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Life in the Rocky Mountains. Bird, Isabella L. (Isabella Lucy), 1831–1904.
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page: 25

LETTER III.

A Temple of Morpheus—Utah—A “God‐forgotten” Town—A distressed Couple—Dog Villages—A Temperance Colony—A Colorado Inn—The Bug pest—Fort Collins.

CHEYENNE, WYOMING, September 8.

PRECISELY at 11 P.M. the huge Pacific train, with its heavy bell tolling, thundered up to the door of the Truckee House, and on presenting my ticket at the double door of a “Silver Palace” car, the slippered steward, whispering low, conducted me to my berth—a luxurious bed three and a half feet wide, with a hair mattress on springs, fine linen sheets, and costly California blankets. The twenty‐four inmates of the car were all invisible, asleep behind rich curtains. It was a true Temple of Morpheus. Profound sleep was the object to which everything was dedicated. Four silver lamps hanging from the roof and burning low, gave a dreamy light. On each side of the centre passage, rich red curtains, green and crimson, striped with gold, hung from silver bars running near the roof, and trailed on the soft Axminster carpet. The temperature was carefully kept at 70°. It was 29° outside. Silence and freedom from jolting were page: 26 secured by double doors and windows, costly and ingenious arrangements of springs and cushions, and a speed limited to eighteen miles an hour.

As I lay down, the gallop under the dark pines, the frosty moon, the forest fires, the flaring lights and roaring dim of Truckee faded as dreams fade, and eight hours later a pure, pink dawn divulged a level blasted region, with grey sage brush growing out of a soil encrusted with alkali, and bounded on either side by low glaring ridges. All through that day we travelled under a cloudless sky over solitary glaring plains, and stopped twice at solitary, glaring frame houses, where coarse, greasy meals, infested by lazy flies, were provided at a dollar per head. By evening we were running across the continent on a bee line, and I sat for an hour on the rear platform of the rear car to enjoy the wonderful beauty of the sunset and the atmosphere. Far as one could see in the crystalline air there was nothing but desert. The jagged Humboldt ranges flaming in the sunset, with snow in their clefts, though forty‐five miles off, looked within an easy canter. The bright metal track, purpling like all else in the cool distance, was all that linked one with eastern or western civilisation.

The next morning, when the steward unceremoniously turned us out of our berths soon after sunrise, we were running down upon the Great Salt Lake, bounded by the white Wahsatch ranges. page: 27 Along its shores, by means of irrigation, Mormon industry has compelled the ground to yield fine crops of hay and barley; and we passed several cabins, from which, even at that early hour, Mormons, each with two or three wives, were going forth to their day's work. The women were ugly, and their shapeless blue dresses hideous. At the Mormon town of Ogden we changed cars, and again traversed dusty plains, white and glaring, varied by muddy streams and rough, arid valleys, now and then narrowing into canyons. By common consent the windows were kept closed to exclude the fine white alkaline dust, which is very irritating to the nostrils. The journey became more and more wearisome as we ascended rapidly over immense plains and wastes of gravel destitute of mountain boundaries, and with only here and there a “knob” or “butte”¹ to break the monotony. The wheel marks of the trail to Utah often ran parallel with the track, and bones of oxen were bleaching in the sun, the remains of those “whose carcasses fell in the wilderness” on the long and drouthy journey. The daybreak of to‐day (Sunday) found us shivering at Fort Laramie, a frontier post dismally situated at a height of 7000 feet. Another 1000 feet over gravelly levels brought us to Sherman, the highest


¹ The mountains which bound the “Valley of the Babbling Waters,” Utah, afford striking examples of these “knobs” or “buttes.”

page: 28 level reached by this railroad. From this point eastward the streams fall into the Atlantic. The ascent of these apparently level plateaus is called “crossing the Rocky Mountains,” but I have seen nothing of the range, except two peaks like teeth lying low on the distant horizon. It became mercilessly cold; some people thought it snowed, but I only saw rolling billows of fog. Lads passed through the cars the whole morning, selling newspapers, novels, cacti, lollypops, pop corn, pea nuts, and ivory ornaments, so that, having lost all reckoning of the days, I never knew that it was Sunday till the cars pulled up at the door of the hotel in this detestable place.

