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.

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