion there. He had not ridden an animal in twenty-five years, and dreaded the necessity of doing so, but finally made up his mind to it. We drove in a wagon as far as Clear Creek, and there mounted three mules. I led the file into the creek, my companions following me without hesitation. The water was at least a foot higher than when I last crossed, and my animal began swimming at once, wetting me up to the waist. The other beasts imitated mine. Greeley was a sight to behold. Alarmed by the sudden immersion of his mule, he had first raised his legs in order to avoid getting wet. This movement made him lose his balance, and, to steady himself, he threw his arms around the animal's neck. The mule did not like the embrace, and commenced struggling against it and taking his rider down-stream. I took in the situation on reaching the other side, galloped down the creek, and, reëntering it, managed to seize Greeley's bridle and pull him along the bank. The rider's face bore an indescribable expression of fear mingled with mirth at himself. As he came up on the bank, dripping all over, a number of gold-seekers who had watched us gave him three rousing cheers, which brought back the characteristic smile to his countenance.

On reaching Clear Creek on our return trip, Greeley positively refused to swim across it again on his mule. As he said of himself, “The starch was completely taken out of me by my three days' rough experience, and I had neither strength nor heart for the passage.” It turned out that he was very wise in his refusal, for, as his mule was being led across, the saddle-girth broke, and everything it bore, including sleeping-blankets, dropped into the water and was lost. The following passage from a letter of his to the Tribune refers to an accident that befell me suddenly between Clear Creek and Denver:

An accident, which might have proved serious, happened to a member of our party, Mr. Villard of the Cincinnati Commercial. Riding some distance ahead of us, he was thrown by his mule's saddle slipping forward and turning him so that he fell heavily on his left arm, which was badly bruised, and thence dragged a rod with his heel fast in the stirrup. His mule then stopped, but, when I rode up behind him, I dared not approach him, lest I should start his animal, and waited for the friend who, having heard his call for help, was coming up in front. Mr. Villard was released without further injury, but his arm is temporarily useless.

I had, in fact, to carry the injured arm in a sling for several weeks.

Greeley, Richardson, and I united in a statement to the public regarding the then actual mining developments. It was prepared in perfect good faith, and based strictly on facts observed by the signers themselves. Greeley's political opponents, nevertheless, made it the subject of ridicule and abuse of him for a long time. His inveterate enemy, the senior James Gordon Bennett, especially attacked him for it in the New York Herald. The assertions that we had allowed ourselves to be misled and swindled, became so persistent that the leading miners subsequently published sworn statements testifying to the correctness of our account. The steadily growing proof of the existence of great mineral wealth in the Rocky Mountains triumphantly sustained us in the end.