Montrose, CO: Western Reflections Publishing Company, 2002.Index, chapter endnotes, list of books for further reading, photos, drawings, maps. 135 pages.
In 1879 Eben Olcott, a young New York mining engineer with a degree from the prestigious Columbia School of Mines, commenced a two-year study of Colorado mining properties. Although he came from polite New York society, Olcott was no stereotypical eastern tenderfoot. By age twenty-five he had already worked in several eastern U.S. mines, as well as the wilds of Venezuela. Colorado’s San Juan Mountains nevertheless presented quite a challenge. He would work as a consulting mining engineer at altitudes sometimes exceeding 12,000 feet, assisting mine owners and prospective buyers in seeking ore bonanzas. Period sources show that he earned wide respect for this work.
In his era, it was not unusual that Olcott kept his family and business associates aware of his activities through many letters home. Luckily, these letters survived for author Duane A. Smith to later research, transcribe, and publish. They provide a new glimpse of mines and mining life in the early development of the San Juans. Olcott possessed a clear and insightful manner of expression, displaying a positive and forthright attitude as he fought his way through many challenges.
Duane A. Smith, professor of history and Southwest studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, is the author of a number of books on western mining history. He uses his knowledge and experience to provide background, fill in gaps, and make explanations (and sometimes corrections). Nonetheless, Olcott himself has a lot to tell us. He found Colorado mining towns unruly, but not unbearable. “I am willing to see the rough side of life but certainly do not believe in the necessity of civilized Christian men falling into the ways of the majority.” (16) He describes a wagon accident in which he barely escaped death, then proceeds on to his astonishment at the effects of high altitude on cooking and boiling water.
Olcott’s ultimate destination was the North Star Mine, perched high on King Solomon Mountain to the east of Silverton. In the town he encountered a rarity for the time, a female assayer, Miss Robins. “She seems to be quite bright and not afraid of hearing herself talk. Her father has taught her to assay and is putting in practice my theory of the opening in this field for women.” (43–44) Eben Olcott has as much to say about the area’s natural properties as its mining potential. Its heavy snowfall provided a considerable hindrance to development, yet Olcott also noted:
I was coming up the other evening and just as I got where I could command a very extensive view the sun was approaching the horizon. It had been snowing a little and the heavy white clouds floated all around me throwing columnar masses down into the valley beneath which spread out at their bases more beautifully. (78-79)
There is no bonanza in this tale. Unlike many disappointed western mining ventures, Olcott at least did not go broke. He was prudent to enter into a contract for his services as mine manager, which even included pay during down times, and presumably received that pay. However, he did encounter other frustrations. The North Star Mine’s principal owners were the Crooke family, fellow New Yorkers. They were usually friendly and hospitable, allowing Olcott to live in their Lake City home and praising his accomplishments as their mine manager. However, as Smith points out, the Crookes also had a well-deserved reputation for delays and inconsistent management. Olcott’s dream of a smelter near the base of King Solomon Mountain, within easy reach of the North Star Mine, went nowhere. For this and other reasons, the North Star failed to live up to Olcott’s expectations.
As Smith reminds us here and in other books, western mining was heavily dependent on eastern capital, and equally dependent on the many whims of those who supplied it. Olcott’s ore did not disappoint him, just the supply of money (and enthusiasm) to develop it. In 1881 he moved on, following his dream to a Mexican mining venture. Later his new wife’s family in New York called him to settle down and manage its steamship business on the Hudson. Here he enjoyed the same respect for his business competence as he had from his work as a mining engineer. Thus, in Olcott we have an observer who possessed both personal business capability and an evocative writing style.
Olcott and Smith, a great team who never met, combine to tell usmore about an era when Colorado mining had matured somewhat, yet not lost its youthful exuberance. It makes excellent reading for the mining historian, as well as the lover of Victorian-era adventures on the frontier.
John Stewart, a Denver attorney, has recently completed his work toward a master’s degree in history at the University of Colorado–Denver. His thesis reflects another San Juan mining history theme, the life of Thomas F. Walsh, founder of Ouray’s rich Camp Bird Mine. Stewart also holds a B.A. in history and a J.D., both from the University of Illinois.