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Colorado and the South Park by S. C. Clarke

On the 15th of August, 1871, two brothers and a sister—Sepia, an artist, Levell, an engineer, and Scribe, who is the narrator—left Chicago by the North-western Railroad, bound for Denver in Colorado, about eleven hundred miles west. The first day we were climbing the gradual ascent from the Lakes to the Mississippi, which we crossed at 4.30 P.M., at Clinton. The thirty years which had elapsed since I first traversed this region had changed it from wild, unbroken prairie to a well-cultivated country, full of corn-fields, cattle and flourishing towns. Then I traveled in a wagon four miles an hour, and had to find my own meat in the shape of a deer from the grove, a grouse from the prairie or a duck from the river. Now we rushed across the State in six hours, stopping fifteen minutes for dinner in a fine brick hotel, metropolitan in charges, if not in fare. In 1840, when we arrived at the great river, we waited two or three hours for the ferry-boat, and finally had to cross in a "dug-out," which seemed but a frail vessel to stem the rapid currents and whirling eddies of the Mississippi. Now we crossed upon a railroad bridge of iron, which cost more money than all Iowa contained in 1840. Still, I fancy that the first method of traveling was the more interesting.

Through the still summer afternoon we rushed on over the rolling prairies of Iowa, dotted with towns and villages and covered with great corn- and wheat-farms. Here in 1840 was absolute wilderness: we made our hunting-camp seventy-five miles west of the river, and we were twenty miles away from any white settler. Wolves howled and panthers screamed around our camp, we lived upon elk and deer meat, and our only visitors in two weeks were some Sac and Fox Indians, who disapproved of our intrusion upon their hunting-grounds.

At 9 A.M. on the 16th we arrived at Council Bluffs, and crossed the turbid and furious Missouri in a steam ferry-boat to Omaha in Nebraska. For many years Council Bluffs was one of the remotest military posts: to go there was to be banished from the world. Now it is a town of ten thousand inhabitants, struggling to overtake its rival on the other bank, Omaha, which has sixteen thousand.

Here our baggage was rechecked for Denver, for at Omaha begins the Union Pacific Railroad. A great road it is, and great are its charges. On the North-western, as on most others, the charge is about four cents per mile, but the Union Pacific, to which corporation Congress gave the usual land-grant, and more than enough money to build the road, cannot afford to carry you for less than ten. This may arise from the custom which has prevailed of giving free passes to all Congressmen, governors, editors and other privileged classes, so that, half the passengers paying nothing, the others have to pay double. Not only are the fares high, but you are charged for extra baggage. Like the elephant, who can drag a cannon or pick up a pin, this great corporation is able to give free passes to a whole legislature or to charge me twenty-five cents for five pounds of extra baggage.

From Nebraska into Wyoming, and we are nearly out of the United States, though the old flag still flies over us. The people here talk about going to the "States." All the region hereabouts, from the middle of Nebraska, lies in what used to be called by the French Les Mauvaises Terres, or "Bad Lands," and was eloquently described by Irving in Astoria as the Great American Desert. "This region," he writes, "resembles one of the immeasurable steppes of Asia, and spreads forth into undulating and treeless plains and desolate sandy wastes, which are supposed by geologists to have formed the ancient floor of the ocean countless ages ago, when its primeval waves beat against the granite bases of the Rocky Mountains. It is a land where no man permanently abides, for in certain seasons of the year there is no food either for the hunter or his steed. The herbage is parched and withered, the streams are dried up, the buffalo, the elk and the deer have wandered to distant parts, leaving behind them a vast, uninhabited solitude."

But this "land where no man permanently abides" is rapidly being settled, and is found to be rendered very fertile by the simple process of irrigation, which costs less than the manuring of Eastern farms. So the Great American Desert recedes before the immigrant, and, like the noble savage, is found to be a myth.

