Colorado mountain memories

While headed for the California Gold Rush of 1849, George Giggey (who was my great-great-grandfather) first made his way through the mountainous and untamed wilderness of what would later become Colorado. He was among a group of young men, who were determined to make a new life, fortune and future in the American West. After working in the Californian goldfields, he turned his attention to Colorado, where he prospected for gold for a while and then returned to the East.

In 1865, George Giggey returned to Colorado with his family of ten children and built a homestead in the wilderness near what would become, in just a few years, the town of Caribou. The town developed around the Caribou silver mine that was discovered by Sam Conger in 1868. George Lytle, one of Conger’s partners, was from British Columbia and named the mine after his caribou hunting trips in Canada. By 1870, the Caribou Mine was in full production and was shipping ore down Coon Trail, to the nearby settlement of Nederland for processing.

By 1872, the frontier town of Caribou built a much needed schoolhouse. Three of George Giggey’s boys attended Caribou’s first school session. They were: George Leon (my great-grandfather), who was 14 years old; Adelbert, age 7; and Charley, who was only 6 years old. I can feel the boy’s excitement when they took their seats in the one-room schoolhouse, with new furniture, blackboards, maps, globes and a new teacher – Miss Hannah Spaulding.

During the winter of that first school year in 1872, Caribou’s children braved fierce winter storms to school. Brutal winter blizzards and high snowdrifts made this the first and last winter session of school in Caribou. From that time forward, school was held only in the summer months. A miner once told Miss Spaulding that he did not know how long winter lasts in Caribou, because he had only been there three years.

To help the schoolhouse resist the powerful winds that constantly blew at Caribou’s high elevation, an entire year’s supply of firewood was stacked neatly against the east side of the building, with long poles propped up against the same end for added support. Although this worked against the angry Caribou winds, the town did not plan for a range bull that wandered over one summer day to the school and knocked down a support pole while scratching its back. Without the pole supporting the schoolhouse, a violent gust of wind raised and violently turned the school on its foundation.

This was not the only strange occurrence that happened at the school. Several cows wandered into town one day looking for salt to lick. Instead of salt, they found some unattended dynamite and ate that – and it must have tasted really good. Unfortunately, the cows then wandered over by the schoolhouse where they became bloated and died – scaring the students. I can imagine the Giggey brothers looking out of the schoolhouse window at this sight.

George Leon Giggey finished what he thought was enough school; and decided to remain in this beautiful land of dark pines and blue sky. In 1881, he married Nancy Chambers, who grew up in the nearby Gold Hill Mining District. She was one of the first children born in Gold Hill. Life was not easy in the mining camps and mortality was high. Nancy died in 1894. Soon, George fell in love with and married Mary Nelson. He started a second family at the old Giggey ranch near Caribou that included: my grandfather, Roland; his brother, George; a sister, Mary; and another sister, Alice, who died at birth.

George Leon Giggey moved his second family from the old Giggey ranch to Nederland in 1908, so that my grandfather and his brother and sister could attend school. He built the family house in Nederland, hauling the large timbers down from the mountains with his draft horses. George also built a large barn behind the house, where he kept horses, a cow and my grandfather’s burrow (an American term for a small donkey), Becky. He also built several other outbuildings.

By this time, Nederland was a thriving trading town for many of the area’s mines. Nederland’s name came from Dutch investors, who, at one time, owned the Caribou Mine and organised the “Mining Company Nederland of the Hague”. The Dutch owners built a large mill in Nederland, which treated silver ore hauled in from Caribou. Nederland was also on the edge of a tungsten deposit. Sam Conger, the same prospector who had earlier discovered the Caribou silver mine, developed the tungsten district.

Tungsten, with the highest melting point of all metals, is an important industrial element. Ferberite is the chief tungsten ore mineral of the Nederland tungsten district and ranges from massive deposits to well-developed, jet-black crystals in veins that follow area faults.

The veins lie in a narrow zone that begins about four miles west of Boulder and extends west-southwest for ten miles to Nederland. The tungsten belt grades into gold telluride deposits. Nederland also marks the north end of the Colorado Mineral Belt, a 50-mile wide zone that extends to the south-western part of the state. This mineral belt contains most of the precious metal deposits in Colorado.

Nederland experienced quite a boom when the price of tungsten soared in 1900 and had another boom during World War I, because of the greater demand for tungsten steels. Tungsten was now vital to the country. The Primos Mining and Milling Company and the Wolf Tongue Mining Company became the two major tungsten mining companies in the area. The Wolf Tongue Mining Company consolidated many of the mines around Nederland and also bought the old Caribou Mill in Nederland. The name, Wolf Tongue, came from the modified and abbreviated spelling of wolframite (a tungsten mineral) and tungsten.

My grandfather, Roland, grew up in Nederland during these boom times and watched the town grow from 300 to over 3,000 people. He saw the start of the construction of the Barker Dam and Reservoir in 1907, and the completion of the project in 1910. The Central Colorado Power Company constructed the dam to power a hydroelectric plant. In the winter, my grandfather and his friends would play on the solid ice that covered the reservoir. Several times, they rigged a sail on their sled that would catch the howling winter winds that moved them over the wind-swept ice.

Orig mine art
Fig 1. Remnants of mining remind us of Colorado’s rich mining heritage and its impact on the building of a nation. Original watercolor by Steven W Veatch.

