The Doric Column

September 6, 1999

Railroads to Oblivion
A Train Ride to the Climax Mine
Suicide on a Great Plains Farm
Two-Wheel Technology in the Root River Valley

Railroads to Oblivion

  "Through this metal umbilical cord,
  capital, law, and goods flowed,
  along with people with all their ideas,
  plans, schemes, fantasies and hopes."

Few sights are more hospitable to reflecting on disappearing and forgotten worlds than railroad tracks in remote regions.

Two old railroad routes are especially poignant to me this last Labor Day of the 20th century. I traveled them both just the past two weeks: one by train, the tracks being in place and still active, and the other by bicycle, the obsolete tracks having been removed to accommodate two-wheel traffic.

My points of departure were Leadville, Colorado and Lanesboro, Minnesota, historic communities that share restored charm. They are separated by some 1,200 miles, plus another 9,000 ft. if you consider altitude (Leadville, at 10,200 ft., bills itself as "the highest incorporated city in North America"). But despite their distance from each other, they rest on an old economic fault line.

If you want to understand what something as geologically trivial as a hundred years can do to human enterprise, Leadville and Lanesboro are good places to begin. There, you get an idea what scant regard the later 20th century has had for endeavors such as mining, once the economic backbone of Colorado, and milling, which put Minnesota on the map.

Yet strange as it may seem, the two communities bring together, after a fashion, two 19th-century characters whose stock has been rising, if I may be indulged to put it that way: Charles Dow and Edward Jones, the founders of Dow, Jones & Company. Dow cut his teeth as a financial writer for the Providence Journal by covering the mining boom in Leadville in the late 1870s. After getting to know Leadville's high and mighty mining barons and earning their respect, Dow moved to Wall Street where he hooked up with the Kiernan News Agency.

There, he joined Jones, an old colleague from Journal days, and together with another financial reporter named Charles Bergstresser they launched their own financial news service in 1882. Their news sheet, the Customer's Afternoon Letter, was the forerunner to the Wall Street Journal, which was first published on July 8, 1889 with Dow as editor.

In 1884, Dow exercised his remarkable analytical skills to alleviate the plight of Wall Streeters trying to track the ups and downs of the stock market. He created the Dow Jones Averages.

Eleven stocks were listed in the first average of American stocks in the Customer's Afternoon Letter, July 3, 1884, nearly all of them railroads.

Chicago & North Western
Union Pacific
Delaware, Lackawanna & Western
Missouri Pacific
Lake Shore
Louisville & Nashville
New York Central
Pacific Mail
St. Paul
Western Union
Northern Pacific

Dow's name is forever linked to Leadville, the famous mining town where he witnessed first hand the lure of riches and inserted himself in circles where that lure had yielded nicely. While he was there, the famous Tabor Opera House opened and soon brought to Leadville the likes of Harry Houdini, John Philip Sousa and Oscar Wilde.

That was in 1879, the year a "trio of prospectors" was accused of holding up stagecoaches, Jesse James and Bob and Charley Ford. James rode to Leadville with his brother Frank after leading a raid on Northfield, Minnesota, a frontier town not far from Lanesboro. For its part, Lanesboro attracted no less a celebrity than Buffalo Bill Cody. He visited Lanesboro in 1879. A year later he was in Leadville.

But what is Lanesboro's connection with the Dow Jones juggernaut? None with Dow, so far as I know. But the firm that bears Jones' name today, St. Louis-based Edward Jones Investments, joined with the National Trust for Historic Preservation's National Main Street Center® last year in designating Lanesboro as one of five American towns to receive a Great American Main Street Award. The award overview notes that the Edward Jones sponsorship "brings Wall Street to your street" in promoting economic revival in America's downtowns.

There is an economic revival in these two towns. But it is a far cry from the economic forces that made them. And the forces that left them behind.

A Train Ride to the Climax Mine

The old Leadville, Colorado & Southern (LC&S) tourist train departs from a Victorian depot at the corner of Hazel and 7th. It begins its ascent from the base of Mt. Elbert, at 14,431 ft. Colorado's highest peak, and climbs northeastward amid alpine splendor. The tracks follow the headwaters of the Arkansas River in the distance below.

