Friday, January 29, 2021

"Bonanza" road limps through life and creation

Economies created in wake of the train tracks

Rio Grande Southern Railroad three-way track and right of way at Dolores (Colo.) Date/circa: 1951
Photographer: Chione, Alfred G. (Morton, Ill.) Center for Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College

By Rob Carrigan,

Early on, the Rio Grande Southern Railroad (RGS) was described as a "Bonanza" road — but that didn't last long. As an instant success, it quickly generated more than enough money for the investors to cover costs to build the railroad — unfortunately the money did not last. Within two years, the Silver Panic of 1893 permanently crippled the railroad's finances. 
It limped along for the rest of its 60-year lifespan, yet still creating economies along its tracks that lasted long after it was gone.
The line was completed on Dec, 12, 1891, when two construction teams which began at the ends, met south of Rico. Then the RGS was booming, profitable for the company and investors, and producing higher than the average pay for RGS Employees. This only lasted for a year and a half however, as the Silver Panic of 1893 had resulted in most of the mines the railroad serviced closing overnight, and the railroad lost most of its traffic. 
Rio Grande Southern Railroad depot at Dolores.
Dolores was a good example of the economies it created.
The main highway in and out is still called “Railroad Avenue.” Various buildings around town were labeled with left-over monikers such as the ‘track warehouse’ or the D&RG Southern Hotel.
Corrugated tin, painted Denver & Rio Grande yellow, covered the outside of dozens of other buildings, and platforms, built to service freight from boxcars, still appeared in front of about a third of the businesses in town.
When I was growing up there, the boarded-up section house still stood between the Sixth and Seventh Street out on the highway.

Rio Grande Southern Railroad depot and engine house at Dolores, 1951.
Legions of cub scouts were still able to gather rail spikes, track hardware and telegraph insulators from the rotting ties and weathered poles in Lost Canyon and pack them over across the rusting Fourth Street Bridge back into Dolores. They would end up in a coffee can in someone’s garage or as tent stakes, or sold for scrap at Curt’s Trading Post.
The town of Dolores was born with the railroad in mind.
“In 1889 plans were made by Otto Mears for a railroad running through and around the western flanks of the San Juan Mountains from Ridgway in the north to Durango in the south,” according to the Mountain Studies Institute. “The railroad would tap the riches accumulating in the booming mountain mining towns of Telluride and Rico and the smaller mining camps between the two towns. The 162-mile railroad would, as well, link two segments of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad coming into Durango from the east and into Ouray from the north. The new railroad would be known as the Rio Grande Southern.”

Rio Grande Southern Railroad tool houses at Dolores, 1951.

But as we all know, it is important to be near where the action is.
The fledgling settlement of Big Bend, which had been located nearly two miles downriver from present-day Dolores since 1878, basically pulled up stakes and moved to where the rails from Durango entered the Dolores River Valley.
“In 1890 two Big Bend businessmen laid out the town site of Dolores at the mouth of Lost Canyon. The rest of the citizen’s of Big Bend soon followed. By the time the tracks reached Dolores on Thanksgiving Day, 1891, the community of Big Bend was no more,” according to Mountain Studies Institute. 
Born as a product of the rails, for 60 years Dolores lived in the shadow of the line, finally waving goodbye from the platform in 1951 when D&RG Southern closed and most of the track was pulled up and sold for scrap.

Section house and storage at Dolores. 

As the railroad attempted to recover from the panic of 1893 slowly, other issues had to be dealt with regarding mother nature. The railroad's route followed the Dolores River, which tended to flood many times during the railroad's lifetime. 

Most of the terrain it went through experienced tons of snow in winter and occasional rock and mudslides in summer. The RGS was able to order two new rotary snowplows specifically for the railroad luckily before the panic of 1893 and later on built three plow flangers. 

Still, depending on how deep the snow got, it often caused closures, and operating costs to operate trains with the necessary plow equipment was too much for the railroad at times because they required two to four locomotives to push them. Many Bridges and Trestles washed out when rivers flooded over, adding more costs to railroad maintenance and closures.

