Heed this warning: Don’t read on if you don’t want to know about the perils of living and dying in early Ouray County.
Today many people are exploring their family’s roots. They search for clues about how their predecessors lived and died on genealogy websites and eagerly anticipate their DNA results. Some even take heritage trips to explore areas where ancestors have lived and died.
Newly discovered details can be unsettling, and social norms have certainly changed over the last century, too. Old tombstones sometimes revealed much more than the deceased’s name and dates of birth, and occasionally newspaper articles and obituaries included very personal and unsubstantiated details.
Here are some tidbits about some of Ouray County’s early residents: 1885 – Carolyn Hopkins died from a “painful illness.” Her husband, John J. Hopkins, was grieving for his dead wife and “suicided” at the Western Hotel. “He was broke, had no job, and had five cents in his pocket.”
1887 – Miner J.W. Parrott, 27, “forgot to close the trap behind him when bringing out another car of ore to be hoisted to the surface. He “pushed the car and self” onto the shaft to fall 178 feet before breaking through another trap to fall to a still lower level.
1889 – 26-year-old Mrs. Annie Kinsman died, and the Solid Muldoon reported “she was destitute and responsible for five children.” Several years later it was reported that the husband/father had been killed in a train accident.
1891 – Eighty-year-old Mr. Cook was “driven from (his) children’s home to die among strangers.”
1901 – Granville Higgenbotham, 43 years old, was a miner at the Calliope, arrested and put in the “city bastille in an advanced state of inebriety.” The article states “he was locked in the cell, howelled (sic) all night, and with a knife which he had, threatened suicide.” He was found unconscious with blood flowing from a wound in his throat, and he died shortly after. It was also reported that he had been “deserted by his wife and child – she ran away with another.”
1902 – William Clifford, 17 years old, was killed in the railroad yard when the coal car “got away.” He was riding on the front of the engine and was pinned between it and the coal car.
1903 – A man with the last name of Sweeton was “instantly” killed at Gushall’s mill on Iron Springs Mesa. “His head was caught between the coupling of two wagons loaded with lumber.” The Solid Muldoon reported the death without his first name. The 1900 county census and the Colorado mining death database did not have Sweeton listed.
1906 – There was a “death-dealing slide” on the Otto Mears Road between Chattanooga and Silverton, resulting in the death of the mail carrier and 14 of Mears’ mules. Neither the man nor the mules were identified.
1909 – Four men died in a snow slide on the Sneffels road. Teamsters Pete Synott and George Knerr were killed along with Dr. S.J. Douthiff and George Wittwer. Also lost were 15 work horses, six mules and five saddle horses.
1912 – Three-year-old Doan Hobson died while “playing with Christmas candles.”
1946 – Floyd Crow, 40, died in Louie Jones’ arms, after a truck filled with miners from the Genessee Mine went off Highway 550. Three other men died and 10 more were injured. Their bodies were “strewn among the boulders 200 feet below the roadway.”
Many local burial places have been identified. Genealogy websites even feature photos and/or transcriptions of headstones. Several cemetery names have changed over the years. Cedar Hill has been known as Cedar Park or Ouray Cemetery, Colona is also the Grandview Cemetery, and Dallas Park is also the Ridgway Cemetery. Some graveyards are near old towns, mining camps and settlements including Camp Bird Mine, Ironton, Sneffels, Portland, Dexter Creek, Red Mountain and Dallas. Burial sites have also been located on area ranches.
Some of the cemeteries in Ouray County are open to the public, while others are on private land, so proceed with caution. If you visit one of these hallowed places, take time to read their headstones. Think about the dangers they faced living here in the Mountain West and remember those who were left behind.
As the stage manager in the play “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder observes: “There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” Sources include “Ouray’s Historic Hospital” and “Ouray County Cemeteries,” compiled by the Ouray County Historical Society; “Early History of Cedar Hill Cemetery” by Doris Gregory, coloradohistoricnewspapers. com, the Solid Muldoon, Ouray County Herald, and The Plaindealer.
Carolyn Snowbarger is a retired educator. After teaching middle schoolers in Olathe, Kansas, for 28 years, she and her husband Vince moved to Washington, D.C. She directed the Teacher-to-Teacher Initiative at the U.S. Department of Education and then managed continuing education programs for the American Institute of Architects. The Snowbargers moved to Ridgway in 2013 after decades of San Juan family vacations.