My grandfather and his brother had many adventures in the early days of Nederland. In the summer and fall, my grandfather and his brother would take off into the woods and cut aspen trees and haul them into town where they sold them as firewood. A local bakery preferred to burn aspen logs in the ovens and remained a steady customer for the two boys. One day, the boys had to look inside, and were duty-bound to grab a stick of dynamite from the shed and then set it off in a clearing. A loud blast knocked over several trees and left a ringing in their ears. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

The two brothers also liked to take turns riding “Becky” the burrow, as they explored the area’s mining camps. My grandfather used to tell the story of visiting an English prospector, who lived in a tent with a wooden floor. The tent was well furnished and was heated with a pot-bellied stove in the winter. The Englishman, always neatly dressed, enjoyed being visited by my grandfather in those early days. The English prospector told him about England and other exotic places. He had a number of books on history, literature and other subjects, and took time to tell my grandfather about the books and how important they were – that they could truly be transformative. I believe this was the point in time that sparked my grandfather’s quest of life-long learning.

My grandfather and his friends liked to spend a lot of time at the Tanner Brother’s grocery store looking everything over. One day in 1910, while at the grocery store, they heard a large commotion in the street. When they ran outside to investigate, they saw a Stanley Steamer coming up Main Street. Nothing like this had ever been seen before: it was an automobile that ran on steam.

Prosperity in Nederland brought the extraordinary Fatty Mills movie theatre to Nederland. NM “Fatty” Mills left the mining town of Eldora after the gold ore began to play out and came to Nederland in 1909. He started his theatre in a white frame building on Main Street. Beautiful mountain scenes were painted on the walls on either side of the sloping floor. At the end of each show, a painted curtain slowly lowered over the screen. The theatre was a busy place: Fatty ran two shows each night and two matinees each week. Fatty Mills, who weighed 300lbs and smoked a corncob pipe, was very popular with the kids of Nederland. My grandfather turned the crank on the projector and received five cents for each performance, so he got to see the movies for free and make some valuable money at the same time. Mills remained in business until his death 20 years later.

The deadly flu epidemic gripped Nederland in 1917. My grandfather’s brother, George, came home from work not feeling well and made it as far as the couch. He died that night. The mountain winds wept that night, as did my grandfather. George never had a chance to make it to Nederland’s Antlers Hotel, which had been converted to a hospital to help the stricken citizens of Nederland recover. George died with seven dollars in his wallet. My grandfather carried them in his wallet for the rest of his life.

In 1919, Mary Nelson Giggey and her two children moved to Boulder, where my grandfather went to the Boulder Business College. His father, George Leon Giggey, remained for a while in Nederland as a teamster and played the fiddle on Saturday nights at the local dances. These were big affairs and brought men and women from not only the town, but also from the surrounding mining camps, ranches and homesteads. He later left Nederland and went to Dove Creek in Colorado, where he took up ranching and started another family.

My grandfather later moved to Colorado Springs, at the foot of Pikes Peak, and worked for Spencer Penrose at the Broadmoor Hotel as his private secretary; and remained working at the hotel until he retired in 1965. Spencer Penrose made his first fortune in Cripple Creek’s gold and then another fabulous fortune from Bingham Canyon’s copper. My grandfather often said he had the best job in the United States. My grandfather lived an epic life and moved in rarefied circles.

In the seasons that followed, my grandfather returned to Nederland many times to see how the town had changed from his boyhood days. He first brought my mother to Nederland several times, sharing his many memories with her. When she went to Nederland as a young girl, she enjoyed the Sunday horse shows at the Lazy VV cattle ranch. My mother would sit in the bleachers and watch Zarife perform – a purebred Arabian horse from Egypt. The Lazy W Cattle ranch held these entertaining horse shows for a long time.

In his later years, my grandfather passed down his Nederland memories to his two grandchildren, my brother, Greg Veatch, and me. On each trip through Boulder Canyon on the way to Nederland, he always pointed out to us the “Perfect Tree”. The “Perfect Tree” was an 80-foot tall blue spruce that had perfect symmetry. My grandfather had watched the tree since he was a boy; and seeing the tree each time brought back many memories of his early days in the mountains and the town of Nederland. Today the “Perfect Tree” is gone, but I still remember it clearly, along with the warm, untroubled trips with my grandfather.

Today, only an old cabin and two stone foundations remain at the Caribou town site, where the first generation of Colorado Giggey children went to school. One foundation is the Donnelly general store. The other is Werley’s saloon, which was once complete with pool tables, beer and fights. Although many things have changed, some things remain the same.

Mining and exploratory work continues at Caribou, just as it did over 130 years ago. In fact, Tom Hendricks, who has been working the Caribou property, has sold out to Calais Resources, a gold and silver mining firm headquartered in British Columbia.

In Nederland, there is an empty spot on the street today, where my grandfather’s home once stood. It burned down in a fire a few years ago. Fortunately, one of my great-grandfather’s buildings was removed in the early 1940s to near Divide in Colorado, to a fishing club called Ute Lakes. Over the years, other rooms were added to it. Today, this old out building has been remodelled and is the kitchen to my cabin.

However, there is more going on in Nederland than just reminiscing. The town is once again starting to bustle, because of tourism and people moving into the area, who want to live in a small mountain community. Although my family is gone from this area, I think they can be proud of the part they played in the settlement of the American West.


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