It seemed like we were actually being pushed up the mountain by a couple diesel engines located where you would normally find the caboose. I say this because there were no fumes wafting their way back to the open flatcars, where my daughter and I and two other family members were seated.

The tour guide, wearing an amplifier hook-up, wandered from car to car calling out the features and landmarks that she wanted us to pay attention to -- a llama pen, scattered mining remnants, the French Gulch Water Tower left over from the days of steam, a scene right out of the intro to the 1960s TV series "Petticoat Junction." Below, the Arkansas River grew more and more remote as we wended our way, hugging the cliff side.

After an hour we rounded a bend, and there in the distance was Fremont Pass and a mountain that stood out from its neighbors: Bartlett Mountain, a reddish-orange sculpted mound denuded of vegetation. Bartlett Mountain was lucky or unlucky enough to be a rich source of the mineral molybdenite, from which molybdenum is made, with which steel is hardened. Thus molybdenum is indispensable to an industrial economy. It also requires practice to pronounce correctly.

As we moved closer the Climax Mine came into view. It is the largest underground mine in the world and one of the largest open-pit mines. At its peak in the 1960s it produced two-thirds of the world's molybdenum. Now, like so many Colorado mines, it is closed, and the mountain on which it rests is a reclamation project. The tour guide told us that there is a plan to restore Bartlett Mountain to its natural state, the way it looked before mining laid waste to it.

The day after our trek, the Wall Street Journal ran a story by Jim Carlton entitled "Over a Mine, a Shootout of the Old West and the New." It was about a proposal for a big excavation project on Mount Emmons in Crested Butte say a hundred miles south of Leadville. "Like many towns of the Rockies, Crested Butte got its start as a rough-and-tumble mining camp, with saloons, brothels and the occasional gunfight," Carlton wrote. "Mines, mostly coal, operated until they petered out in the 1960s, and Crested Butte was left for dead."

I visited Crested Butte in August 1973 at the tail end of a grand sweep through the Canadian Rockies, along the West Coast, and back through the Grand Canyon. By then it was an artist community. I had a friend who was one of its residents. About that time ski developers moved in and transformed it again. Now, believe it or not, the artists and environmentalists are teaming up with the developers to oppose Cyprus Amax Co. from going after an estimated $10 billion worth of molybdenum tucked inside Mount Emmons.

In light of well-publicized environmental catastrophes in Colorado from mining the old-fashioned way, one resident seemed to sum up the general mood and the company's prospects: "This was a mining community, but it's not anymore."

Leadville is facing no such prospect. It's last mine closed a few years ago, but its mining past and that of many communities like it is alive and well in an old Victorian schoolhouse. The schoolhouse is now the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, the "only federally-chartered non-profit mining museum in the nation."

It is a jewel of a museum, a shrine, really, to the "memory of the men and women who pioneered the discovery, development and processing of our nation's natural resources." Its Hall of Fame row of plaques includes the fiery union leader John L. Lewis alongside mining barons and investors like Horace Tabor and George Hearst (father of William Randolph) and explorer John Wesley Powell. The intrepid financial reporter Charles Dow is there, too, inducted in 1990.




Charles Dow, co-founder of Dow Jones and Company, Inc. and expert financial analyst, wrote a series of vivid reports on Colorado's Silver Boom. In 1879, Dow, a reporter for the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal, was sent to Colorado to report on the mining frenzy. He arrived in Leadville, and filed six reports on the silver mining industry. These famous "Leadville Letters" are a valuable insight into that era's history and a brilliant profile of the mining camps, balancing meticulous descriptions of the geology and the mines with humor. So intrigued was Dow with the mining industry, that he abandoned newspaper work for a time to manage a silver mine in Leadville.

In 1880, he moved to New York City to become a financial journalist for the Kiernan News Agency, a firm that delivered news in the form of handwritten "slips" or "flimsies" to banks and brokerage houses. Two years later, he joined Edward D. Jones in organizing the Dow Jones and Company to provide financial news to Wall Street. On Christmas Eve of 1885, Dow became a member of the prestigious New York Stock Exchange.