The Depression of the 1930s was devastating for RGS and forced the road into position in which they could not afford to operate a single steam locomotive (Paying for Fuel, Paying the Engineer and Fireman to operate the locomotive, etc.). 

No. 5 Motorcar in Dolores.

But still they had the responsibility to ship US Mail. 

Chief Mechanic Jack Odenbaugh devised a way to construct seven homemade "railcars" in 1931, that would be cheap to build and operate, capable of transporting US mail and a few passengers. The official names given from the RGS were "Motors", but these railcars would later be unofficially named "Galloping Geese" by Railfans because of how they looked, operated, and sounded.

"Waddling down the poorly maintained, unlevel RGS tracks with a silver-painted body and hood covers that looked like goose wings when opened up to prevent the motor from over-heating, and the horn sounding somewhat like a honking goose."

The first Goose (RGS Motor #1) was built from a recycled Buick body, frame, and engine, and #2 and would be as well, but with a larger and enclosed freight compartment, a requirement to haul US mail. Motors #3 through #5 and #7 were built from Pierce Arrow bodies, but with freight compartments the size of a boxcar. Motor #6 was made from a Buick as well, but it was designated for Maintenance of Way (MOW) service, and only had a flatbed attached behind the cab. Later on, Motors #3 through #5 would receive replacement Wayne Buss bodies. 

These motor cars indeed were successful and handled daily services until 1940 when the RGS could afford to run regular freight trains. Even after that, the Geese completely replaced revenue-generating passenger trains until abandonment; almost all passenger coaches the RGS owned at the time had been put into MOW service since.

Rio Grande Southern Railroad train, schoolhouse, and wooden buildings on a main street.


Thursday, January 21, 2021

Colorado stone used to build Capitol landmarks

Marble Quarry No. 4 at Colorado Yule Marble Company, about 1915

Skilled labor from Italy helps quarry 99.5 percent pure calcite

By Rob Carrigan,

Watching the festivities and ceremonies of the recent inauguration, and before that – the insurrection at the US Capitol – I couldn't help but but marvel at the Colorado Yule Marble that comprises many of the notable landmarks of our nation's center of government, and admittedly, wonder if members of the angry mob before were completely stoned. 

Marble slabs at the abandoned remains of the marble mill site, in Marble (Gunnison County), Colorado. The marble towers were a reinforcing (added 1914-1915) of every fourth or fifth wooden tower supporting the two overhead cranes. 

Metamorphosed Leadville Limestone

Yule Marble is a marble of metamorphosed Leadville Limestone found only in the Yule CreekValley, in the West Elk Mountains of Colorado, 2.8 miles southeast of the town of Marble, Colorado. First discovered in 1873, it is quarried underground at an elevation of 9,300 feet above sea level—in contrast to most marble, which is quarried from an open pit and at much lower elevations.

At its peak, the Colorado Yule Marble Company employed several hundred men at the enormous finishing mill at Marble, with a high percentage of them being skilled laborers from Italy. The quarry employed around 125 men, according to Western Mining History.

Marble peaked in 1914 with around 1,500 residents. The town had two newspapers, three hotels, a movie theater, an ice cream parlor, and numerous other businesses. Some buildings in town featured marble foundations, certainly a very unique construction material for a frontier mining town, says Western Mining History.

Starting in 1905, the Yule Marble Company developed the quarries at Marble, and to this day the marble shipped from this location is identified as being Yule Marble, a particularly fine product that is known around the world.The marble of the quarry is considered to be of exceptional quality, praised as one of the purest marbles ever quarried and a rival to classical Italian and Greek marble. It is nearly pure calcite marble with minor inclusions of mica, quartz, and feldspar, and has irregularly shaped calcite grains ranging from 100 to 600 micrometers in diameter. According to physical tests of the marble, its strength is comparable to marble typically used in building construction.

Marble block on its way to Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, 1931.

