Crested Butte: from Coal Camp to Ski Town

Review by George Sibley

Crested Butte – January 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

Crested Butte: From Coal Camp to Ski Town
by Duane A. Smith
Published in 2005 by Western Reflections
ISBN 1-932738-06-1

Crested Butte: Return to My Avalon

by John L. Tezak

Published in 2005 by Cedar Hill, Snowflake, AZ

ISBN 1-933324-00-7, 134 p., $14.95

THE ONE-TIME mountain mining camps of the Rockies continue to fascinate–up to the point, anyway, at which they stopped being mining camps. Some of those one-time mining camps have continued to be communities, but seem less interesting to historians and readers alike without the mines–even though there is much evidence that the people who live in those places today are glad that the mining is history: better to have a “mining heritage” than a mine.

Two books came out this year about the mining heritage of Crested Butte, high in the Upper Gunnison River valley–a former mining camp that this year celebrated 125 years as an ongoing community, even though mining there essentially ceased in the early 1950s.

Duane Smith, historian at Fort Lewis College in Durango and author of dozens of Colorado mountain histories, has updated and renamed his 1984 book about Crested Butte’s first 70-some years, When Coal Was King: A History of Crested Butte, Colorado 1880-1952–a good thing because that book was totally out of print and not even available on the internet used-books network.

And John Tezak, a son of one of Crested Butte’s great central European immigrant families, has written an unabashedly nostalgic memoir of his early life in the upper Upper Gunnison, Crested Butte: Return to My Avalon–after the mythic island where England’s legendary King Arthur got his great sword Excalibur, and where he was taken when mortally wounded, and from which he will, by legend, return in England’s greatest hour of need. “My Avalon,” Tezak says in his Preface, “is Crested Butte, Colorado” — a conceit shared by many people who have been to that town, including, I suppose, myself, but the history of George Sibley and his people there remains to be written

Considering Smith’s book first–he purports to carry the history of the town up to the present, but the 50 years since the closing of the mining era, 40 percent of the town’s history, are summarized perfunctorily in the last 10 percent of the book, with none of the deeper historian’s attention that he brings to the first 75 years. And much of those 20 pages are occupied with an account of AMAX Molybdenum’s efforts around 1980 to revive the town’s “mining heritage” with a big molybdenum mine, an idea vigorously opposed by most (not all) of the town’s residents at the time.

As a historian, Smith was among the first western historians to challenge Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” about the development of American civilization west of the Appalachian Mountains–a thesis which sees Europeans stripped of “European germs” by the American wilderness, a wilderness that changed the settlers as much as the settlers changed the wilderness, forcing the first settlers back to a kind of hunter-gatherer status, who were gradually replaced by frontier farmers, who gathered in Jeffersonian villages, which eventually resulted in industrial cities–but with very different people from the Europeans, according to Turner.

BUT SMITH RECOGNIZED that the mining camps of the West did not fit the Turner thesis at all; rather they sprang into being as overnight cities, collecting points for masses of Americans seeking a very European idea of wealth, in false-front instant slums whose “European germs” were very evident in the grand hotels, opera houses and mercantiles offering “the latest Paris fashions.” He set out his counter-thesis in Rocky Mountain Mining Camps: The Urban Frontier (University of Nebraska Press, 1974).

However, while Smith kind of fell out of the tent of traditional Turnerian western historians, he didn’t really jump into the tent with the “New West” historians like Patricia Nelson Limerick and Richard White. In the Crested Butte book, as in his other works about “the urban frontier,” he tends to see what Limerick criticized as a “legacy of conquest” as something to celebrate — mostly.

He tracks the town’s devolution from a brief early romance with gold and silver in the 1880s to its settling in with the much less romantic coal mines. He also notes that many of the coal miners themselves never really gave up on the romance of gold and silver; the coal mines often shut down in the summer due to reduced demand, and the miners headed up valley with pick and pan, sometimes with the whole family, for a summer of prospecting. John Tezak, in his book, recalls family picnics where the men disappeared after lunch for the afternoon. This was still going on when I was first in Crested Butte in the 1960s, but nobody ever really found much beyond little pill bottles of gold flake to show off at the bar.

