A “tailing” tale of T. F. Van Wagenen

A Colorado Pioneer

By Maggie Magoffin

Many thanks to Mary Ramstetter of Golden Gate Canyon for this week’s column. From Theodore Francis Van Wagenen’s Master’s thesis from Colorado School of Mines.Van Wagenen was a young kid from back east. With mining degree in hand, the memoirs in this story are recalling events from approximately 1871.

We remained in Denver nearly a week, meeting some of the business men of that time – now nearly all passed away – and at the old Bull’s Head and Elephant corrals becoming acquainted with some of the prospecting class, from whom we picked up more or less information about the three principal mining camps (Central, Black Hawk, and Georgetown) which then were producing most of the gold and silver which had already made the State famous.

The only outlying mining districts at the time were Breckenridge and Fairplay, and parts of Boulder County, and but little was the heard of them, though later all became noted producers in rich mineral. I had brought letters of introduction to Mr. Winne and to Adolf Reichard, both insurance and real estate men, and neither inclined to the mining game. But their point of view did not interest us, though they themselves did. Who could ever forget the vast Reichard with his loud voice, beardless face and broken German accent, who had a perpetual quarrel with everybody and everything, and yet was kindness of heart personified as soon as one got behind his Teutonic crustiness. Or the gentle Winne?

We were not satisfied with the brown and barren plains. The mountains and mines drew us like magnets, and at the end of the week we boarded the little narrow gauge train that Loveland and his associates were pushing up the canyon of Clear Creek under the ambitious name of the Colorado Central Railroad, which landed us in an hour or so at its then terminus, the lively town of Golden, whose future civic greatness was the constant then of old Capt. West of the Transcript. On the platform I recall the long and slim figure of Loveland of tireless energy, of Welch his enterprise partner, and of Capt. Berthoud whose optimism and infatuation with the mountain scenery of the State – now partially recognized by the completion of the auto road over Berthoud Pass – Also red faced “Bill” the stage driver, who loaded us and our baggage on the coach that was to take us up to Black Hawk and Central, then past their boom days a little, but still the golden centers of little Gilpin County.

I hope never to forget that wonderful ride up Ralston Creek, over Guy Hill and then at last towards evening, down Dory Hill into evil smelling Black Hawk, where Prof. Hill, ably seconded by Prof. Beeger, was defiling the atmosphere with sulphur dioxide from a score or two of roasting piles of pyritous ores in the long and narrow yard of the Boston & Colorado Smelting Works.

(Per notation from Mary Ramstetter, they traveled by way of Tucker Gulch in Golden Gate Canyon.)

It was a perfect spring day. My partner and I had secured seats on top with the driver, and every minute and foot of the journey was a pure delight. At Guy Hill the descent at one place was so steep, and the road so bad, that the stage people had installed a block and tackle at the high point, by the aid of which the rocking coach was safely lowered down the most dangerous place. Somewhere along the way we stopped for dinner. I recall a vigorous appetite and a generously loaded table of clean and wholesome food to satisfy it, but the name of the station has passed from memory long ago. I also remember passing, in the middle of the afternoon, a little red school house among the pines and firs, all by itself, closed for the day, and with no signs in any direction so far as I could see, of homes that could supply the attending scholars, though all around it were the signs of constant usage. “Where on earth do the children come from” I exclaimed. “Oh!” replied the driver as he flicked a fly off the ear of his nigh leader with the tip of his long whip lash, “they dig them out from under stones here and there.”

We stayed a month in Gilpin County and had a room in the boarding house in Mountain City, the connecting link between Black Hawk and Central, which through stretched, a long double file of unpainted wooden shanties, up the narrow and deep gulch, projecting here and there a few rods up into side gulches, and lining the one wagon road which could find a place for itself in the narrow bottom. On both sides rose the steep hills, even then almost completely shorn of the fine forest that covered them, and dotted with dumps, shafts and tunnel portals. It was a weird scene for one whose only conception of a mining region and mines had been gathered from pictures in books, which, by the way, were at that time illustrated almost exclusively by wood engravings of drawings of German mines.

Among others in the settlement, I had a letter of introduction to Prof. Hill, and ongoing to his office to present it on a day when he happened to be away in Denver, I encountered Henry Wolcott, his representative when absent, sitting on a high stool, and at work on the company books. Henry was genial and pleasant, as always, gave us little encouragement for employment as mining or metallurgical engineers, but told us we could have a contract for any part or all of 1,000 cords of wood, at $4.00 per cord, stacked on the hillside within two miles of the Works. Another letter to Tom Potter of the bank.

From Maggie

The first two books of my Misadventures of the Cholua Brothers series are available at Mountain Menagerie on Main Street in Central City, Colorado; at,, and

For past columns and other information on my speaking engagements, book releases, and events visit me at

I’m always looking for interesting stories about Colorado pioneers and local folk instrumental in the founding and/or development of Gilpin County. If you have stories about family members or friends to share, please contact me at or send snail mail to Maggie Magoffin, P.O. Box 746495, Arvada, Colorado 80003.

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