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Bits of Travel at Home (1878) by Helen Hunt Jackson


Three hours by rail from Denver to Central City, —only three hours; but one might often journey for three days and nights without making so sharp a transition. To go in three hours’ time, from a broad, dusty, sun-smitten plain, into cool, dark, pine-clad gorges, and up and out upon mountain heights, is like being lifted in one day, by some great stroke of fate, from a stagnant, commonplace level of life to an atmosphere full of joy and purpose and action. Who that has lived and loved has not known some such sudden upliftings? Who that has lived in and loved Colorado has not thus journeyed from one to another of her marvellous worlds? Not that the plain which bears Denver on its bosom can ever be called commonplace, or Denver stagnant and inert. The plain is majestic, almost solemn in the suggestion of its distances and its snow-topped westward wall; and Denver is bristling at every turn and in every corner with the sharpest sort of action. Nevertheless, the plain is a plain,—bare, apparent, monotonous, wearying, hot; and the mountains,—God be praised for them for ever,—are reticent, unfathomable, eternally varied, restful, cool. So long as the world stands shall the instinct of men turn to them for the best strengths of soul and body. Three hours by railroad, I said; but the last two hours are on a species of railroad for which I think some new name should be invented. Simply to say “narrow-gauge” conveys no idea, except to the mind educated in railroad technicalities, of the slender, winding, curving railroad tracks which thread the canyons of these Colorado mountains. They bear the same relation to the common railroads that a footpath does to a turnpike, and their agile little engines climb like goats. “Let us buy it and take it home to the children,” said a facetious man, the other day, standing at the Colorado Springs Station and watching the arrival of the noon train on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. And, indeed, they do look not unlike toys. They make magnificent work of their playing, however, whisking around curves of thirty-one and thirty-two degrees and drawing heavy loads up grades of two hundred and eleven feet to the mile. Wherever water can come down, a narrow-gauge railroad can go up. Side by side, on equal terms, asking no favors, it will make foothold for itself on the precipices, and follow the stream, leap for leap, grade to grade, coming out triumphant, abreast, at top of the mountain. This was the way we mounted to Central City, through Clear Creek Canyon.

The walls of the canyon are rocky, precipitous, and in places over one thousand feet high. It seems little more than a rift in the mountain, and we could easily fancy it closing behind us as we passed on. Fir-trees and aspens made a mosaic of dark and light green, like shaded malachite, on the sides. Wild roses and spiraeas and blue-bells grew on the edge of the creek and far up in the clefts of the rocks.

Wherever the creek foamed whitest and swiftest, there the pink roses and blue-bells waved and danced gayest. Here and there other canyons broke the wall, running down at sharp angles to our road, and opening long, narrow vistas of view to right or left, making the labyrinth of overlapping, interlacing hills seem endless. Now and then we came to little oases of green, where the creek widened, and cottonwood trees had found space to grow and branch; now and then to picturesque little water stations, perched on the rocks, with foot-bridges thrown across the creek; though for what the master of the water-station could want to cross to the opposite precipice it was hard to conceive, unless, indeed, it might be to pick more blue-bells. On one of these rocky plateaus was a high swing, its beams fastened by firm iron stanchions to the rock. Far out over the foaming creek, nearly spanning it, the ropes would reach if the swinger were bold. Could it be for some child’s delight it had been set there? We wondered whether even a mountain child, born in Clear Creek Canyon, could be so brave.

Again and again, as we looked up the canyon, we could see our engine, the whole of the first car, and part of the second, doubling and twisting around sharp curves ahead. The train seemed supple-jointed as a serpent, and glided without jar over its sinuous path. The wonder of this was so great and the beauty of the scene so marvellous, that throughout the train every man seemed to become friend to his neighbor; on all sides strangers were talking animatedly, joyously, sharing each other’s delight with unaffected enthusiasm. Everybody said to everybody, “Oh, look!” Not least among the endless pleasures of journeying in this grand old New World of ours, is the satisfaction of finding out, as we do at such moments, how much true fellowship and kinship there is at bottom between man and man. There was in all that car no man so rough, no woman so uncultured, as to sit stolid and unstirred by the grand rocks, the leaping stream, the beauteous blossoms, and the incredible marvel of our swift ascent.

