Monday, March 11, 2013

Tunnel Vision - Burro Schmidt

Another Monday has rolled around, with more than 1100 miles covered from  the previous Tuesday to Friday. The main purpose of my from-Bay-Area-to-Joshua-Tree-and-back trip was to give a talk to the “Ridge Writers” section of California Writers Club in Ridgecrest and also to chat with a Ridgecrest book group. Great groups of folks, in both cases (and yummy tea and scones for the book club meet). There were also some lovely surprises along the way, including a “guided tour” of the Burro Schmidt Tunnel, by local Ridgecrest historian Alan Alpers.

Burro Schmidt by his cabin, sans burros. Postcard/photo from Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert, Ridgecrest, CA.
As you can probably tell from the name of the place, Burro Schmidt Tunnel is a piece of the “Old West.” William Henry (“Burro”) Schmidt dug this tunnel, hand-drilling all the way, for 32 years. He was 36 when he started, and 68 when he finished.

So just what was Burro Schmidt up to, anyway? Was he in search of gold and silver, hoping to get rich? Did he just plain enjoy the tunnel-making process—drilling, dynamiting, and mucking and so on? According to a website that talks about his life and this, his tunneling accomplishment, it says: “His intention early on was to provide easy transportation to the railroad for his ore, as no roads through to the other side's valley and railroad then existed.” But if that’s the case, why did his tunnel come to a T, shortly before punching through the mountain on the other side, and branch left and then branch right?

To my mind, it’s a mystery.

I wonder about Burro Schmidt: Who he was, and what drove him to make this tunnel. We cannot ask him, we can only guess and ponder, as Schmidt died in 1953, a few days short of his 82nd birthday.

I’d muse some more here, but one of the things I brought home from the trip was a nasty virus, and between the chills and fevers, I don’t think I can write a heck of a lot more.

For more about Burro Schmidt, his life, and his activities, check out

As for the rest, I’ll let the pictures tell the story…
Here's to Burro Schmidt... a man of determination and persistence! Photo: Bill McConachie
Tunnel entrance, with (left to right) Alan Alpers, Bill McConachie, and moi. Photo: Donna McCrohan Rosenthal.
Donna McCrohan Rosenthal at the exit to the tunnel. And what do we see...??? amazing view of wide-open spaces! But... how was Burro Schmidt planning to reach the railroad, which is waaaay below and to the left?

In the tunnel, looking back to the entrance. Remember: Burro Schmidt did all this solo (well, with the help of two burros), BY HAND. Photo: Bill McConachie

Monday, March 4, 2013

Looking back, looking forward

A little late with my "usual" Monday morning blog... but here it is, and it's still before noon, so hopefully this counts as on time.

It's been a hectic two weeks, during which I spent most of the time with my rear glued to the chair, banging out some deadline-driven projects for clients. I emerged late last night, triumphant, but ready to stand and stretch for a while. How did I feel about meeting all those deadlines? Rather like:


Right this instant (Monday morning), I'm sitting in "the Silo" at UC Davis, looking at all the students studying away (well, some are studying, anyway), and thinking how YOUNG they all look. I'm also reflecting back over my UC Berkeley days, when I learned that sobering life lesson: Sometimes you can try really REALLY REALLY hard... and you still won't get an "A." And, sometimes, the idiot sitting next to you who never studies and is constantly goofing off and mouthing off isn't an idiot at all but some insanely brilliant 15-year-old pipsqueak who aces every physics class without even trying.

(Did my mom tell me life isn't fair? Yes, she did. And it's a lesson I'm still learning at 60+ years.)

I'm also reflecting back on my dear Aunt Dorothy, born in 1909, who died some time ago. In the 1990s, when I became seriously interested in family history, I was always pestering her with questions about her parents (my grandparents), her aunts, uncles, etc. (Her mother was Inez Stannert, my paternal grandmother who was raised in Leadville, so here's the Silver Rush connection.) 

I guess sometimes I overdid the relentless-interviewer style, because, at one point, she asked me in exasperation, "Why are you so interested in all that old stuff? It's all in the past!"

Surprised, I said, "Don't you think about the past?"

She responded, "No."

I couldn't understand this. I mean, here was a woman who lived through World War I, the Depression, World War II, had been a career woman (legal secretary, back when it was quite a feat for a "mere female,") ... and she didn't reflect on the past?

Curious, I asked, "What do you think about?"

Her prompt reply: "The future."


That gave me pause, as my aunt was well into her nineties at this point.

I asked cautiously, "What, in particular, about the future?" (At least I didn't say WHAT future ... which was my first thought but which would have been terribly insensitive to blurt out, so thank goodness I didn't.) 

I think I'd tired her out at that point, because I remember she simply shrugged and looked away ...

Okay, this is getting way maudlin.

So, like my dear Aunt Dorothy, let's look to the future...