Large blocks quarried

The localized geology created a marble that is 99.5% pure calcite, with a grain structure that gives a smooth texture, a homogeneous look, and a luminous surface. It is these qualities for which it was selected to clad the exterior of the Lincoln Memorial and a variety of other buildings throughout the United States, in spite of being more expensive than other marbles. The size of the deposits enables large blocks to be quarried, which is why the marble for the Tomb of the Unknowns, with its 56-long-ton die block, was quarried from Yule Marble.

Yule's quality comes at a high price due to the cost of quarrying in a high-altitude mountain environment. This challenge has caused the industry and the town of Marble to undergo many boom-and-bust periods since quarrying started in the mid-1880s, making the town emblematic of the economic fluctuations that beset a single-industry economy. Technology advancements in quarrying machinery and transportation have reduced, but not solved, the cost problem that afflicts the operation through the present.

Circular Saw at mill, about 1910.

Famous buildings and monuments

Yule Marble has been used in many famous buildings and monuments in the United States and around the world, including the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Hearst Castle, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and numerous capital buildings, banks, and hotels.

Despite the fabulous quality and quantity of the Yule Marble, the quarries and town of Marble have experienced numerous booms and bust periods related to conditions in the world market for marble products, and the extremely high cost of quarrying the stone from the steep alpine terrain.

By World War I, the market for marble collapsed and most of Marble's Italian stone workers returned to conscription in the Italian army. Marble’s population dropped to 50 people.

In 1922,   marble production resumed, but on a much smaller scale, says Western Mining History.

Finishing Cleveland Columns at mill near Marble, Colorado.

Lincoln Memorial

The building is in the form of a Greek Doric temple and contains a large seated sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and inscriptions of two well-known speeches by Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address. The memorial has been the site of many famous speeches, including Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered on August 28, 1963, during the rally at the end of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  

The exterior of the Memorial echoes a classic Greek temple and features Yule marble quarried from Colorado. The structure measures 189.7 by 118.5 feet and is 99 feet tall. It is surrounded by a peristyle of 36 fluted Doric columns, one for each of the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln's death, and two columns in-antis at the entrance behind the colonnade. The columns stand 44 feet tall with a base diameter of 7.5 feet. Each column is built from 12 drums including the capital. The columns, like the exterior walls and facades, are inclined slightly toward the building's interior. This is to compensate for perspective distortions which would otherwise make the memorial appear to bulge out at the top when compared with the bottom, a common feature of Ancient Greek architecture.

Block of marble ready for shipment use on Tomb of Unknown Soldier, February 3. 1931.

Tomb of the Unkwown Soldier

The most famous product of the Yule quarries was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, components of which were quarried in 1930 and 1931. The largest single slab of marble ever found weighed 100.8 tons and was quarried in Yule, Colorado. A portion of that slab was cut for use as the copingstone at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

The largest block, called the die, took three quarry attempts requiring 75 men working for a full year. The resulting block was 124 tons and had to be lifted by a heavily rigged and reinforced derrick, then transported over a period of 4 days down the mountain to the mill, says Western mining History.

World War II signaled the end of marble production for over four decades. In 1942 the mill was disassembled and the railroad tracks removed. The town of Marble was reduced to just 30 people and in 1943 the post office closed.

The Yule quarry was once again activated starting in 1988 and has operated intermittently since with at least four different owners during this time. An Italian company has operated the quarry since 2010 and is still active today.

 Cheesman Park Pavilion in Denver, Colorado (completed in 1910); view of Pikes Peak is framed by Colorado Yule marble column

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Mist and familiar territory near Pikes Peak

Combination Mountainman/Journalist 

Ruxton chronicles manifest destiny

By Rob Carrigan, robcarrigan1@gmail,com

He spoke with authority about beaver, and Indians, wildlife, and the men who lived that singular existence. Much of what he wrote is nothing but a mist from ghosts of times past, collectively interspersed with familiar, durable items from the modern West of today.

George Frederick Augustus Ruxton was a sort of  combination journalist/mountainman observing the westward expansion of the United States in the 1840s, a period when the country's government was pursuing its policy of manifest destiny. He was the first author to write "extensively" of the mountain men of the Rocky Mountains. He wrote articles Life in the Far West for Blackwood's Magazine, using the pen name "La Bonté."