As we neared Central City, the hills on either side grew barer, stonier, higher; and along the creek we began to see the dreary traces of that dreariest of all things on the earth’s surface, gulch mining: long stretches of pebble beds torn up, rent, piled, bare, desolate; here and there a few palid weeds struggling to crowd their way down and up between the stones and live in the arid sand. They only made the devastation look ghastlier. Is there not a significance in this thing, that men find no way of getting gold from the earth’s depths, without so marring, blighting all the fair, green beauty of its surface?

The railway station in Central City seems invested at once with historical interest when you are told that it is known only by the name of “Fitz-John Porter’s Folly.” Why that unlucky general should have been permitted still further to disgrace himself on this remote and un-military field, or how in the name of the very science of blundering he could have spent two hundred thousand dollars on this low, dark, ill-shaped purposeless building, it is not worth while to ask; but so long as the building stands, men will not cease to wonder.

To get to Central City, you drive through Black Hawk. Where Black Hawk leaves off and Central City begins seems indefinite. Why a part of the gulch should be called Black Hawk, and a part Central City, seems to a stranger inexplicable; but to the citizens of those two towns seems evident, natural, and a sufficient ground for antagonistic rivalry. To say literally how “it feels” to drive in the streets of this gulch, or the gulches of these streets, called respectively Black Hawk and Central City, would be to commit unpardonable exaggerations. Why the towns do not slide down hill any night, in one great avalanche of houses, stamping mills, smelting works, piles of slag, ore, mules, bowlders, and citizens, I do not know. To the unaccustomed eye, every thing and everybody seems to have been miraculously arrested in the process of toppling down. The houses are perched one above another, on the sides of the gulch, as if they were set on the successive steps of ladders. A man sitting on his piazza may rest his feet on the roof-tree of his neighbor next below; and so on all the way clown. The only endurable situation, one would think, must be at the top of the hill, but how climb to that? I looked to see derricks for the elevation of families at the corners of all the streets, but they have not yet been introduced. However, many of the cross streets are made chiefly of stairs; and I saw mules going up and down them as naturally as cats go up and down trees. My room at the hotel was on the second floor. Out of its windows I looked across a very narrow street into the basement of the house opposite. I saw many small houses built where the precipice was so steep that, as you looked up from the street you saw the hill above the house, apparently making a continuation of the roof. It produced a most curious optical illusion. No house thus placed can stand so straight that it will not have the look of tumbling clown. Acid to this apparent confusion of toppling houses, intervals of bare, brown, rocky hillsides, dotted everywhere with piles of gray ore thrown up at the mouths of mines, and some conception may be formed of the desolateness of the scene. Not all the red gold of Ophir would be compensation to an artistic soul for the hourly sight of such desolation. I fancied that the whole expression of the town seemed to say, “We endure this but a short time. We are here only for a season, harvesters of gold. As soon as the harvest is reaped, we will return to the regions of life and verdure and beauty.” Yet there were many of the little houses which looked homelike,—had white curtains, and flowers in the windows; and two or three had small trees in the yards. These looked like oases in Sahara.

A few weeks ago a fire broke out in this gulch. In less than three hours it swept away a third of the town. It seemed for a time as if nothing could stay it. High up on the sides of the precipices were gathered the women and children, watching their burning homes. The fire must have looked, at bottom of that narrow gulch, like a second stream, with fiery waves, rushing down side by side with the creek. It was terrible to imagine it.

