Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Deep snow, steep slopes, wringing the Liberty Bell


“The snow doesn't give a soft white damn whom it touches.”
__ e.e. cummings


Deep snow in winter is an obvious reality in Colorado, and particularly in the San Juans. Where there is deep snow and steep slopes, it is only a matter of time before something or someone is lost in a slide.
“The Colorado Mountain railroads are endeavoring to keep their trains moving, but it is with considerable difficulty,” read the Feb. 23, 1897 edition of the New York Times. “They no sooner clear a dozen snow slides from some canyon road before a half dozen more come down the side of the mountain, and pile up debris higher than ever.”
The same edition called attention to Aspen’s isolation caused by the slides.
“The first train arrived in Aspen today since Friday, and for three days it has been bucking snow in the Grand Canyon, near Glenwood Springs. The storm shifted its course tonight and the snow is falling faster than ever. Since Friday, eleven feet on the level has fallen. A slide came down Aspen Mountain this evening and swept away John Kauble, an ore hauler, and his team. He escaped but his horses were killed.”
In San Juan Range, that same storm struck with even greater vengeance.
“In the Ouray district the snow is deeper than at Aspen, and avalanches occur three and four times a day. One carried away Henry Jones and a pack train of eleven Jacks, every one of the latter being killed. On Cumbres Hill, between Durango and Alamosa, the snow is fifteen feet deep, which breaks the record for twelve years.”
Five years later the snow caused real trouble in the Telluride area. “Devastating Snow Slides Kill Scores,” barked the heads in the Feb. 28, 1902 edition of the Telluride Daily Journal.
“At 7:30 this morning a tremendous snow slide swept away the boarding and bunk house and the tramway station and ore loading house at the Liberty Bell Mine.”
Early reports placed the dead at 50 to 75 because it was thought all mining buildings were wiped off the slope, but the slide was selective.
“The buildings destroyed and swept away are the boarding house, tram house, and one corner of the new bunk house. The old bunk house, in which the night shift was sleeping — some sixty men — escaped,” according to the report in the Telluride paper.
The same paper relates an account of L.M. Umsted who was in a nearby stable, preparing his horse to go to work on the Tram.
“The stable grew suddenly dark as night, and stepping to the door he opened it and found the outside totally dark and air filled with flying snow. Thinking it was a terrific gust of wind, he slammed the stable door shut and waiting for a few seconds, he peered through a crack and as it grew light again he opened the door and saw the tram cable swinging about and the buckets rolling down the hill. As the snow in the air settled, he stepped out a few feet and looking up towards the boarding house, he could see no signs of these buildings. Then looking down the hill he saw boards and timbers sticking out of the snow and scattered about.”
Umsted, at that point tried to help.
“He then went up to the ore and tram house, or where it had stood, and saw what he thought was a piece of overalls. Grasping it and attempting to pull it out he found he had hold of a man’s body; tearing away the snow and boards he pulled out the body of Gus Kraul. His body was terribly mangled and his head crushed till is was no thicker than two hands laid flatly together.”
Those who rushed to help the first slide victims, became victims themselves.
“At 1:30 word came to town from the Liberty Bell office asking that bulletins be posted asking for all the help possible, as a second slide had come down covering the rescue party… At 2:15 word came to town to send no more men up: that the storm was so severe that the work of rescue could only be carried on under the most extreme danger to the living, and that men buried in the snow were all dead beyond question.”
An account about Colorado avalanches in the April 15, 1906 edition of the New York Times labeled the Liberty Bell disaster the worst to date.
“The worst snowslide in the history of Colorado was that which overwhelmed the Liberty Bell Mine, in the Telluride district, in 1902.”
It noted that the second slide killed nearly a score of rescuers.
“Then came one slide after another, the first having loosened great masses of snow at the top of the mountain. Six slides came in rapid succession, burying victims in a mass of wreckage eighty feet deep. For many days no work of rescue could be carried on. The place was fenced off and guards were put about the mine property to keep people away from the scene of horror. It was not until summer, when the snow had melted, that the bodies of the victims could be recovered."
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