And he wrote about Colorado, before there was such a place. From Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains by George F. Ruxton, Esq. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street. 1847. 

Ruxton, a British explorer and travel writer, had been a lieutenant in the British Army, receiving a medal for gallantry from Queen Isabella II of Spain, and became known for his work as a hunter and explorer and published papers and books about his travels to Africa, Canada, Mexico and the United States.

"I must confess that the very happiest moments of my life have been spent in the wilderness of the Far West; and I never recall, but with pleasure, the remembrance of my solitary camp in the Bayou Salade [Salt valley of South Park, Colorado], with no friend near me more faithful than my rifle, and no companions more sociable than my good horse and mules, or the attendant cayute which nightly serenaded us. With a plentiful supply of dry pine-logs on the fire, and its cheerful blaze streaming far up into the sky, illuminating the valley far and near, and, pipe in mouth, watch the blue smoke as it curled upwards, building castles in the vapoury wreaths, and, in the fantastic shapes it assumed, peopling the solitude with figures of those far away ... I believe not one instance could be adduced of even the most polished and civilised of men, who had once tasted the sweets of its attendant liberty, and freedom from every worldly care, not regretting the moment when he exchanged it for the monotonous life of the settlements, nor sighing and sighing again once more to partake of its pleasures and allurements."

To many locally, his work is familiar as he writes of the area near Pikes Peak, and the Manitou Springs area. 

"The mountains are full of grizzly bears, but, whether they had not yet left their winter-quarters thus early in the season, I saw but one or two tracks, one of which I followed unsuccessfully for many miles over the wildest part of the mountains, into the Bayou Salado. Whilst intent upon the trail, a clattering as of a regiment of cavalry immediately behind me made me bring my rifle to the ready, thinking that a whole nation of mounted Indians were upon me; but, looking back, a band of upwards of a hundred elk were dashing past, looking like a herd of mules, and in their passage down the mountain carrying with them a perfect avalanche of rocks and stones. I killed another deer on my return close to camp, which I reached, packing in the meat on my back, long after dark, and found the animals, which received me with loud neighs of recognition and welcome, with well-filled bellies, taking their evening drink at the springs."

"I spent here a very pleasant time, and my animals began soon to improve upon the mountain-grass. Game was very abundant; indeed, I had far more meat than I possibly required; but the surplus I hung up to jerk, as now the sun was getting powerful enough for that process," he continues, about the area that was not even part the nation yet.

"I explored all the valleys and cañons of the mountains, and even meditated an expedition to the summit of Pike's Peak, where mortal foot has never yet trod. No dread of Indians crossed my mind, probably because I had remained so long unmolested; and I was so perfectly contented that I had even selected a camping-ground where I intended to remain two or three months, and probably should be at the present moment, if I had not got into a "scrape."'

"The bears latterly began to move, and their tracks became more frequent. One day I was hunting just at the foot of the Peak, when a large she-bear jumped out of a patch of cedars where she had been lying, and with a loud grunt charged up the mountain, and, dodging amongst the rocks, prevented my getting a crack at her. She was very old, and the grizzliest of the grizzly. She was within a few feet of me when I first saw her. It was unluckily nearly dark, or I should have followed and probably killed her, for they seldom run far, particularly at this season, when they are lank and weak"

He explains the context.

"One day as I was following a band of deer over the broken ground to the eastward of the mountain, I came suddenly upon an Indian camp, with the fire still smouldering, and dried meat hanging on the trees. Robinson Crusoe could not have been more thoroughly disgusted at the sight of the "footprint in the sand," than was I at this inopportune discovery. I had anticipated a month or two's undisturbed hunting in this remote spot, and now it was out of the question to imagine that the Indians would leave me unmolested. I presently saw two Indians, carrying a deer between them, emerge from the timber bordering the creek, whom I knew at once by their dress to be Arapahos. As, however, my camp was several miles distant, I still hoped that they had not yet discovered its locality, and continued my hunt that day, returning late in the evening to my solitary encampment.