On the railroad midway between Cheyenne and Denver lies the new town of Greeley. Although not on the maps in 1870, it now contains fifteen hundred inhabitants, forty or fifty stores, six hotels, churches, schools, and all the apparatus of civilization. This aspiring town, 4779 feet above the sea-level, is an example of those colony towns so successful in the West, and on which we must depend for rebuilding society in the South. Greeley is surrounded by fertile farms, and every city lot looks fresh and green: all this is effected by irrigation. Two canals have been dug from the head-waters of the Platte—one twenty-six miles long, which will water fifty thousand acres; the other ten miles long, to furnish water for the town and five thousand acres. The prairie where it is not irrigated now, in midsummer, looks burned up and covered with a parched herbage, which, however unpromising to the eye, is really good sweet hay, dried and preserved by the hand of Nature for the buffalo and antelope, and now cropped by the flocks and herds of the white man.

Denver, the capital of the Territory, contains about eight thousand inhabitants. It is a true specimen of a Western town which fully believes in itself, and blows a loud trumpet from its elevation of five thousand feet. It was said of old "that the meek shall inherit the earth," but it was not by that quality that the Denverites obtained their location. Here are plenty of hotels, three banks and a mint: five railroads centre here, bringing in ten thousand tons of freight per month. Denver has schools and churches in satisfactory numbers, and her merchants sell ten millions of dollars' worth of goods per annum. Considering that the place was only settled in 1858, and has in these fifteen years been destroyed both by fire and water, and almost starved by an Indian blockade, it must be admitted to be a pretty smart specimen of a Western city.

We ride in a 'bus, city fashion, to the Broadwell House, a fatigued-looking structure of the earlier period, but probably no worse than the others. Directly we begin to plan an excursion to the South Park, seventy-five miles distant, and going out to look for wagon and horses, we catch our first sight of the Rocky Mountains, a line of dim, misty heights, with the more pronounced outline of the foot-hills beneath. We engage a strong covered wagon, with a good pair of horses and a driver, the latter only seventeen years old, but owner of the team, and carrying himself man-fashion, with the precocity of the Western youth. The wagon is brought to the hotel and loaded, so as to be ready for an early start in the morning: we have a tent and camp-equipage, with gun and fishing-rods for Levell and Scribe, and the sketching-gear belonging to Sepia.

So on the 18th, at 8 A.M., we drive over the bridge which crosses Cherry Creek, and then cross six miles of uninhabited prairie, seamed with gulches, and brown with withered herbage and cactus—no verdure except along the canals, where several species of Artemisia and a prickly poppy with a large white flower grow profusely. We then begin to mount the bare foot-hills, among which are curious masses of red rock as large as city churches, and washed by the storms of ages into various fantastic forms. We then enter a ravine or cañon through which flows Bear Creek, a tributary of the Platte.

Along Bear Creek are ranches where good crops of wheat are raised, and butter and milk made for the Denver market. The grass in this region makes the most delicious butter; indeed, I may say that I never tasted poor butter in Colorado. In the month of August it is as sweet and fragrant as the very best of our June butter in the States. The time will come when the butter of Colorado will be sent to the Atlantic cities: at present there is no surplus made.

We now began to ascend Bear Mountain by a road cut along its side: it was smooth and easy of ascent, but only wide enough for one carriage, with a precipice of several hundred feet on either side, so that we shuddered to think of the consequences of our meeting a wagon. Happily, we met with none, although we overtook one, and had to keep behind it till we reached the summit. Then down the other side to a strip of bottom-land on a creek, where we camped for the night, having come twenty miles from Denver.

August 19. Rose at five and breakfasted on fried pork, corn bread and coffee. Started at ten, and drove fourteen miles to Omaha Ranch; then to St. Louis Ranch, six miles, Roland's Ranch, five miles, and Bailey's, five miles, on the North Fork of the South Fork of the Platte. The weather was fine, and the air beautifully clear and bracing. The road wound among the mountains, up a rocky ravine, down a wooded cañon, then through little parks, surrounded by high hills and set with magnificent sugar pines, and carpeted with fresh grass and abundant flowers. In the ravines and on the mountain-sides the road was narrow, but we were lucky and met nothing, although we frequently overtook the immense wagons drawn by five or six yoke of oxen, and driven by the most ferocious-looking teamsters whom I have ever seen, brandishing enormous whips, which crack like rifle-shots in the woods. We found, however, that, being civilly entreated, they would always turn out of the road to let us pass. We were now at an elevation of probably six thousand feet, having been constantly ascending since we left Denver; and this evening we rose still higher, having climbed a long mountain which overlooked the head-waters of the Platte.

