Pathway to the past: A miner’s photograph

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Steven Wade Veatch (USA)

Fig. 1, Robert Plews (32), with two daughters, Elizabeth (4) and Mabel (3) and his wife Janet (25), stand in front of their small home in Elkton, Colorado, one of the towns in the Cripple Creek Mining District. (Photo date circa 1899, from the S W Veatch collection.)

This photograph, taken around 1899, shows my ancestors posing at their modest frame home, where they lived one step away from Cripple Creek’s gold rush world of cardplayers, whisky drinkers, and midnight carousers. The scene depicts my great-grandfather (Robert Pickering Plews), my great-grandmother (Janet Plews), and two of their daughters in front of their miner’s cabin, built from pine boards, on a hillside in the newly established mining town of Elkton, Colorado.

My great-grandparents were from England. Two years after my great-grandfather married my great-grandmother, he left England – by himself – to build a better life in Cripple Creek’s goldfields for the family that he left behind.

Robert Plews was a hope-chaser. He carried his dreams from England across the Atlantic and then 1,700 miles to the Front Range and Cripple Creek. He arrived in the gold mining district in 1897. Victoria was the Queen of England, William McKinley was the US President, and Marconi had sent his first wireless transmission. The Colorado Rockies meant a new chance for him at a place with unlimited opportunities. He went to work at the busy Elkton mine. After my great-grandfather established himself in the mining camp, he sent for his wife, and two daughters, Elizabeth and Mabel, who were still in England. They left Newcastle in the northeast of England in 1899 and immigrated to Elkton.

I discovered this photograph recently, tucked away in an old box. I am drawn to this image’s simple charm. It’s a staged scene: the family hired a photographer, dressed up and posed for the camera. And, it would not have been an inexpensive endeavour at the time. The photo is an affirmation of their place and position in society. My great-grandparents wanted to preserve this sense of success in a new country.

In the photograph, the modest home in the mining camp is a tidy place. My great-grandfather raised six daughters there. A seventh daughter later grew up in Cañon City in Colorado. Great-grandfather Plews was the strict English father of legend, who made all of his daughters behave at a time when children were to be seen and not heard.

In stark contrast to the rustic cabin, everyone is dressed as if they came from a holiday party, not a rough-and-tumble mining camp. The clothes are stylish and expensive. My great-grandfather is smartly attired. A simple watch fob hangs out of a pocket of his waistcoat. He wears sleeve garters on his ready-made shirt. Shirts in those days came in only one sleeve length; and the garters allowed him to adjust the sleeve so that the cuffs were the correct length. My great-grandmother’s long dark dress covers her high-button shoes. She covers her abdomen with her hand and arm, as did many women of the day who were pregnant. She was pregnant with my great-aunt Emma. The two young girls, newly arrived from England, are in white dresses. One has ribbons in her hair.

According to my grandmother, my great-grandfather satisfied his hunger for learning by reading books late into the night, some of which were about mining. His hunger for education resulted in several promotions at the Elkton mine. He eventually became the hoist operator there. While he worked at the mine, the shafts sank lower and lower, and the horizontal drifts dug deeper into the rich goldfields, while tailings piled up on the surface. My great-grandfather worked at the Elkton mine for 21 years.

This photograph is a path for me into my past. I can connect with my great-grandfather and imagine his days of mining, and how that work somehow reached through several generations to me, explaining, in part, my interest in mining and geology from an early age. I can envision how my great-grandmother baked, cooked, cleaned and sewed for a family of nine. And I think of their lives, deeply lived in Colorado’s last gold rush.

Today, the cabin is no longer there; modern gold mining operations replaced it and the town of Elkton. Yet, everything my great-grandfather created there would live on through his seven girls, their children and beyond. I am a direct descendant of one of his daughters, and remain deeply rooted to the Cripple Creek Mining District.

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