The first edition of The Wall Street Journal appeared on July 8, 1889 with Dow as Editor. The paper compiled stock price averages - he is credited with originating these - and quickly grew into the most influential publication on Wall Street. He gained a reputation for being a quiet, but reliable, reporter who took shorthand notes on his shirt cuffs, and had the ability to turn routine financial reporting into expert financial analysis who was elaborated into the famous "Dow Theory", which is today as important to the business and financial community as is The Dow Jones News Service, The Dow Jones Averages, and The Wall Street Journal.

Between publication of the first Journal and the early months of 1902 when he sold the business to Clarence Barron, Dow's reports and editorials earned him a highly respected position among financial leaders and his legacy of theories and publications remain an essential part of today's financial markets.

-- George Ed Niquette and C.E. Moolick


Toward the end of the walk-through, on the first floor, a large panel reminds visitors that two human activities are primarily responsible for the high standard of living that we have enjoyed in the 20th century, and mining is one of them.

The other one? Agriculture.

Suicide on a Great Plains Farm

I was in Colorado for a family reunion in Beaver Creek, a community just west of Vail. Beaver Creek is as distant from Leadville and Colorado's mining past as Kansas is from the Emerald City. It is a late 20th-century creation by today's "Silver Kings." Kids sure are happy there, in Oz, skating in the year-round rink in the village center, horseback riding in the alpine, whitewater rafting on the Colorado River, or just riding the ski lift.

You can get to Leadville from Beaver Creek by taking U.S. Highway 24, as we did. About 30 minutes into the journey, on the southern flank of Battle Mountain, we came upon Gillman. The little town was built in the 1880s on a steep incline, with steps constructed up a cliff to a mine. Today it is classified as "semi-ghost" by It was my first up-close view of what a mining "bust" looks like, and it was sobering.

As Gillman faded from the rear window, I picked up the day's Denver Post and turned to the editorial page. I found a column reprinted from the previous day's Washington Post, "Despair And Hope On the Farm" by veteran political writer David Broder. He was writing from Des Moines after covering the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames.

"It really is the best and worst of times" in the Midwest, Broder wrote. He recounted how Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack had released a young farmer's suicide note the week before at the National Governors Association meeting in St. Louis. The note came to him in a letter from the farmer's widow.

"Dear Governor Vilsack," she wrote, "I felt I needed to write to you about the farming situation in the United States. I live on a farm south of [a certain town]. On Monday, July 26th, my husband killed himself because of the low grain prices, the mounting bills and the unavoidable bankruptcy we were facing this year. My husband lost money farming the last two years and could not face the third. It's a long story that involves the family farm which has been in the family for well over 100 years. It was where he was born, where he worked and lived, where he dreamed and died. It is the home where I now reside alone with our two young children, age 6 and age 3."

Broder observed that rural desperation of the kind being felt on family farms today led to the Populist protest movement in the 1890s, with North Dakota leading the way. At the meeting, Ed Shafer, that state's governor, acknowledged the struggles of wheat farmers but also had some good news. New businesses were opening, and new opportunities were now at hand.

Schafer told Broder that his administration's goal is to create new pioneers. "The pioneers of the last century followed the railroads," he said. "The new ones can follow the Internet. For people fleeing congestion, traffic, bad schools and crime, North Dakota can be heaven. We had seven homicides all of last year. We know those people don't want to give up the amenities of city life. But with the Internet, we can provide virtual museums with world-class collections. Soon we can have a holographic concert by the New York Philharmonic in Watford City, N.D. People will be able to live where they want."

Broder conceded that Shafer's take on the future does nothing to ease the pain expressed in the letter to Vilsack. "It just shows what a crossroads this nation has reached."

That crossroads is laid out succinctly in a book I was given by my cousin when we visited him and his wife on their mountaintop home near Boulder on our way back home. Just published, it is entitled Community of Strangers (Crossings Press, P.O. Box 764, Marshall, MN 56258). The authors are Joseph A. Amato and John Radzilowski, and their story is about "Change, Turnover, Turbulence & the Transformation of a Midwestern Country Town." The town is Marshall, in southwestern Minnesota. It was once a railroad town. Today it is a regional center.