Our last descent of fifteen hundred feet in three miles brought us to the neat log tavern kept by W.L. Bailey, where we found a supper of trout just from the river, together with mountain-raspberries and delicious cream, and clean, comfortable beds. When we looked out next morning everything appeared so pleasant in this sheltered valley, and the house was so comfortable, that we determined to stay here a day and enjoy some sketching and fishing. Sepia took her pencils and ascended the hill behind the house, and we others got out our rods and followed the example set us by Simon Peter.

The Platte, which ran through the meadow about a quarter of a mile away, was a brown, shallow stream, twenty feet wide, fretting over a rocky bed, with little pools and rapids which had a promising look; so we looped on a red and a brown hackle and began to cast. Levell walked down stream about a quarter of a mile before he began, so as to leave a piece of water for the Scribe. The sun shone very bright and hot, and only a few small trout answered my invitations. They were darker and less brilliant in color than our Salmo fontinalis, and were, I think, Salmo Lewisii, which inhabits these waters. The valley was about half a mile wide, and shut in on each side by mountains of red granite, crowned with pines. Bailey's people were making hay in the valley, and I sat down on a fragrant haycock to await the return of my companion. Presently I observed a horseman coming up the valley: he was a hunter, followed by a couple of hounds, with the carcass of a mountain-sheep, or bighorn (Ovis montana), on the saddle in front of him. He told me he had killed it on the mountain behind us, and was taking it to Bailey's for sale. It was an animal something in color like a deer, and about as heavy, though shorter in the leg, with very large curved horns, like those of a ram. He said they were numerous in these mountains, and he had killed six of them in a day, but had to lower them down the precipices with a lariat, which was hard work. I asked if the story was true that these creatures would throw themselves from high rocks, and, turning over in the air, pitch upon their horns with safety. He said he had hunted them many years, but never saw that performance. Being asked if he thought they could do it, he replied that he reckoned they could, but would be smashed if they did. Being interrogated on the subject of grizzly bears, he replied that there were grizzlies hereabouts, but that he never hunted them: he had no use for grizzlies.

In a couple of hours Levell returned, having fished the stream for a mile or more: he had got about twenty small trout. We found that Sepia had been more successful than ourselves, for she had made some effective water-color sketches of the scenery.

Aug. 21. We started this morning at seven, and drove up the Platte Valley five miles to Slaight's, through a very picturesque region. Passed some heavy wagons bound to the mines, and met the mail-stage coming down the valley from Fairplay, with four horses at a gallop: we were luckily able to draw off and let them pass, which they did in a cloud of dust, through which could be dimly seen the long-bearded, red-shirted miners. A saw-mill at Slaight's, with two houses and some fields of oats. Then eight miles to Heffron's, at the forks of the river, where there are a post-office and one house. Two miles beyond we stopped to feed our horses in a lovely park-like bit of open forest of sugar pines. This species resembles the yellow pine of the Southern States, with the same rich purple trunk and widespreading branches. Many of them had been girdled by the Indians to obtain the sweet inner bark, which is a favorite luxury of the Utes. We see very few birds in these mountains, which are too wild for the warblers and insect-eating birds. We met with the mountain-grouse, a bird of about the size and color of Tetrao cupido, and one or two hawks. We also saw in the bushes at the roadside the mountain-rabbit (Lepus artemisia), which from its large size we at first mistook for a fawn. From Heffron's we continue to ascend for six miles, till just beyond a small lake we got the first view of the Park: it lay before us like a vast basin, some hundreds of feet below, surrounded with a rim of high mountains.

