Editor’s Note: “Summit’s Historic Yesterdays” is a new column running weekly on Sundays by local author Mary Ellen Gilliland. Excerpts from her books will begin this winter with stories of The Big Snow Winter and the anecdotes from the early days of Summit skiing, all these from her historical book, “SUMMIT.”
The Big Snow Winter of 1898-99 remains as Summit County’s record-setting and legendary snow year, still unrivaled well over a century later. Snow covered one-story log miners’ cabins well above their rooftops. Larger structures, such as boardinghouses and hotels, had snow to their second-story windows. Sometimes these windows were the only access to the outside. Steps cut in the snow from them led shovelers to the main front door in order to clear new snow, a job necessary more than once a day.
We have few stories of the Big Snow Winter because the railroad, Summit County’s lifeline to the outside world, tried valiantly to keep track open but eventually failed due to the wintry onslaught. Summit County lay sequestered for 79 difficult days. Saloons ran out of whiskey (the worst hardship), markets ran out of groceries and the newspaper ran out of newsprint. Decades later, Breckenridge resident E.C. Peabody chronicled the Big Snow story for his granddaughters. His 1950s-written account is our major source of information.
In the fall of 1898, a balmy autumn stretched lazily till Thanksgiving time. Then on Nov. 27, flakes began to tumble from a cloudy sky. Snow fell in sheets throughout the night and surprised Summit residents awoke to a full 5 feet of snow by 9 a.m. Nov. 28. But this was just the opening number of a snowstorm extravaganza unparalleled in known Summit history. Snow poured from the skies every day from Nov. 27 to Feb. 20. Snow tunnels provided pedestrian access to Breckenridge business places. One burrowed from Finding’s Hardware across Main Street to the popular Denver Hotel. People in one-story homes dug out by cutting steps upward in the snow to reach surface level. Anything not maintained by constant shoveling was lost — cabins, wagons, railroad freight cars. Atop Boreas Pass, only a bit of exposed chimney pipe emitting smoke signaled the existence of the rail buildings buried below. A 20-foot snow tunnel served as the station entrance.
Denver, South Park & Pacific trains tried valiantly to surmount snow-choked Boreas Pass. The trains encountered 40- to 50-foot drifts in South Park, then with the help of a rotary snowplow, pushed by seven locomotives, attacked the wall of snow that inundated Boreas Pass. Right behind them, the angry Storm King Boreas blew his blustery breath, re-covering the freed track with huge drifts of windblown snow.
Trains stalled with regularity. Ed Auge told the story in a 1935 Summit County Journal reminiscence: “On February 4, 1899, a train arrived, being about the first one in a week, but could get no further than Breckenridge. This train departed February 5 and no train was seen again for a period of 80 days.” The blockade cut off Breckenridge (and other Summit communities) from rail service, normal mail deliveries, sufficient fresh food stocks and all other supplies until April 24, 1899. (Wagons began to transport limited supplies after March 1.)
Households ran short of everything. Animal owners ran out of feed and sometimes butchered their skinny livestock for food. Butter, eggs, milk, fresh fruits and vegetables and cream became subjects of fantasy. But basic food supplies lasted, and though waistlines grew trim, no one in Breckenridge starved.
Miners attempting travel encountered some hairy moments. S. T. Richards carrying gold, mail and supplies on snowshoes across Boreas Pass, plunged into a 40-foot drift with his heavy load. Ed Auge relates the tale of three miners walking from Breckenridge to the Minnie Mine daily who often had to break trail both ways. The tops of telephone poles for a private line from Wapiti Mine offices on Farncomb Hill in the Golden Horseshoe to Breckenridge stood below their trail.
Jess Oakley volunteered to cross Boreas on cumbersome showshoes to fetch the Breckenridge mail. According to Breckenridge writer Helen Rich, Oakley slung 45 pounds of first-class mail on his back and took off for Como, 19 miles away across Boreas Pass. When he got to the top of the Pass, he wanted nothing so much as a cup of strong hot coffee, but he couldn’t locate the railroad station house. He finally saw smoke from a chimney 6 inches below the snow. He found steps dug from the snow leading down to the house 20 feet below. He had his coffee, got to Como and brought back newspapers to sell for $1 each.
After Oakley’s several trips, a pair named Shaw and Utes took over with a contract to carry the mail on skis. Like Oakley, their journeys were fraught with danger and mishap.
Next Sunday, readers will discover stories of the long thaw that held a prodigious snowpack in place through summer, 1899, barricaded the high passes and encased higher-altitude mine and rail camps in snowy isolation.
Mary Ellen Gilliland’s “SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado,” has captured the colorful gold rush. She details the misbehavior of history’s miscreants in her “Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods” and recounts the story of the region’s first town in Breckenridge. Gilliland is also the author of the popular guide, “The Summit Hiker.” All are available from The Next Page Bookstore or online at alpenrosepress.com.