Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dangerous driving, and image of 'Dead Wagon.'


The hard, dangerous work and the reckless nature of the miner’s lifestyle in the Cripple Creek District at the turn of the 20th century led to more than its fair share of violent accidents.
“It was almost a daily thing to see the ambulance toiling up the steep Third Street hill to the Sister’s St. Nicholas Hospital, or to some cabin or boarding house,” wrote Raymond G. Colwell in a paper for the Denver Westerners, in July of 1960. Colwell first arrived in the District in October of 1899 and attended grade school and high school during the peak period of the gold camp.
“The ambulance was a light spring wagon affair drawn by a team of horses, with canvas sides with a big red cross painted on them, and a canvas curtain at the back which flapped out behind. There was just room for two plain canvas litters on its floor, side by side, and if there was a doctor along, he rode up front with the driver.”
Colwell remembered the appalling number of fatal accidents reported from the district.
“It was also a too frequent sight to see the ‘dead wagon’ as we called it. This was a peculiar looking vehicle, and it seems to me there was a similar one in use in Colorado Springs in the first years we came here. It was a one-horse job, with a black oilcloth covered framework over the narrow wagon body, which was just high enough to accommodate a basket or a rough box (casket case). It was an odd looking affair, because the enclosed body was considerably lower than the drivers seat, and for that reason looked much longer for some reason, to us kids at least, more gruesome. It seemed to me that the undertaker’s assistant who drove it always wore a black suit and derby hat which added to the effect.”
Along with accidents, there was also the ever-present danger of fire.
“The town itself was visible from almost all the railroads and mines on that side of Gold and Globe Hills. Occasionally we would be awakened by a chorus of short, sharp toots from the trains and mines in the dead of night, and we’d roll out to see where the fire was,” wrote Colwell.
“Another commonly-used fire alarm was five or six pistol shots as fast as the gun could be discharged. The townspeople were naturally fire conscious. Some of them remembered the big fires of 1896, and everyone realized that like all mining camps, another conflagration could occur at any time.”
At that time, just getting to a fire could by life threatening.
“Driving a spirited, excited team to a fire wagon could become quite a trick on some of the streets in Cripple Creek, especially when there was snow on the ground,” noted Colwell. “I well remember one bad crackup when No. 2, the Old Town Company, came down Fourth Street and tried to turn on Eaton. The horses, a beautiful team, slid around and into the fireplug there and turned over. I believe the driver was fatally hurt and two other firemen put in the hospital. The wagon was completely wrecked, and I think one of the horses had to be shot.”
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