The Park itself is 9842 feet above the sea-level, or half as high again as Mount Washington. The surrounding rim is some two thousand feet higher, while in the distance, north, south and west, may be seen the snowy summits, fourteen thousand feet high, of Gray's Peak, Pike's Peak, Mount Lincoln, and

Other Titans, without muse or name.

The South Park is sixty miles long and thirty wide, with a surface like a rolling prairie, and contains hills, groves, lakes and streams in beautiful variety. It formerly abounded with buffalo and other game, and was a favorite winter hunting-ground of the Indians and the white trappers, but since the great influx of miners the buffaloes have mostly disappeared. Such, however, is the excellence of the pasture that great herds of cattle are driven up here to feed during the summer. Several towns and villages have sprung up around the mines in this vicinity, such as Hamilton, Fairplay and Tarryall, to which a stage-coach runs three times a week from Denver.

In our old atlases, forty years ago, we used to see the Rocky Mountains laid down as a great central chain or back-bone of the continent; but they are rather a congeries of groups scattered over an area of six hundred miles in width and a thousand miles long: among them are hundreds of these parks, from a few acres in extent to the size of the State of Massachusetts. These mountains differ so entirely from those usually visited and described by travelers, the Alps, the Scottish Highlands and the White Mountains, that one can scarcely believe that this warm air and rich vegetation exist ten thousand feet above the sea. In climate the Colorado mountains approach more nearly to the Andes, where the snow-line varies from fourteen thousand to seventeen thousand feet. Here snow begins at twelve thousand feet, and increases in quantity to the extreme height of the tallest peaks, about fourteen thousand two hundred and fifty feet, though even these are often bare in August. In these parks the cattle live without shelter in winter, and the timber is large and plentiful at eleven thousand feet elevation. Glaciers are wanting, but instead we have the rich vegetation, the wide range of mountains, the pure, dry and balmy atmosphere, and a variety, a depth and a softness of color which can hardly be equaled on earth.

Having stopped an hour to enjoy the view from the brow of the mountain which forms the rim of the Park, we were overtaken by one of the sudden rains which occur here, and had to drive six miles along the level bottom, till, crossing a brook, we found ourselves at sunset near a large log cabin, where we were glad to be allowed to lie down on the floor under shelter.

It was occupied by some young people named McLaughlin, two sisters and a brother, who had come up from the Plains, where their family lived, with a herd of cattle, from the milk of which the girls made one hundred pounds of butter per week, for which they got fifty cents a pound in the mines. In the fall they returned home, leaving the cattle for the winter in certain sheltered regions called "the range." They were stout, healthy young women, who did not fear to stay here all alone for days at a time while their brother was galloping about the Park on his broncho after his cattle. They did not keep tavern, but were often obliged to take in benighted travelers like ourselves, to whom they gave the shelter of their roof and the privilege of cooking at their stove. The house was about forty by twenty feet, all in one room, though one end was parted off by blankets, behind which they admitted the lady of our party. Sometimes they were visited by Utes, who are not unfriendly, though, like most Indians, they are audacious beggars. "They try to scare us sometimes," said Jane: "they tell us, 'Bimeby Utes get all this country—then you my squaw,' but we don't scare worth a cent." Their nearest neighbor is a sister four miles away, who is the wife of Squire Lechner, innkeeper and justice of the peace.

Aug. 23. Started this morning at eleven for Lechner's. Passed some deserted mining-camps, where the surface had been seamed and scarred by the diggers; then across a creek, where we saw ducks and a red-tailed hawk. Squire Lechner has a large log tavern on the brow of a hill: he was absent, but his wife took us in. Sepia went on the hill to sketch, and we others drove off in search of a trout-brook of which we heard flattering accounts. It was a very pretty stream, winding through the prairie with the gentle murmur so loved by the angler and poet, and lacked nothing but fish to make it perfect. It was rendered somewhat turbid by the late rains, so that if the trout were there they could not see our flies. We are told that trout are plenty on the other side of the mountains. "Go to the Arkansas," they say, "and you will find big ones."