Smith does not romanticize the coal town itself much, although he sees the mines and miners as part of a heroic episode. He accurately paints in words what it was probably like to live in a high thin-air valley, prone to inversions, where everyone including the mines was burning coal and there were 154 coke ovens pumping impurities into the air. (I think of Emil Spritzer, who grew up in Crested Butte, recollecting his amazement on his first trip to Gunnison: “Look, Dad–the dirt is clean!”)

BECAUSE I WAS CORRUPTED as a child by parents who were Roosevelt Democrats (even that a compromise for my father, who voted socialist in 1932), I have a little trouble appreciating Smith’s tendency to apologize for the companies that ran the mines in the Rocky Mountain mining camps, most notably the Colorado Coal and Iron Company (later Colorado Fuel and Iron–CF&I) that ran the majority of the coal mines in the Southern Rockies. This may have to do with the fact that both AMAX and CF&I supported his research and the publication of his 1984 book.

Take his account of the Jokerville Mine disaster of 1884, for example. A gas explosion caused 59 deaths and was almost surely a consequence of slack safety rules and slacker CC&I enforcement, not to mention the niggardly wages and the mine owners’ refusal to pay for the “dead work” the miners had to do on their own nickel to make the mines minimally safe. But Smith’s account of the investigation that followed concludes with two newspaper quotes to the effect that “s— happens.”

“Both writers could not have been more correct,” Smith concludes. Baloney.

While he does show awareness of the extent to which the company’s drive for cost-cutting made a brutal occupation even more so, he doesn’t have a lot of empathy for the workers’ efforts to improve their situations through organizing. He gives an unsympathetic account of Crested Butte’s brief experiment with socialism–“an obviously un-American product of foreign infiltration”–in 1914, when socialist candidates swept the municipal elections, calling for public ownership of “all those things upon which people in common depend.” In 1914, of course, the benevolent and paternalistic CF&I was in the middle of its Ludlow troubles on the other side of the mountains so it wasn’t paying much attention to Crested Butte.

I will also note that Smith is not always very organized and coherent in his presentation. His account of the socialist election, for example, isn’t mentioned until another chapter, 20 pages after his description of the Ludlow Massacre–clearly related events. Later, he covers the IWW strike of 1927–then, for no discernible reason, drops that to go back to an interrupted account of World War I and its impact on the mines and mining camps.

Those things noted, however, Smith’s book on Crested Butte’s coal mining era remains the most detailed account I’ve found of the under-reported coal-mining part of Colorado’s “mining heritage.”

John Tezak’s book has an entirely different appeal. It is his mature recollections of growing up as a boy in Crested Butte during the 1930s and 40s, mixed with stories he coaxed out of his parents and many uncles and aunts; he began the book when he was caregiver for his parents in their last years.

As one who has done time in the Butte, the only addition I’d like to have seen to this book would have been the author’s family tree, which seemed to include most of the great Slovene and Croatian families of Crested Butte–Kochevars, Tezaks, Spritzers.

As a result, there is little in the book that a historian would recognize as history–but it will be a primary source for any social historian of this period who is looking for the human flavor of the times, like the “prospecting picnics,” and the other ways people had of hanging onto hope in difficult times. “Life was not easy,” he says, “but being secluded in this valley, it was the only life we knew. Today we would be classified as living in poverty, but then everyone’s lifestyle was about the same, and we never knew we were poor…. We had family, love, food, drink and a tingle in our toes that made us want to dance at the first sound of a polka.” I would not change a word there, in describing life in the Butte in the 1960s and 70s.

THERE ARE ITEMS of larger historical interest in the book that I had never heard about before, including Crested Butte’s “poll tax,” a $2 annual assessment for every male over 21. The purpose of this tax seems to have been to get the town cleaned up every spring; according to Tezak, you either paid the tax or spent a day working for the city on cleanup–which amounted to raking all the unpaved streets along with picking up all the trash around the place. Some men, instead of paying the tax, paid a son or nephew to operate the rake for them–“big money for any youngster in the early 1940s,” Tezak recalls.

My recommendation for those who love that period of Rocky Mountain history? Get both books and read them together. One for the bedroom, one for the bathroom, or whatever your reading habits are. And meanwhile, I am charged up again to get to work on the real history of the other 40 percent of Crested Butte’s life as a community, if only to persuade our CC publisher, and maybe Duane Smith, that it is still as honest and human a place as ever despite the ongoing depredations of outside money.