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Governor Gilpin’s predictions

How right was he when he spoke here?

By Forrest Whitman

The 129th Rollinsville Independence Day celebration has come and gone. It always brings up the question about the stump speech Gov. Gilpin gave here and elsewhere in Gilpin County. Was Governor Gilpin a starry eyed dreamer or did he have good points to make? Was his railroad prediction based on more than fantasy?  What about his glowing predictions for mines and farms? Did much of what he promised in his standard stump speech come true?

Evaluating William Gilpin

  It is hard to make a good judgment about Gilpin’s one year term as our first territorial governor. He must have gotten some good press because he did go on to become “governor” in the shadow government elected in hopes Colorado statehood would come. But, he did get a lot of bad press too. That’s partly because he got such horrible reviews from the Rocky Mountain News and editor William N. Byers, who really had no use for Gilpin. For instance, Mar. 6 1862: “We cannot expect that the Gov. will display many gubernatorial graces or social attributes to his unintelligent and unskilled people, to whom he returns this week from Washington.” Or, Mar. 22, 1862: “One year more of Gov. Gilpin’s administration would effectually prostrate every department of business in Colorado, retard emigration, and involve in one common ruin a territory.”

Byer’s main complaint was the fact that Gilpin had issued U. S. Treasury drafts to the tune of $375,000 to equip and send off to battle the Colorado Militia. Gilpin always argued that his decision had stopped the possible Confederate takeover of the Colorado Territory. Unfortunately, the Lincoln administration, always strapped for cash, was very slow to pay off the drafts. In fact, Gilpin had been removed before the first payments were made.

Was war a colossal blunder? Well, the Central City newspaper stoutly defended Gilpin’s move and urged patience about the draft re-payments. In fact, Gilpin County miners volunteered to go and fight in 1862. Had the battle of Gloriettta Pass not been won, it’s entirely possible that Colorado Territory would have fallen into Confederate hands. Other historians argue that the Confederates would have run out of steam before they got north of Pueblo. Who knows?

Should he have gone to war?

Gilpin was a fire breathing supporter of the Union, but not all agreed with his passion. Many here in Colorado hoped we would not have to get involved in the Civil War “back in the states.” Gilpin was a local peacemaker with Colorado Confederate sympathizers. He hoped that no ill feeling would occur toward one of the main founders of Gilpin County, Greene Russell, of Russell Gulch mining fame. Russell was from Georgia and was reluctant to get involved on either side of the fight. Gilpin was walking a tight line, but still wanted to aid the Union as much as possible. Historians have been hard on Gilpin, but I’m not so sure he was a failure. He was kicked out of office after only one year, but did not think of himself as a failure. Sometimes the “failures” are really successes.

William Gilpin’s many theories

The theories Gilpin puts forth in his three main books: The Central Gold Region, The Destiny of the North American People, and The Cosmopolitan Railway were the themes of his standard stump speech. To our ears they sound a bit overblown. Those who heard him make those same points in his speeches sometimes thought so too. On the other hand, Gilpin’s “scientific” prediction of boom times to come was popular. Science was different, or what was considered “scientific,” was different in those days. Gilpin really believed that all of his charts and graphs could prove the existence of the “Isothermal Line,” or the “Isothermal Zodiac.” He thought he had good evidence for the “Angle of Intensity” and thought he could prove the two vortexes converged here in the Rocky Mountain west. As for his railroad theories, some were proved true. It was not till 1927 that the Moffat Tunnel got through above Rollinsville. But Gilpin predicted the mountain route well enough. His predictions of gold up-thrusts all over Gilpin County were mostly correct.

Some of his other theories, particularly the coming of a “new humanity,” were supported by many leading thinkers of the time. His vision of the various races “debouching” (his favorite verb) along the “cosmopolitan railway” was shared by other thinkers. He had some evidence that a new racial mix was in the offing and that children were getting smarter as a result. Today few would think of racial mixing and “hi-bred human vigor” as provable. Particularly those adamantly opposed to welcoming immigrants to the U.S. would hate that idea in 2013. Today it’s hard to think how that idea played in 1862 or 1870. Gilpin had his arguments though.

Hemp: Crop of the future

Many believed that the new science of agriculture would find ways to grow crops of a great quality in our high and somewhat dry lands. He had very high hopes for hemp. Only this year can those hopes be tested out. Colorado has finally defied the ridiculous federal law against growing hemp. The crop is being planted here and we’ll see if Gilpin was right. If he was right we’ll soon see fewer trees cut for paper, and less cotton grown for fabric. We may even see hemp foods become popular.

William Gilpin was a booster, no doubt, but his boosting was based in the facts as he saw them. Perhaps he was too romantic, but I find his speeches rather charming, sometimes even inspiring. There are days when I agree with his assessment that something very special is in the air in our high mountain home. Further, the more one becomes involved in politics the more sympathy one must have for leaders caught in the crossfire of events the way William Gilpin was.

Will Gilpin’s favorite county forget him?

William Gilpin lived in Denver, but he loved his visits here. It’s no mistake that when the first counties were named, he picked this one. It seems to me that as long as Colorado’s oldest continuously published newspaper, The Weekly Register-Call, is published, Gilpin will be remembered.

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