Saturday, January 17, 2009

Letters: Windows to the past

When it comes to researching the past, I can't leave the topic without mentioning letters as a treasure trove of material, shedding light onto life in the past.

I am particularly indebted to a long-ago fellow named George Elder, who, as a very young man, ventured to Leadville in January 1879, hoping to make his fortune as a lawyer. Young George—who possessed a perceptive eye and a well-versed pen—wrote home regularly. Thanks to George's grandson and his wife, who I acknowledge in every single Leadville book I write, I have typed transcriptions of those letters.

I could probably spend the rest of the month January quoting bits of George's letters here on my blog (hmmm, not a bad idea, that) and discussing where I went from there. For now, I'll start with a couple quotes.

This is from George's January 29, 1879 letter:
My dear Parents,
I wrote you a day or so ago but I am now in possession of more facts concerning the place. I find things are even higher in price than I thoughts . . . I shall be compelled to pay $25 for a office per month. The one I have selected is 13 ft by 10 ft and the floor very roughly made as also the walk. . . . The Tontine where I now stop charges $4 per day for all parties though my meals have cost me on the average 45 cents. I guess I pay about $2 per day. . . . A man without money here might as well give up at once if he is a professional man. Laborers are well paid $3.50 to $4.50 being the wages in the mines and at the smelters. The streets are very much crowded and rival some of the busy streets of the Eastern cities. . . .
A couple of things strike me about this passage: Note the costs. A miner, making $3.50 a day, could no way no how afford staying at the Tontine. And three meals would cost more than a third of his daily wages. Think about that. Second, the streets were crowded—think New York, Philadelphia—but this is 10,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains. And more were coming in daily. In this letter, George continues,
The excitement about the mines is booming along and people are coming in at the rate of 60 to 100 per day.
These people came by stage, by foot, by horse, in the dead of winter. No trains to Leadville, yet. Can you imagine the shock of some folks when they finally got to town only to discover that rooms were scarce and prices high? What would they do? Try to leave? Turn to crime?

More tomorrow from George's letters. And then, we'll see where my random blog-walks take me from there.


Chester Campbell said...

An interesting look back at a colorful time in history, Ann.

Morgan Mandel said...

$25.00 a month for an office. My, times have changed!

Morgan Mandel

Ann Parker said...

Hello Chester and Morgan,
I love finding little details like this from the past. It helps to bring the time alive in the story. Thanks for stopping by! :-)

Anonymous said...

VERY interesting. I look forward to the next post on this.

Anonymous said...

LOVE this. I can't wait to see what happens.

Shari Lyle-Soffe said...

Fascinating letter. I was shocked at how high the prices were. I can't wait to read more.

Elizabeth Loupas said...

Fascinating bits of history--the letters and the photos. One looks at the faces or reads the letters and wonders--what were they thinking, what were they feeling, just then? Portraits are all very well but I wish they'd had photography in the 16th century. Oh, and the map of Leadville is fabulous! Perhaps you could develop a "Clue" style game from it. "George Elder, on Hemlock Street, with the pick-axe!"

Connie Arnold said...

Interesting bits from the past! Thanks for sharing, Ann.