The surrounding plains are endless and verdureless. The scanty grasses were long ago turned into sun‐cured hay by the fierce summer heats. There is neither tree nor bush, the sky is grey, the earth buff, the air blae and windy, and clouds of coarse granitic dust sweep across the prairie and smother the settlement. Cheyenne is described as “a God‐forsaken, God‐forgotten place.” That it forgets God is written on its face. Its owes its existence to the railroad, and has diminished in population, but is a depôt for a large amount of the necessaries of life which are distributed through the scantily settled districts within distances of 300 miles by “freight waggons,” each drawn by four or six horses or mules, or double that number of oxen. At times over 100 waggons, with page: 29 double that number of teamsters, are in Cheyenne at once. A short time ago it was a perfect pandemonium, mainly inhabited by rowdies and desperadoes, the scum of advancing civilisation; and murders, stabbings, shootings, and pistol affrays were at times events of almost hourly occurrence in its drinking dens. But in the West, when things reach their worst, a sharp and sure remedy is provided. Those settlers who find the state of matters intolerable, organise themselves into a Vigilance Committee. “Judge Lynch,” with a few feet of rope, appears on the scene, the majority crystallises round the supporters of order, warnings are issued to obnoxious people, simply bearing a scrawl of a tree with a man dangling from it, with such words as “Clear out of this by 6 A.M. or —.” A number of the worst desperadoes are tried by a yet more summary process than a drumhead court‐martial, “strung up,” and buried ignominiously. I have been told that 120 ruffians were disposed of in this way here in a single fortnight. Cheyenne is now as safe as Hilo, and the interval between the most desperate lawlessness and the time when United States law, with its corruption and feebleness, comes upon the scene is one of comparative security and good order. Piety is not the forte of Cheyenne. The roads resound with atrocious profanity, and the rowdyism of the saloons and bar‐rooms is repressed, not extirpated.

page: 30

The population, once 6000, is now about 4000. It is an ill‐arranged set of frame houses and shanties;¹ and rubbish heaps, and offal of deer and antelope, produce the foulest smells I have smelt for a long time. Some of the houses are painted a blinding white; others are unpainted; there is not a bush, or garden, or green thing; it just straggles out promiscuously on the boundless brown plains, on the extreme verge of which three toothy peaks are seen. It is utterly slovenly‐looking and unornamental, abounds in slouching bar‐room‐looking characters, and looks a place of low, mean lives. Below the hotel windows freight cars are being perpetually shunted, but beyond the railroad tracks are nothing but the brown plains, with their lonely sights—now a solitary horseman at a travelling amble, then a party of Indians in paint and feathers, but civilised up to the point of carrying firearms, mounted on sorry ponies, the bundled‐up squaws riding astride on the baggage‐ponies; then a drove of ridgy‐spined, long‐horned cattle, which have been several months eating their way from Texas, with their escort of four or five much‐spurred horsemen, in peaked hats, blue‐hooded coats, and high boots, heavily armed with revolvers and repeating rifles, and riding small wiry horses. A solitary wag‐ waggon


¹ The discovery of gold in the Black Hills has lately given it a great impetus, and as it is the chief point of departure for the diggings it is increasing in population and importance.—July 1879.

page: 31 gon, with a white tilt, drawn by eight oxen, is probably bearing an emigrant and his fortunes to Colorado. On one of the dreary spaces of the settlement six white‐tilted waggons, each with twelve oxen, are standing on their way to a distant part. Everything suggests a beyond.

September 9.

I have found at the post‐office here a circular letter of recommendation from ex‐Governor Hunt, procured by Miss Kingsley's kindness, and I another equally valuable one of “authentication” and recommendation from Mr. Bowles, of the Springfield Republican, whose name is a household word in all the West. Armed with these, I shall plunge boldly into Colorado. I am suffering from giddiness and nausea produced by the bad smells. A “help” here says that there have been fifty‐six deaths from cholera during the last twenty days. Is common humanity lacking, I wonder, in this region of hard greed? Can it not be bought by dollars here, like every other commodity, votes included? Last night I made the acquaintance of a shadowy gentleman from Wisconsin, far gone in consumption, with a spirited wife and young baby. He had been ordered to the Plains as a last resource, but was much worse. Early this morning he crawled to my door, scarcely able to speak from debility and bleeding from the lungs, begging me to go to his wife, who, the doctor said, page: 32 was ill of cholera. The child had been ill all night, and not for love or money could he get any one to do anything for them, not even to go for the medicine. The lady was blue, and in great pain from cramp, and the poor unweaned infant was roaring for the nourishment which had failed. I vainly tried to get hot water and mustard for a poultice, and though I offered a negro a dollar to go for the medicine, he looked at it superciliously, hummed a tune, and said he must wait for the Pacific train, which was not due for an hour. Equally in vain I hunted through Cheyenne for a feeding‐bottle. Not a maternal heart softened to the helpless mother and starving child, and my last resource was to dip a piece of sponge in some milk and water, and try to pacify the creature. I applied Rigollot's leaves, went for the medicine, saw the popular host—a bachelor—who mentioned a girl who, after much difficulty, consented to take charge of the baby for two dollars a day and attend to the mother, and having remained till she began to amend; I took the cars for Greeley, a settlement on the Plains, which I had been recommended to make my starting‐point for the mountains.