This coming week, I'll be off to Ridgecrest, California, to talk with the California Writers Club "Ridge Writers" group on March 6 about how I came to write a mystery series set during the Colorado Silver Rush.

Also, a little tootle of the BSP horn: I am Poisoned Pen Press's "Author of the Month" for March! They've bestowed this status upon me in recognition of Women's History Month, and my fictional endeavors in the area of women's history in the West. This just makes me smile, big time. 

And to wrap up this rambling post, I'd like to turn and tip my hat to the past, saying: This is for you, Aunt Dorothy... A true woman of the West: strong, tough when you had to be, always looking forward and never giving up or giving in.
Here's to you, Aunt Dorothy!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Leadville enthusiasts, rejoice!

On Saturday, I got a book in the mail that made me say YAY!!

Leadville historian Gretchen Scanlon's A HISTORY OF LEADVILLE THEATER arrived from Leadville's The Book Mine bookstore, and I couldn't be happier.

I know Gretchen has been working on this a long time, and I, for one, have been chomping at the bit for its arrival.

Here's the blurb from the back:

When the West was wild, the glitziest streets in Colorado ran through Leadville, where opera, variety and burlesque lit up Magic City theaters. Theatrical legends Buffalo Bill and Oscar Wilde graced the Tabor Opera House, while revolutionary Susan B. Anthony reached a rough mining audience from a stage atop a bar. Thomas Kemp spared no expense on the risqué Black Crook at the Grand Central Theater, complete with a grand waterfall, a trapdoor and dragons. Follow Leadville historian Gretchen Scanlon through these theatrical glory days, from the glamorous productions and stump speeches to the offstage theft and debauchery that kept the drama going even when the curtain fell.
You can find the book at all the usual places on-line, but I'm going to make a special plea that you  strongly consider ordering from The Book Mine in Leadville (phone: 1-719-486-2866) or your favorite indie bookstore. Show them you care! :-)

It's Christmas in February for me!

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Story Forms: Point-to-Point or Dot-to-Dot

Being somewhat at loose ends for a post this week, I turned to the Historic Colorado Newspapers online to see what was up with Leadville in February 1880. Here's what the Colorado Miner (Georgetown, Colorado) had for Saturday, February 21, 1880, in a little column titled "Colorado. Points Pertaining to People and Places":
  • Leadville reports for one week arrivals by the various stage lines at 832, and the departures at 501.
  • D.W. Fuller, a Boston capitalist, fell from a bucket as he was ascending from a mine at Leadville, and was instantly killed.
  • The State Bank of Colorado filed articles of incorporation yesterday.  The bank will do a general banking business in Leadville. The capital stock is $100,000 divided 1,000 shares at $100 each.
  • At a ball of the Union Veterans Association in Leadville, a vote was taken to decide who was the handsomest lady in the room. The decision was rendered in favor of Mrs. Judge W.R. Kennedy, formerly Miss Lou. De La Mar, of this city.
  • A man named W.E. McIvor was found dead in his bed in a cabin near Leadville, with his face badly torn and eaten by mountain rats. It was thought he was from Georgetown, but this is probably a mistake.
  • An installment of 32 bunko-steerers, among whom were several noted highwaymen, reached Leadville on Monday last. Another hanging bee would be in order and do good.
Fairest of them all? - At the Ball, by Berthe Morisot
While typing these random bits into the post, I felt a story forming... completely fictional, of course. This is how it unwound in my mind:

 What if the Boston capitalist's fatal plunge down the shaft was not an accident? Maybe he came to Leadville because of the incorporation of the State Bank. Maybe he goes to the Union Veterans ball, and recognizes the judge's wife when she is named "fairest of them all." Maybe there is something dark in her past, something her husband knows nothing about, but the Boston capitalist does. He uses that knowledge for a little leverage. (Question to self: Leverage for what? Something to do with the bank incorporation, perhaps? Or something completely different, perhaps to do with the mine?)

Maybe the judge's wife, who is not the "shrinking violet" she appears to be, hires one of the "noted highwaymen" to neutralize said capitalist, so her secret remains hidden.

But what about McIvor, dead in the cabin? And, is it really McIvor or could it be someone else? In which case, where is McIvor? And are mountain rats really to blame for the lack of an identifiable face on the corpse?

I do believe there's a story here, built out of imaginary connections, from dot-to-dot until the picture is clear. Perhaps morning (and some caffiene!) will provide further insight.

A title would be nice as well!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Taxes and more taxes

Well, it's the time of year when I spend oodles of time sorting little receipt scraps, puzzling over credit card statements, and trying to interpret the chicken scratches from last year's check books. Yes, it's tax time.

But it's not even April! you may protest.

Ah, the tax man calleth and we must goeth, so that we can be prepared to submit final numbers for FAFSA, oh joy.