"The next morning I removed the animals and packs to a prairie a little lower down the stream, which, although nearer the Indian camp, was almost hidden from view, being enclosed by pine-ridges and ragged buttes, and entered by a narrow gap filled with a dense growth of brush. When I had placed them in security, and taken the precaution to fasten them all to strong picket-pins, with a sufficient length of rope to enable them to feed at ease, and at the same time prevent them straying back to the springs, I again sallied out to hunt."

And like visitors and residents today, the specter of fire was always here.

"A little before sunrise I descended the mountain to the springs, and, being very tired, after taking a refreshing draught of the cold water I lay down on the rock by the side of the water and fell fast asleep. When I awoke the sun had already set; but although darkness was fast gathering over the mountain, I was surprised to see a bright light flickering against its sides. A glance assured me that the mountain was on fire, and, starting up, I saw at once the danger of my position. The bottom had been fired about a mile below the springs, and but a short distance from where I had secured my animals. A dense cloud of smoke was hanging over the gorge, and presently, a light air springing up from the east, a mass of flame shot up into the sky and rolled fiercely up the stream, the belt of dry brush on its banks catching fire and burning like tinder. The mountain was already invaded by the devouring element, and two wings of flame spread out from the main stream, which roaring along the bottom with the speed of a racehorse, licked the mountain-side, extending its long line as it advanced. The dry pines and cedars hissed and cracked, as the flame, reaching them, ran up their trunks, and spread amongst the limbs, whilst the long waving grass underneath was a sea of fire. From the rapidity with which the fire advanced I feared that it would already have reached my animals, and hurried at once to the spot as fast as I could run. The prairie itself was as yet untouched, but the surrounding, ridges were clothed in fire, and the mules, with stretched ropes, were trembling with fear. Throwing the saddle on my horse, and the pack on the steadiest mule, I quickly mounted, leaving on the ground a pile of meat, which I had not time to carry with me."

He tells of his hurried escape.

"The fire had already gained the prairie, and its long, dry grass was soon a sheet of flame, but, worse than all, the gap through which I had to retreat was burning. Setting spurs into Panchito's sides, I dashed him at the burning bush, and, though his mane and tail were singed in the attempt, he gallantly charged through it. Looking back, I saw the mules huddled together on the other side, and evidently fearing to pass the blazing barrier. As, however, to stop would have been fatal, I dashed on, but before I had proceeded twenty yards my old hunting mule, singed and smoking, was at my side, and the others close behind her,"wrote Ruxton.

"On all sides I was surrounded by fire. The whole scenery was illuminated, the peaks and distant ridges being as plainly visible as at noonday. The bottom was a roaring mass of flame, but on the other side, the prairie being more bare of cedar-bushes, the fire was less fierce and presented the only way of escape. To reach it, however, the creek had to be crossed, and the bushes on the banks were burning fiercely, which rendered it no easy matter; moreover, the edges were coated above the water with thick ice, which rendered it still more difficult. I succeeded in pushing Panchito into the stream, but, in attempting to climb the opposite bank, a blaze of fire was puffed into his face, which caused him to rear on end, and, his hind feet flying away from him at the same moment on the ice, he fell backwards into the middle of the stream, and rolled over me in the deepest water. Panchito rose on his legs and stood trembling with affright in the middle of the stream, whilst I dived and groped for my rifle, which had slipped from my hands, and of course had sunk to the bottom. After a search of some minutes I found it, and, again mounting, made another attempt to cross a little farther down, in which I succeeded, and, followed by the mules, dashed through the fire and got safely through the line of blazing brush."

"Once in safety, I turned in my saddle and had leisure to survey the magnificent spectacle. The fire had extended at least three miles on each side the stream, and the mountain was one sheet of flame. A comparatively thin line marked the progress of the devouring element, which, as there was no wind to direct its course, burned on all sides, actually roaring as it went," writes Ruxton.

"I had from the first no doubt but that the fire was caused by the Indians, who had probably discovered my animals, but, thinking that a large party of hunters might be out, had taken advantage of a favorable wind to set fire to the bottom, hoping to secure the horse and mules in the confusion, without the risk of attacking the camp. Once or twice I felt sure that I saw dark figures running about near where I had seen the Indian camp the previous day, and just as I had charged through the gap I heard a loud yell, which was answered by another at a little distance.