Man never is, but always to be, blest.

We found Mrs. Lechner a friendly person, like her sisters. She told us that before her marriage her father kept this tavern. In 1864, most of the men being away in the Union army, they found the house one morning surrounded by a band of mounted rebels, who had come up from Texas through New Mexico to make a raid on the mines. They were a savage-looking band, about fifty in number, and were led by a man who had formerly worked for her father, and whom she recognized. They took what money and gold-dust was in the house, and seized all the best horses about the place; but when she saw them taking away her saddle-pony, she cried out, "Oh, Tom Smith! I didn't think you was that mean, to rob me of my pony! Wasn't you always well treated here?" He seemed to relent at this appeal, and not only restored her horse, but two of her father's also. The people collected and pursued the robbers, most of whom were captured or killed, but the leader escaped. Mrs. Lechner said she was glad he got away. "Tom must have had some good in him or he wouldn't have given me back my pony."

Aug. 24. Rose this morning at daybreak, and enjoyed the sight of a sunrise among these snowy peaks. Nothing can surpass the delicate tints of rose-color, silver gray, gold and purple which suffuse these summits in early morning. I called Sepia to sketch them, but what human colors can reproduce such glories? We left at seven, and drove to Bailey's, thirty-five miles, before sunset, stopping an hour at noon. On the top of a mountain, about 4 P.M., we were caught in a furious squall, attended with rain, snow and hail, with terrific thunder and lightning, which struck a tree close by. And here I must pay my tribute to the admirable qualities of our horses—steady, prompt and courageous; no mountain too steep for them to climb, no precipice too abrupt to descend; and they stood the pelting of that pitiless storm like four-legged philosophers. We found Bailey's house apparently full, but they made room for us. A handsome buggy and pair arrived soon after, from which descended a well-dressed gentleman and lady, whom we found to be the superintendent of a silver-mine at Hamilton and his wife. They told us that there was a very good boarding-house at that place, with fine scenery all around, which we ought to have seen. But in truth we had as much fine scenery as we could contain: we were saturated with it, and a few mountains more would have been wasted.

Aug. 25. A fine clear morning, and we started early, hoping to drive through to Denver, forty-five miles, but in about fifteen miles one of the horses lost a shoe, which it was thought necessary to replace, the road being rocky; so we went slowly to the junction, where was a blacksmith. He proved to be a mixture of tavern-keeper, farmer and blacksmith, and it was considered a favor to be shod by a man of such various talents. Deliberately he searched for a shoe: that found, he looked for the hammer. Who had seen the hammer? It was remembered that little Johnny had been playing with it. Johnny was looked for, and finally brought, but was unable or unwilling to find the tool so essential to our progress. "Look for it, Johnny," said the blacksmith; and he looked, but to no purpose. After waiting an hour for reason to dawn upon the mind of this infant, the blacksmith put on the shoe with the help of a hatchet, and we proceeded; but so much time had been lost night overtook us twelve miles from Denver. We tried at two taverns, which were full of teamsters, and we were obliged to diverge three miles down Bear's Creek Cañon to the house of Strauss. The good woman, after a mild protest, admitted us and gave us a supper of venison, with good beds. Strauss has a fine ranch along the creek, where he raises forty bushels of wheat to the acre, and his wife milks thirty-six cows and makes two hundred pounds of butter at a churning. Besides this, she cultivates a flower-garden, with many varieties of bloom, irrigated by a ditch from the creek.

Arrived at Denver at noon of the 26th, and found the mercury at 90°, and were glad to leave the crowded hotel next morning for Chicago.

I have only described what we actually saw, which was but a small part of the wonders and delights of Colorado. We were humble travelers, unattached to any party of Congressmen or of railroad potentates: we were not ushered into the Garden of the Gods, assisted up Gray's Park, or introduced to the Petrified Forest; but we saw enough of the new and beautiful to give us lasting recollections of Colorado and the South Park.