Gold rush mayhem
Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies
By Ian Neligh (Westwinds Press) Colorado was founded on gold. In 1859, some 100,000 people joined the rush to the Rockies, and in a couple of years, they had filed nearly 15,000 claims. Those goldseekers are long gone, of course. Today, only one commercial gold mine — Newmont’s Cripple Creek venture — operates in the state. Still, gold will always attract prospectors.
In “Gold!”, Ian Neligh, editor of the Clear Creek Courant in Idaho Springs recounts the story of the Colorado gold rush, bringing it forward to contemporary times, melding the old and the new. He tells about the men who still moil for gold in the Colorado Rockies.
With the exception of the 1980s, when heap leaching revived the old mine dumps, gold mining pretty much died out at the beginning of World War II, when the government shut down the mines as nonessential. By then, gold’s heyday was long over and the few mines still in operation were run by skeleton crews. Neligh tells of a group of miners in the 1930s who discovered a vug (a deposit of almost pure gold) in the Lamartine mine near Clear Creek. They wanted to high- grade it and thus kept the vug a secret from their supervisor. The supervisor spotted it, however, and to their surprise, he suggested they form a pact to steal the ore. When he turned around, he discovered the miners holding rocks, ready to brain him if he threatened to tell on them.
Neligh writes of contemporary prospectors who use metal detectors or search the streams. One fellow has 50 ounces of gold that he’s panned and stored in a safe. It’s not the selling of the gold that counts, his friend says, then adds in an age-old adage, “It is about the finding.”
Talking Machine West: A History and Catalogue of Tin Pan Alley’s Western Recordings, 19021918
By Michael A. Amundson (University of Oklahoma
Not long after Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier closed, Americans developed a nostalgia for the West. “The Virginian” was published, and Tin Pan Alley discovered western songs. These were not the songs the cowboys sang to the cows on trail drives, however, but Broadway’s image of the passing frontier.
The lyrics that emerged from wax cylinders and one-sided records were filled with nostalgia and lovelorn angst. They were often racist. How else to explain “Little Arrow and Big Chief Greasepaint” or “I’m a Yiddish Cowboy?” Virtually all the songs misrepresented American Indians, portraying them as noble redskins or drunken savages. Still, there were a couple of memorable songs that came out of that era. They include “Red Wing” and “Ragtime Cowboy Joe.”
Author Michael A. Amundson became interested in early western hit tunes after buying a 1906 Edison Home cylinder phonograph, which played wax cylinders. The songs on them were recorded in studios, and only the heartiest singers performed, since songs had to be recorded from beginning to end in one take; there was no splicing. The singer had to perform all day long in an airless studio. That meant powerful lungs. Enrico Caruso was one of the best at singing for recordings. So was Billy Murray, who grew up in Denver in the 1880s and worked at the Overland Park Racetrack.
“My Pony Boy” was the era’s biggest hit, and “Red Wing” was the most popular of the Indian love songs. (Its sheet music illustration of an Indian maiden in a feather headdress is classic.)
Amundson’s love affair with the Tin Pan Alley West is evident in this oversized book with its lavish illustrations. The author gives a history of talking machines and songwriting, then details 54 western songs, with sheet-music reproductions.
Land on Fire
By Gary Ferguson (Timber Press)
In his prologue to “Land on Fire,” outdoors writer Gary Ferguson tells that fire is one of the most devastating forces in nature but also “a powerful agent of healing, a mighty wand that wipes the land free of disease and insects and fallen timber to create a stage for … new flushes of life.”
In a comprehensive but highly readable look at wildfires in the West, Ferguson writes that wildfires are increasing in both number and intensity, due to climate change and population growth. Nine out of 10 fires are started by humans, and of the West’s 120,000 wildfires a year, some 10,000 are set intentionally. So Smokey Bear (that’s his real name, not Smokey The Bear) is right when he warns that only you can prevent forest fires.
If the fire danger is increasing, so is the technology in firefighting. Firefighters no longer just show up at the site with shovels in hand. They are appraised ahead of time about the direction of the fire and the fuel source, which can be determined by smoke. Team leaders have the latest technology and training to determine how to fight the blazes.
Forest management has changed over the years. “Because of earlier suppression policies, a staggering 300 million acres of western forests are today suffering from unnaturally heavy fuel loads,” Ferguson writes. Lightning, a cigarette butt or sparks from a chain saw can set off a blaze that can destroy hundreds of acres.
In a small but fact-filled book with dozens of photographs, Ferguson tells about how and why fires are started and fought. There are even arson dogs that can detect the source and cause of a fire. He also discusses fire prevention and the aftermath of fires, including the beneficial effects of scouring the land. Within days after a blaze, new growth springs up, including an aptly named flower called fireweed.