FORT COLLINS, September 10.

It gave me a strange sensation to embark upon the Plains. Plains, plains everywhere, plains generally level, but elsewhere rolling in long undulations, like the waves of a sea which had fallen asleep. They are page: 33 covered thinly with buff grass, the withered stalks of flowers, Spanish bayonet, and a small beehive‐shaped cactus. One could gallop all over them.

They are peopled with large villages of what are called prairie dogs, because they utter a short, sharp bark, but the dogs are, in reality, marmots. We passed numbers of these villages, which are composed of raised circular orifices, about eighteen inches in diameter, with sloping passages leading downwards for five or six feet. Hundreds of these burrows are placed together. On nearly every rim a small furry reddish‐buff beast sat on his hind legs, looking, so far as head went, much like a young seal. These creatures were acting as sentinels, and sunning themselves. As we passed, each gave a warning yelp, shook its tail, and, with a ludicrous flourish of its hind legs, dived into its hole. The appearance of hundreds of these creatures, each eighteen inches long, sitting like dogs begging, with their paws down and all trained sunwards, is most grotesque. The Wish‐ton‐Wish has few enemies, and is a most prolific animal. From its enormous increase and the energy and extent of its burrowing operations, one can fancy that in the course of years the prairies will be seriously injured, as it honeycombs the ground, and renders it unsafe for homes. The burrows seem usually to be shared by owls, and many of the people insist that a rattlesnake is also an inmate, but I hope page: 34 for the sake of the harmless, cheery little prairie dog, that this unwelcome fellowship is a myth.

After running on a down grade for some time, five distinct ranges of mountains, one above another, a lurid blue against a lurid sky, upheaved themselves above the prairie sea. An American railway car, hot, stuffy, and full of chewing, spitting Yankees, was not an ideal way of approaching this range which had early impressed itself upon my imagination. Still, it was truly grand, although it was sixty miles off, and we were looking at it from a platform 5000 feet in height. As I write I am only twenty‐five miles from them, and they are gradually gaining possession of me. I can look at and feel nothing else. At five in the afternoon frame houses and green fields began to appear, the cars drew up, and two of my fellow‐passengers and I got out and carried our own luggage through the deep dust to a small, rough, Western tavern, where with difficulty we were put up for the night. This settlement is called the Greeley Temperance Colony, and was rounded lately by an industrious class of emigrants from the East, all total abstainers, and holding advanced political opinions. They bought and fenced 50,000 acres of land, constructed an irrigating canal, which distributes its waters on reasonable terms, have already a population of 3000, and are the most prosperous and rising colony in Colorado, being altogether free from page: 35 either laziness or crime. Their rich fields are artificially productive solely; and after seeing regions where Nature gives spontaneously, one is amazed that people should settle here to be dependent on irrigating canals, with the risk of having their crops destroyed by grasshoppers. A clause in the charter of the colony prohibits the introduction, sale, or consumption of intoxicating liquor, and I hear that the men of Greeley carry their crusade against drink even beyond their limits, and have lately sacked three houses opened for the sale of drink near their frontier, pouring the whisky upon the ground, so that people don't now like to run the risk of bringing liquor near Greeley, and the temperance influence is spreading over a very large area. As the men have no bar‐rooms to sit in, I observed that Greeley was asleep at an hour when other places were beginning their revelries. Nature is niggardly, and living is coarse and rough, the merest necessaries of hardy life being all that can be thought of in this stage of existence.

