Tuesday, October 9, 2018

An interesting day in Cañon City and the Wet Mountain Valley


Miss D. and I had an enjoyable morning running (well, ambling, really) through the Royal Gorge aboard a tourist train.  We splurged on the deluxe package, which included a very tasty, well-prepared breakfast, equal to anything I've had in decent restaurants that weren't moving.  We sat in the observation car, high up, with big curved windows offering the best view of the Gorge.  It was a cool, rainy, cloudy morning, not the best weather for viewing the sights, but one makes do with what Mother Nature provides.

The train moves pretty slowly, probably at no more than 10-12 miles per hour, taking it easy through the many twists and turns of the railway track along the side of the Royal Gorge.  When one thinks that space for the entire track had to be blasted out of the rocky mountainside with dynamite and pickaxes, with every hole for the explosives being dug by hand-held single-jack and double-jack drills, the mind boggles.  (Pneumatic or steam drilling had not yet been developed to a commercially viable level.)

The term "jack" referred to miners;  it was originally a term from Cornwall, and miners from that region were colloquially referred to in the USA as "Cousin Jacks".  They were considered masters of drillwork.  Here's a demonstration by the 2017 World Champion of single-jack drilling, where the same man holds the drill and strikes it with a hammer, turning it slightly in between each stroke.





Double jack drilling used two miners, one swinging a sledgehammer, the other holding and turning the drill.  They would trade places every few minutes.  Here's a demonstration from a 2010 championship event in Idaho Springs.





Looking at the incredibly steep sides of the Royal Gorge (image below courtesy of Wikipedia), and realizing that the entire railway roadbed had been carved out of solid rock by those primitive methods, was a sobering experience.




They would have worked the drills at all angles, including sideways, slanted up or slanted down, unlike the straight up-and-down drilling portrayed in the video clips above.  Our forefathers were surely as tough as nails!  It becomes clear why human life expectancy, which was about 34.8 years in 1800 in the USA, had risen only a few years, to 41, by 1900.  With such brutal, backbreaking physical labor, and the constant risk of accidents and crippling injury, many manual workers stood little chance of achieving what we would consider a ripe old age.

When the train returned to Cañon City, we took to our own vehicle once more and headed for the Wet Mountain Valley.  This is where my Western protagonist, Walt Ames, has his horse ranch (which he obtained by methods described in "Rocky Mountain Retribution").  In a future book, he's going to run headlong into the hordes of silver miners and prospectors who descended on the area after the discovery of silver at what became the Silver Cliff Mine.  He will strive to keep his ranch and horse breeding activities intact, while prospectors will try to break into his land holdings in their search for wealth.  It's going to lead to an epic conflict.

The Wet Mountains are so named because they capture much of the winter moisture drifting from the Pueblo basin in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  We saw graphic evidence of this on our drive.  The valley itself, on the west side of the range, was dry and sunny, with snow visible on the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east.  The lower Wet Mountains, forming the other side, have no snow on them as  yet.  However, when we drove through them on Highway 96, on our way back to Cañon City, the eastern side of the range was wet and misty, dripping with moisture, showing very clearly why early settlers named them as they did.  The eastern and western sides of the range might as well be two different ecosystems, the difference in moisture is so marked.

We'll be heading out on Tuesday for Cimarron, NM.  It's one of the most famous of the early towns of the Old West.  I've been there before, but I'd like to show Miss D. some of the history that still haunts the place.  From there, on Wednesday, we'll make the long run home.  It'll be nice to leave nosebleed altitudes, and get back to denser air again!  I'm sure our lungs will be duly grateful.

Peter

12 comments:

Robert Gibson said...

That (drilling) would be an excellent way for me to get a shattered hand . . .

Well Seasoned Fool said...

Until the Union Pacific bought the Denver & Rio Grande, that was a daily use operating railroad connecting the Colorado River line at Dotsero.

TheOtherSean said...

Now it only in daily use as far wast as the Royal Gorge. As of my last drive through there, track west of the Royal Gorge is just used for car storage, with long cuts of covered hoppers stretching for miles. Peter's text and the dramatic photo he included help illustrate why, though - a route like that is expensive to maintain. It wasn't as bad as the Colorado Midland, but the Royal Gorge/Tennessee Pass route was not cheap to maintain.

SiGraybeard said...

If you get a chance, there are copper mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that go back to the 1800s. The miners used the double jack drilling approach, with the complication that the light was a tiny fraction of what we'd have today.

Visualize being underground in a room that could go pitch black in a moment with the ringing of several hammers hitting that steel drill and echoing off the rock walls. Since the guy swinging the sledge hammer couldn't hear the guy holding the drill if he yelled "stop", the guy holding the drill would put his thumb over the end of the drill to signal the hammer guy not to swing. No statistics were given on the number of guys who lost a thumb.

I've heard they preferred to have these teams be from the same family so that they just understood each other better.

Latigo Morgan said...

If you stay at the old hotel in Cimarron, maybe you'll see a ghost.

It pretty much straddles the Old Santa Fe Trail. You can still see the wagon ruts in some places.

I just made a trip to Houston for a week and back. You all can have that thick, muggy air. I'll take my clear, clean, mountain air any day.

Latigo Morgan said...

Oh, and if you get a chance, don't overlook Las Vegas, NM. That was once the end of the line and has lots of colorful history. It was even too wild for Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp.

Nuke Warrior said...

During the building of the transcontinental railroad, Dynamite didn't exist. Most of the tunnels bored through the hard granite of the Sierras was done with double jacks and black powder by Chinese workers. Some work was done with nitroglycerin, but the obvious problems outweighed the extra power.

Interesting side note, Charlie Crocker, the Central Pacific's construction manager was highly respected by the Chinese because he treated them fairly and they were paid well, an anomaly in mid-nineteenth century America.

The Neon Madman said...

The Durango-Silverton train ride in Colorado is much like that, too.

waepnedmann said...

I worked on the railroad tunnels through the Feather River Canyon in Northern California.
You could look across the canyon and see the old stage coach road that had been blasted along the face of the canyon wall.
They must have had some steady teams and confident drivers.

Old NFO said...

Yes, an amazing 'tribute' if you will to the hardiness of our forefathers...

TJR said...

I wonder how many OSHA/MSHA regs were being broken by those double jack drillers.

Stephen Bayliss said...

There's a UK folk duo called "Show of Hands" who hail from Cornwall and have many excellent songs about the "Cousin Jacks". That Cornish diaspora of miners was incredible.