The tax man cometh.
Income tax of one type or another has been around in the U.S. a looong time, on and off since the Civil War, and becoming a permanent fixture in 1913. I bumped into an article from the Leadville Daily and Evening Chronicle, dated July 17, 1890, with the ominous headline "Has He Called Yet?" The "He" is not the Grim Reaper (although there are overtones of such), but Leadville's brand-new poll tax collector. On June 3, 1890, the Leadville city councile passed an ordinance for levyig and collecting a poll tax. The tax "is assessed against every able bodied citizen of Leadville between the ages of twenty-one and sixty years, and amounts to $2." Leadville planned to use the money collected to improve and repair the streets, bridges, and alleys of the city.

That $2 in 1890 translates to about $50 in today's cold hard cash... not an inconsiderable amount, really.
In 1890, one of these and...
... one of these covered your poll tax.
So, the ordinance has a clause that if a person didn't want to pay up, he (I'm assuming the "citizens" referred only to the male populace of Leadville) had the option of working one day under the supervision of the city. No pay, no work, off to jail you go.

As of the date of the article, no one had been hauled off to the hoosegow, but there were a number of folks looking for loopholes (some things never change!), claiming exemptions on the ground that "they are old firemen, old soldiers or have served in the state militia."

At least we don't have the tax man knocking on our door demanding that we either pay up or pick up a shovel . Although, right now, given the option, I wouldn't mind pulling weeds, picking up trash, or doing some other civic duty if it meant escaping the paper chaos that has invaded my table and taken over my life...

Monday, February 4, 2013

Around the track in Leadville, 1880

--> All is quiet on the hometown streets today (Sunday), with most folks (I’m assuming) hunkered down in front of their big screens, watching the Superbowl. Well, there sure wasn’t any football in Leadville during the Silver Rush, so what kind of spectator sports did folks enjoy?

I turned to my copy of Eugene Floyd Irey’s dissertation, A Social History of Leadville, Colorado, During the Boom Days, 1877–1881, for some insight. There was horseracing, apparently, for in the dissertation, he quotes the Leadville Democrat (July 27, 1880)  “… on the race course sporting is rife …”). Yes, I’ll bet it was.

Irey has a section talking about sports, in which he says the most popular varieties were closely allied with contests that offered the opportunity for gambling. Thus, “sporting activity tended rather heavily toward such spectator sports as wrestling, boxing, billiards, shuffle board, walking and horse racing.”

Horse racing seems to have been a big favorite. In 1879, Leadville had constructed a race trace on the edge of town. By the beginning of 1880, the Leadville Trotting and Running Club was holding regular meets, with typical purses for a three-day meet running as high as $6,000.

Now, according to the website, $6,000 in 1880 equates to about $136,000 today. Wowee!! I can see why there would be so much interest in racing...

 ... One wonders how much money is changing hands this evening, at the conclusion of the Superbowl ...

Monday, January 28, 2013

From Film to Book

I sat down to write this post, thinking "movies," mostly because The LadyKillers (a group blog I help administer and also post for every other Saturday) has a movie-related theme this coming week. What follows is my real-time, step-by-step journey of serendipity.

It all starts when I wonder: what movies have been set in Leadville, Colorado? Doing a very perfunctory search, I find mention of two: Silver City (2004) and Under Siege 2 (1995).

Attempting to cast my net a little wider, I come upon a list of Movies Filmed in Colorado. What I find interesting is how few “westerns” appear in the list and how many sci-fi/magic/fantasy/horror movies there are! The westerns were mostly filmed back in the 1950s and 1960s: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit (the version with John Wayne), How the West Was Won, The Searchers… and then, way back in 1926, The Great K&A Train Robbery

Intrigued, I dig a little deeper into this last one, which was a western starring Tom Mix. Apparently much of it was filmed in Glenwood Springs, and John Wayne (! see True Grit, above !) worked as a property assistant on the film and appeared as an extra. By my calculations, Wayne would have been 19 years old when the film was released.

It then occurs to me that some of these films might be fun to watch for the scenery. Hmmm. I surf over to Netflix.

Well, really, what was I thinking? A silent film from 1926?

So, I wander over to YouTube and end up spending 10 minutes watching The Great Train Robbery (1903).

Very interesting, but not the “filmed in Colorado” movie I was looking for. In fact, I noodled around and found out The Great Train Robbery was filmed in Milltown, New Jersey. While noodling, I also discovered that there is a 1905 parody, by the same director, titled The Little Train Robbery, which was acted out by children, and features a “bandit queen!” And it is also on YouTube!

I drag myself back to my pursuit of The Great K&A Train Robbery. I would like to know where the real robbery took place, now that I know it was based on a “true incident,” but I’m not getting very far and it’s getting very late now. I discover that there are a few copies  of the book (copyright 1897) listed on Gah! I turn to Google books. There it is, as an eBook … FREE! I click DOWNLOAD, and now I have it… if only in electrons.

I still don’t know where the robbery took place, but will find out.

Although this is the end of one journey, it looks like it might also be the start of another. Sometimes it's fun just to wander and see where the roads lead.