Clinging to the wreck of a guitar
which he had been playingBy Rob Carrigan, email@example.com
When I was much younger, I worked for a guy that had cabins up in Horse Gulch above Rico, and on certain winters, the spring snow had to be cleared from the roofs or they would collapse. We would ski in on a moonlit night to avoid ending up in a avalanche and shovel for days, as well try to get the cabins warm enough that the snow would slide off the tin roof.
I always had a lot of respect for slides after seeing a little one in Burns Canyon (also near Rico) run one time, and witnessing the damage that a slide was capable in several locations on the Upper Dolores.
But avalanche caution was sort of institutionalized in San Juans.
Take for example this Feb. 20 report in the Fairplay Flume in 1897
“There was a reign of terror in the mountains yesterday. Reports from Leadville, Aspen, Ouray, Red Cliff, Telluride and other towns tell of snow slides by the dozens. Huge volumes of snow tumbled down from every peak and crag, and those who had to travel on the mountain trails were in fear of their lives. J. E. BELL, a mail carrier of Ouray, was caught and killed in a big slide at Riverside”
It went on to tell of railroad travel being blocked on all of the lines centering at Leadville, and down in the southern part of the state the Rio Grande Southern was tied up at different points by snow.
Earlier reports from papers in the East such as this account in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Jan 27, 1886 had initiated talk of such dangers.
“Another snow-slide horror is reported from the extreme southwestern part of the State. Leonard Sutton, who has been at work in the Silver Lake basin in the La Plata Mountains, reached Durango last night with a frightful account of a slide which wrecked the cabin at the Daylight Mine on Tuesday last. While he was sitting in the cabin with Henry Thomas, his partner, and a fierce storm was raging outside, a slide from the mountain side suddenly struck the cabin and demolished it.
“Sutton says he was hurled some distance and buried fifteen feet under the snow. He managed to drag himself out, and set about to find Thomas, who was buried about ten feet deep. But the man’s leg was broken, and he was otherwise so badly injured that he could not sit up. Thomas begged Sutton to kill him and thus put him out of his misery. Sutton refused to kill him, and then Thomas begged him to leave at once and save himself. Believing Thomas would not live more than a few minutes he finally consented to leave him to his fate. Before his departure Thomas requested him to return in the spring and bury his body and send his money and other property to his sister, Miss Hannah Thomas, who resides in New York.”
And more recently Caroline Arlen quotes Silverton miner and former county commissioner David Calhoon, on the perils of the area in her book Colorado Mining Stories: Hazards, Heroics & Humor.
“We dug people out of avalanches. Most of them dead. Just digging out bodies. It’s unbelievable the force those avalanches have. It’s terrific.”
Calhoon tells of a state highway dozer operator from Durango lost to the snows near Silverton.
“ … An old D-7. It had just come up from the Durango shop and was freshly painted. He had finished plowing out the slide, and the road was open. Some people came by and said they noticed that he was sitting in the tractor eating lunch. Anyway, there was another slide come down, and it took that Cat clear across the canyon.”
Calhoon told Arlen that, “When we got down there, we got two tractors to get hold of the Cat and pull it up. Those arms on the side were bent, but there were no abrasion marks on the new paint. No stuff went by it, no rocks or anything. I think it’s because of a force that’s in front of those slides. Those slides come so fast, they’re pushing air in front of them. All his blood vessels were filled up. I think you’re dead before the snow ever hits.”
The April 15, 1906 edition of the New York Times tells of the freakish work of snow slide in the San Juan District.
“… For the avalanche is even more erratic than a cyclone. Some slides follow a certain path every year, and then, for no apparent reason, they will take a sudden shoot to one side or the other and make an entirely new path, probably killing a few men in blazing a new trail. If the big slide at Silverton this year had come down its usual path there would have been no damage. But its course was changed, in some unexplained manner, and it tore through mine buildings and ended by leaping into the Animas River, which it dammed to such an extent that some miners living along the river bottom were forced to vacate their cabins.”
The same account talked about another massive slide in the Ouray area.
“Last year a big slide carried away the Banker’s National Mine boarding house and killed eight men. A big force from the Camp Bird Mine was soon on the spot. Electric wires were stretched and systematic work of rescue was carried on. One man expired of suffocation just as he was drawn from the slide. Another was taken out alive, clinging to the wreck of a guitar which he had been playing when he was carried away by the slide. The cook was missing and ‘soundings’ were taken with long-handled shovels. A cheer went up when one of these shovels was wrenched from the hand of a rescuer. At the same time a curious rattling sound was heard, which puzzled the rescuers until thy dug down and found the cook rattling the stove damper, the noise being carried up the stovepipe through the great mass of snow. At the time the slide struck, the cook was standing by his range. He dropped down beside the stove, and the iron protected him from the weight of the timbers above him. He was able to move a little and had plenty of fresh air, hence was none the worse for his experience when he was released.”
In February of 1897, a slide took out the railroad station at Ophir.
“A monster snow slide came down this after noon and demolished Ophir Station, on the Rio Grande Southern railroad between Rico and Vance Junction, with four loaded freight cars and four empty ones standing on the side track,” reported the Boise Idaho Statesman on Feb. 21, 1897.
“Agent E.L. Gamble had his ankle severely sprained and Mrs. Gamble was badly bruised. She was knocked under a table over which timbers fell, which probably saved her life. The depot is a complete wreck. Snow and debris is piled up on the main and the side tracks near the site of the depot 50 feet in depth by 500 feet in width.”