Singularly enough, just as I had got through the blazing line, a breeze sprang up from the westward and drove the fire after me, and I had again to beat a hasty retreat before it. (This fire extended into the prairie, towards the waters of the Platte, upwards of forty miles, and for fourteen days its glare was visible on the Arkansa, fifty miles distant.)

The raging fire left an impression on this world traveler.

"I encamped six or seven miles from the springs, and, whilst proceeding down the creek, deer and antelope continually crossed and re-crossed the trail, some in their affright running back into the very jaws of the fire. As soon as I had secured the animals, I endeavored to get my rifle into shooting order, but the water had so thoroughly penetrated and swelled the patching round the balls, that it was a long time before I succeeded in cleaning one barrel, the other defying all my attempts. This was a serious accident, as I could not but anticipate a visit from the Indians if they discovered the camp.

"All this time the fire was spreading out into the prairies, and, creeping up the "divide," was already advancing upon me. It extended at least five miles on the left bank of the creek, and on the right was more slowly creeping up the mountain-side; while the brush and timber in the bottom was one body of flame. Besides the long sweeping line of the advancing flame, the plateaus on the mountain-side, and within the line, were burning in every direction, as the squalls and eddies down the gullies drove the fire to all points.

"The mountains themselves being invisible, the air, from the low ground where I then was, appeared a mass of fire, and huge crescents of flame danced as it were in the very sky, until a mass of timber blazing at once exhibited the sombre background of the stupendous mountains," he said.

"I had scarcely slept an hour when huge clouds of smoke rolling down the bottom frightened the animals, whose loud whinnying awoke me, and, half suffocated by the dense smoke which hung heavily in the atmosphere, I again retreated before the fire, which was rapidly advancing: and this time I did not stop until I had placed thirty or forty miles between me and the enemy. I then encamped in a thickly-timbered bottom on the Fontaine-qui-bouille, where the ground, which had been burned by the hunters in the winter, was studded like a wheat-field with green grass. On this the animals fared sumptuously for several days - better, indeed, than I did myself, for game was very scarce, and in such poor condition as to be almost uneatable. While encamped on this stream, the wolves infested the camp to that degree, that I could scarcely leave my saddles for a few minutes on the ground without finding the straps of rawhide gnawed to pieces; and one night the hungry brutes ate up all the ropes which were tied on the necks of the animals and trailed along the ground: they were actually devoured to within a yard of the mules' throats," but in escape, he felt a sort of survivor's pride.

"One evening a wolf came into camp as I was engaged cleaning my rifle, one barrel of which was still unserviceable, and a long hickory wiping-stick in it at the time. As I was hidden by a tree, the wolf approached the fire within a few feet, and was soon tugging away at an apishamore or saddle-cloth of buffalo calfskin which lay on the ground. Without dreaming that the rifle would go off, I put a cap on the useless barrel, and, holding it out across my knee in a line with the wolf, snap-ph-i-zz-bang went the charge of damp powder, much to my astonishment, igniting the stick which remained in the barrel, and driving it like a fiery comet against the ribs of the beast, who, yelling with pain, darted into the prairie at the top of his speed, his singed hair smoking as he ran."

 From Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains by George F. Ruxton, Esq. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street. 1847.


Thursday, January 7, 2021

Old Bill trapped the art of trapping

 Old Bill Williams statue in his namesake Williams, Arizona

Known as 'Old Solitaire,' as he preferred to ride alone

Mountain man lore notes that Old Bill Williams spoke fluently in French, Spanish, Osage, Navaho and Ute; as well as other Indian languages and dialects.  

An excellent horseman, he could also walk long distances in extraordinarily short periods of time. Additionally he was recognized an expert tracker, and unorthodox and deadly fighter when necessary. He is said to have carried in his head a sharp mental map of western rivers and mountain ranges which stretched from the British holdings in the north, southward into Mexico and west to Oregon and Mexican California. 

