The legends of the Old West are written in gold.
In the Rocky Mountains of southwest Colorado, ancient mines currow the land like honeycomb, ore carts tangled in weeds rust by the side of the road and tracks stop dead in the middle of nowhere. After gold was discovered there in 1859, ten years after the first California strike, the Rockies were awash with fortune seekers. They came in wagon trains, on foot and later by train.
They came chasing the promise of prosperity, and their dream was the dream of a nation: to conquer the West, to occupy this land “from sea to shining sea”, to build wealth and industry and bend the wilderness to the will of man – this was America’s “manifest destiny”. The setting may have changed, but the vision is still the same today: freedom, hope, a better life built by the boundless possibilities of our imagination.
The legends of the Old West, those scars of blood and toil, became the seeds of the American Dream. If the American Dream was built on the spirit of the West, can something of that dream still be found in the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains today.
The railroad was at the heart of it all. The Denver and Rio Granade line, built by the Civil War hero General William Jackson Palmer in the late 19th century, ran from Denvor to the mining towns of southern Colorado. Those tracks enabled settlers, supplies and sightseers to reach the mountains, and the precious metals to return.
Railroads like this were the coal and steam powered knives that carved civilisation from the wilderness of the West. And its still possible to ride the most spectacular section of it today.
In the Bachelor-Syracuse mine, founded in the 1890’s on the outskirts of Ouray, one can walk 1,500ft into the dank, wet darkness below. Here, at the turn of the last century, men would work in the black for 12 hours a day chipping out with chisels and endless hammer swings veins of the treasure found within.
Their only protection was a solitary candle. If the flame went out it meant dead air. They had minutes to reach a safe zone, counting steps in the pitch dark: 300 forward, then a left, 1,200 more and they’d live. Take a wrong turn and they’d surely die.
They came looking for gold, but what these men found was a darkness broken only by the flickering candlelight on cave walls. And that’s the thing – almost no one got rich. It is estimated that under 1 percent of the people that came out to the West actually ended up making their fortune. Those who did were often captains of industry, rich Europeans, the big men.
The legends of the Old West, just like those of the American Dream today, were based on the promise of gold. But more often than not the little men get stiffed, as the bosses profit, and ghost towns become covered with weeds.