My first experiences of Colorado travel have been rather severe. At Greeley I got a small upstairs room at first, but gave it up to a married couple with a child, and then had one downstairs no bigger than a cabin, with only a canvas partition. It was very hot, and every place was thick with black flies. The English landlady had just lost her “help,” and was in a great fuss, so that I helped her to get supper ready. page: 36 Its chief features were greasiness and black flies. Twenty men in working clothes fed and went out again, “nobody speaking to nobody.” The landlady introduced me to a Vermont settler who lives in the “Foot Hills,” who was very kind and took a great deal of trouble to get me a horse. Horses abound, but they are either large American horses, which are only used for draught, or small, active horses, called broncos, said to be from a Spanish word, signifying that they can never be broke. They nearly all “buck,” and are described as being more “ugly” and treacherous than mules. There is only one horse in Greeley “safe for a woman to ride.” I tried an Indian pony by moonlight—such a moonlight—but found he had tender feet. The kitchen was the only sitting‐room, so I shortly went to bed, to be awoke very soon by crawling creatures apparently in myriads. I struck a light, and found such swarms of bugs that I gathered myself up on the wooden chairs, and dozed uneasily till sunrise. Bugs are a great pest in Colorado. They come out of the earth, infest the wooden walls, and cannot be got rid of by any amount of cleanliness. Many careful housewives take their beds to pieces every week and put carbolic acid on them.

It was a glorious, cool morning, and the great range of the Rocky Mountains looked magnificent. I tried the pony again, but found he would not do page: 37 for a long journey; and as my Vermont acquaintance offered me a seat in his waggon to Fort Collins, 25 miles nearer the Mountains, I threw a few things together and came here with him. We left Greeley at 10, and arrived here at 4.30, staying an hour for food on the way. I liked the first half of the drive; but the fierce, ungoverned, blazing heat of the sun on the whitish earth for the last half, was terrible even with my white umbrella, which I have not used since I left New Zealand; it was sickening. Then the eyes have never anything green to rest upon, except in the river bottoms, where there is green hay grass. We followed mostly the course of the River Cache‐a‐la‐Poudre, which rises in the mountains, and after supplying Greeley with irrigation, falls into the Platte, which is an affluent of the Missouri. When once beyond the scattered houses and great ring fence of the vigorous Greeley colonists, we were on the boundless prairie. Now and then horsemen passed us, and we met three waggons with white tilts. Except where the prairie dogs have honeycombed the ground, you can drive almost anywhere, and the passage of a few waggons over the same track makes a road. We forded the river, whose course is marked the whole way by a fringe of small cotton woods and aspens, and travelled hour after hour with nothing to see except some dog towns, with their quaint little sentinels; but the view in front was glorious. The page: 38 Alps, from the Lombard plains, are the finest mountain panorama I ever saw, but not equal to this; for not only do five high‐peaked giants, each nearly the height of Mont Blanc, lift their dazzling summits above the lower ranges, but the expanse of mountains is so vast, and the whole lie in a transparent medium of the richest blue, not haze—something peculiar to the region. The lack of foreground is a great artistic fault, and the absence of greenery is melancholy, and makes me recall sadly the entrancing detail of the Hawaiian Islands. Once only, the second time we forded the river, the cotton woods formed a foreground, and then the loveliness was heavenly. We stopped at a log house and got a rough dinner of beef and potatoes, and I was amused at the five men who shared it with us for apologising to me for being without their coats, as if coats would not be an enormity on the Plains.

It is the election day for the Territory, and men were galloping over the prairie to register their votes. The three in the waggon talked politics the whole time. They spoke openly and shamelessly of the prices given for votes; and apparently there was not a politician on either side who was not accused of degrading corruption. We saw a convoy of 5000 head of Texan cattle travelling from Southern Texas to Iowa. They had been nine months on the way! They were under the charge of twenty mounted page: 39 vacheros, heavily armed, and a light waggon accompanied them, full of extra rifles and ammunition, not unnecessary, for the Indians are raiding in all directions, maddened by the reckless and useless slaughter of the buffalo, which is their chief subsistence. On the plains are herds of wild horses, buffalo, deer, and antelope; and in the mountains, bears, wolves, deer, elk, mountain lions, bison, and mountain sheep. You see a rifle in every waggon, as people always hope to fall in with game.

By the time we reached Fort Collins I was sick and dizzy with the heat of the sun, and not disposed to be pleased with a most unpleasing place. It was a military post, but at present consists of a few frame houses put down recently on the bare and burning plain. The settlers have “great expectations,” but of what? The mountains look hardly nearer than from Greeley; one only realises their vicinity by the loss of their higher peaks. This house is freer from bugs than the one at Greeley, but full of flies. These new settlements are altogether revolting, entirely utilitarian, given up to talk of dollars as well as to making them, with coarse speech, coarse food, coarse everything, nothing wherewith to satisfy the higher cravings if they exist, nothing on which the eye can rest with pleasure. The lower floor of this inn swarms with locusts in addition to thousands of black flies. The latter cover the ground and rise buzzing from it as you walk.

I.L.B.

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