There are treatises on metallurgy which give detailed and accurate accounts of the processes by which gold and silver are made ready for buying and selling. A person who has seen these processes in the mills and mines of Central City, ought to be able to write such a treatise. There is, no doubt, something organically wrong in the constitution of a mind which, at the end of hours of wonderstruck gazing upon such mysteries, and in spite of the most minute explanations of them, emerges into daylight and poverty as ignorant of gold and silver as before. As ignorant, but not as irreverent. The smallest gold or silver coin will for ever seem to me a talisman of necromancy, a link with the powers and the principalities of the air. Have I not seen it burning without fire, by virtue of its own sulphur? Huge piles of it lying in open air, stacked up like charcoal mounds, and smouldering away sullenly at every crevice, while the lurid sulphur gathered in yellow incrustations over the top, and made a superb contrast to the column of amber and opal-colored smoke which rose in slow coils from the furnace chimneys, and was reflected like sunset clouds in the creek beneath. Have I not walked cautiously through dark galleries of fiery furnaces, whose open mouths glowed and glared with an evil heat, while the metal boiled and bubbled and hissed within? Have I not seen huge tubs where a part of its waste was slowly turning into superb crystals, of a blue which no sapphire could match,—no, not in centuries of growth in the heart of a mountain? Have I not climbed stairs to a platform where every plank under our feet was a trap-door, and opened into shallow, tray-like boxes, with compartments, where the fine granulated silver lay soaking, stewing, slowly cooking in boiling water? Have I not seen the final furnaces of all, where, in small, round crucibles, the last test of the hottest fire is applied, and the molten metal must cease its angry and resistant seething, and become calm and smooth-surfaced as a mirror? When the workman sees his own face reflected in the placid, shining surface, he knows that the refining process is completed. From that instant no more need of fire. There is a Holy Scripture which has new beauty after one has seen this. And there might be a scripture, also holy, of human love, which would find here as fitting a metaphor for the peace and calm of the highest earthly affections. It also becomes placid at the greatest fervor, and reflects the loved one’s face, soul, nature, life; and after that instant no more need of fire!

“Can I not go into a mine?” I said. “I would like to see the beginning,—the spot where the hand of Nature reaches out and lays this treasure in the hand of man.”

One, experienced in the interior of mines, smiled, but answered me kindly:—

“Yes, yes; you shall. There is the Bob Tail Tunnel. That is pretty dry. You shall go into that.”

At the mouth of the Bob Tail Tunnel we met its workmen pouring out. It was six o’clock. Their day had ended. Pallid, dusty, earth-stained, they looked like no joyous seekers after riches. Their begrimed and careworn faces, and ragged clothes, seemed a bitter satire on the words silver and gold.

Trotting slowly along, head down, meek and sleepy, came a gray mule, drawing a small iron car loaded with ore.

“We can go in in that,” said my friend, the one experienced in the interior of mines. “It isn’t too late, Charley, is it?” he added, turning to a big negro who was driving the mule.

Charley scrutinized us. “No, no; jump in,” he said. “I’ll take the lady in.”

“In!” It was literally “in.” The mouth of the Bob Tail Tunnel was like the door to a huge brick oven in the side of a mountain. Sitting on a water-pail bottom side up, in that car, crouching low to my knees, grasping a bit of flaring, dripping candle in one hand, and rolling myself up tightly in warm wraps with the other, I entered that grim cavern. An icy blast met us. In five minutes it was dark as midnight. My candle showed me the bottom of the car and the spots of tallow on my skirts. Charley’s candle showed me the shadows of the mule’s legs on the sides of the place we were in. These were all I saw. It might have been anybody’s coal-bin, or cellar stairs, for all I could perceive. Jolt, jolt, rumble, rumble, on we went. Suddenly we came to a halt. By a chance gleam from Charley’s candle, I saw another oven door in the right-hand wall.

“Will you go down Number Two or Number Six, sir?” said Charley. “Here’s where Number Two leads off.”

“What’s the difference, Charley?” said a reassuring voice behind me.

“No great difference, sir. Number Two’s the longest.”

“Keep on in Number Six,” I whispered.

“Keep on in Number Six, Charley,” said the reassuring voice behind me,—the voice of one much amused, the voice of one experienced in the interior of mines.