"The most interesting and enigmatic of these colorful mountain men was Bill Williams. They called him “Old Solitaire” because he preferred to ride alone. He was a stubborn, eccentric, independent man obligated to nobody but himself. In a land where it wasn’t safe to trap alone, Old Bill did, and he always returned with his pack mules loaded down with beaver pelts. He always knew when to make a stand and when to run. That’s probably why he lived to be an old man," according to Marshall Trimble, in a 2017 True West article.

Old Bill Williams was one of those rare individuals who can be characterized as a Mountain Man’s Mountain Man, says Malachite’s Big Hole, a site dedicated to the arts, skills and lore of the Mountain Man and is intended to be a resource for all aspects of life in the mountains and the men who lived there.   

"Standing 6 foot 1 inches tall, he was lean and sinewy, possessing unusual strength.  He had blue eyes and red hair, and usually wore a full beard.  He so excelled in the skills of the trapper’s trade, that he became legendary amongst his own peers.  He marked his furs and skins “William S. Williams, M.T,” the M.T. standing for Master Trapper.  And although sharp in his business dealings, he seldom could hang onto his returns for longer than a few days, being addicted to gambling, whiskey and the tender attentions of the fairer sex."

Following is an Old Bill Williams description by fellow adventure seeker of the time, George F. Ruxton.

"Williams always rode ahead, his body bent over his saddle-horn, across which rested a long heavy rifle, his keen gray eyes peering from under theslouched brim of a flexible felt-hat, black and shining with grease. His buckskin hunting-shirt, bedaubed until it had the appearance of polished leather, hung in folds over his bony carcass; his nether extremities being clothed in pantaloons of the same material. . . . The old coon's face was sharp and thin, a long nose and chin hob- nobbing each other; and his head was always bent forward, giving him the appearance of being hump-backed. He appeared to look neither to the right nor left, but, in fact, his little twinkling eye was everywhere. He looked at no one he was addressing, always seeming to be thinking of something else than the subject of his discourse, speaking in a whining, thin, cracked voice, and in a tone that left the hearer in doubt whether he was laughing or crying."

Much has been written about Old Bill. The following characterization was printed originally in The Cincinnati Atlas of 1845 and recently reprinted by Edward Eberstadt & Sons. It was written by David Brown, who met Old Bill and other trappers at the Green River Rendezvous of 1837. The occasion was a party given by Sir William Drummond Stewart in his big tent. About thirty Mountain Men were present. Brown writes: 
"Next to Bridger, sat Bill Williams, the Nestor of the trappers. A more heterogeneous compound than this man, it has never been my fortune to meet withal. He was confessedly the best trapper in the mountains; could catch more beaver, and kill more horses, by hard riding, in so doing, than any that had ever set a trap in these waters. He could likewise drink more liquor, venture farther alone in the eager pursuit of game into the neighborhood of dangerous and hostile Indians, spend more money, and spend it quicker than any other man. He could likewise swear harder and longer, and coin more queer and awful oaths than any pirate that ever blasphemed under a black flag. . . . He could shoot (so he said ) higher and deeper, wider and closer, straighter and crookeder, and more rounding, and more every way than 'eyer a son of .......... of them all."

 "Old Bill became guide for Fremont on his fourth expedition, seeking a railroad route in 1848. They headed into the high San Juans in the dead of winter. All of the 120 mules froze to death and one-by-one dropped over like blocks of ice into the snow. One third of the thirty-three men perished in this unsuccessful attempt to cross the Rockies in winter. It was the worst explorers' disaster in Colorado history," says historian Leroy R. Hafen in presentation prepared for the Colorado Historical Society. Hafen was a historian of the American West and a Latter-day Saint. For many years he was a professor of history at Brigham Young University (BYU).

Once the team entered the mountains, Williams changed his mind due to the heavy early snowfall. He warned the party against continuing and insisted on a southern route. Frémont continued, and the expedition was defeated within the San Juan Mountains, where 10 expedition members died of starvation and exposure.

The next spring Old Bill and Benjamin Kern were sent back from Taos to recover the cached equipment. On the recovery trip they were killed by the Indians, probably Ute.