“All right, sir,” said Charley. “They’re blasting in Number Two now,” he added, as the mule began his jolting trot again.

Above us, below us, around us, before and behind us, pealed that blast. The echoes seemed louder than the blast. It was terrific. I suppose I have been in a gold mine, because I was told so; but I know I have been in the middle of a thunder-clap, for I have felt it.

Even the one experienced in the interior of mines did not enjoy this.

“All right here, Charley?” he said. And I wondered what there would be to be done in case it had not been “all right.”

Dim reminiscences crowded my mind of accounts I had read of affecting messages which miners had scrawled on the walls of choked-up galleries.

“Ha, ha! Yes, sir. All right, sir,” chuckled Charley.

Charley enjoyed that blast. Presently we stopped.

This was the end of the track.

“Are we a mile in?” I asked.

“Only a few hundred feet,” was the reply. I did not believe it. I do not now. I firmly believe that I was standing just above the highest tower of Pekin at that moment.

Charley led the way; we followed. To clamber in the dark over the wildest confusion of bowlders, on the top of a mountain, with the risk of bumping your head thrown in,—this it is to walk in the Bob Tail Tunnel. Anxiously, and as well as I could by my very little candle, I peered at the walls on either hand.

“Here’s a fine vein.” “Here’s the lead they’re following now.” “Here’s the pure metal, sir,” said Charley, enthusiastically, at every step of the way holding up his candle to spots a little darker or lighter than the rest. Occasionally I fancied I saw a gleam; but it might have been the shining of the candle-flame on a wet spot[.]

Soon we heard the sound of pickaxes,—clink, thud, clink, thud, at regular intervals; and presently quick, panting breaths, in alternation with the blows; and in a moment more we saw just ahead of us an arched opening into a lighted chamber, and the forms of two miners swinging their arms with powerful strokes, and before each stroke drawing, in a heavy breath. This was the end of the mine. This was in keeping with my thought of mystery, of some subtle bond with Nature. Inch by inch, flake by flake, these two men were winning, compelling way to the whole of the secret hid in the rock. This was mining. Until midnight they were to stand in that chamber, panting, cleaving the solid stone, journeying toward the centre of the earth. Above them the city would be at rest; perhaps they would be the only ones not sleeping. How strange it would seem to them to come out at high noon of night, and see the heaven full of stars! As their forms bent and lifted, and bent and lifted, in the dim light, they seemed to me not human beings, doing the bidding and winning the wealth of an earthly master; but gnomes, spirits, working the will of invisible omnipotence, as they must have worked who wrought “before ever the mountains were brought forth.”

Never shone any turquoise in the eyes of eager finder as did the tiny oval of blue sky at the mouth of that tunnel as we drew near it on our return. We had been in the bowels of the earth only a short half hour, as clocks reckon minutes; but no clocks can lose or gain time as hearts can. We had lived the lifetime of a miner; we had felt what it might be to die his death.

Looking down on the town at sunset, from a point high up on one side of the gulch, we were impressed anew with the marvellousness of its existence under such unfavoring conditions. Even the sunset glow could not much soften the barrenness, the rocky confusion, of the sharp and angular steeps.

“I have never seen any thing so dreary, unless it be in northern New Hampshire,” said a New Englander of the party. “New Hampshire!” I echoed, loving New Hampshire, granite and all, and knowing well how all the granite is redeemed and made gracious by myriads of lichens and mosses and vines, in the barest of her fields,—“New Hampshire! It is New Hampshire wrong side out, bottom side up, and after a spring freshet!”

But, as the shadows darkened and the gulch seemed to grow deeper and deeper in the twilight, a sadder and deeper thought took possession of me. This strange, gold-filled rift in the mountains seemed to me like a great crucible, into which had been cast the lives of men and women and children. Fiery as the tests through which the metals pass, must be the tests of life in such a spot. How much must be consumed and perish for ever, that the pure silver be refined!

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