Amato is the Dean of the Center for Rural and Regional Studies at Southwest State University in Marshall. He is well known for his writings on regional history and rural life and a host of other subjects, including European intellectual history, golf, and his own experience with bypass surgery. He and Radzilowski and others formed the Society for the Study of Local and Regional History (SSLRH), a non-profit organization formed "to promote the study of and preservation of Southwest Minnesota's historical, cultural, ethnic and religious heritage."

The book is small and handsome, with tables and figures derived from the U.S. Census and state and regional data sources. It has a photograph of Marshall's Chicago & North Western depot as it appeared in the 1920s. That railroad was the very first stock listed on the averages published by Charles Dow and Edward Jones, the Dow Jones Averages (see above). It couldn't have been too far from the depot that Marshall native Robert L. Bartley was born. Today Bartley is the editor of the newspaper that Dow founded, the Wall Street Journal.

In brief, book describes how Marshall has been transformed by distant economic forces, rural agrarian decline, school and business consolidation, dramatically altered demographics, and unprecedented social mobility. As is the case throughout the Midwest, the strip mall has largely replaced Main Street in Marshall as the retail hub.

"From one perspective, Marshall is a small town in a massive and complex society," they write. "It is a place of strangers, by strangers, for strangers. The steady, broadening, and sundry streams of newcomers that move in and out of town fill the town with turbulence and feed a growing sense of change, tumult, and irreversible transformation.

"Marshall exists in the context of a mutating countryside, with rural destinies determined more and more by remote events. Trade zones shift . Businesses decompose, then recompose. Local associations, neighborhoods, and groups vanish. Banks, churches, and schools closed or consolidate. Almost forty years ago, [University of Minnesota sociologist] Don Martindale drew this dark conclusion about the condition of the American countryside: 'The fluidity of rural life in considerable measure arises in the attempt to form a community life where no community life is possible.'"

The book ends on a somewhat more upbeat theme, with the authors calling for the communities themselves, spawned by the railroads more than a century ago, to take up the challenge of changes wrought by the global marketplace. The "energies and intelligence" of their leaders give reason to hope that they will succeed and that their small neighboring towns will avoid the fate of towns like Gillman, Colorado that dot the landscape in the American West.

"So with this hope, as ethereal and illusive as it might be, go Marshall and the region and, in some small way, state, nation, and world. The task of defining locality in a global age and in an increasingly placeless world belongs to all in the not too distant days ahead."

Two-Wheel Technology in the Root River Valley

Amato and Radzilowski's call for the exercise of energy and intelligence among community leaders is precisely what rescued a decaying rural community at the other end of the state. Lanesboro.

New York money built the town in 1868. The investment was for developing a resort on the Root River in the gorgeous bluff country of southeastern Minnesota. That same year the Southeastern Minnesota Railroad arrived, connecting Lanesboro with points east all the way to Milwaukee and Chicago. Mills popped up on the river: the Anchor Oatmeal Mill, the Carrolton Mill, the White-Nash Flowering Mill, the Thompson and Williams Flowering Mill, and others.

But distance, economies-of-scale, and fire conspired to put an end to Lanesboro's milling boom by the 1930s. In the decades that followed the historic buildings began to fall apart, the theater shut down, and some storefronts on Main Street were boarded up. Then the railroad closed and someone bought and tore down the 1870 depot.

This act served to energize the people of Lanesboro. It was the unexpected catalyst for a group of citizens to form a volunteer task force for cultural and commercial revitalization. Gaining support by knocking on doors and holding town meetings, the task force began the revitalization process," a process that reached a climax last year with its Great American Main Street Award. [Revitalization of Lanesboro, Minnesota]

What brought my children and me to Lanesboro over the Labor Day weekend was the railroad bed. The "metal umbilical cord" that was once Lanesboro's link to the world was removed and replaced by 40 miles of paved trail in 1985. It is bicycle heaven.

We rented three bicycles at Hardware Hank. Two actually, if you consider that one of them was a "tag-along" that hitches to a standard bike. With helmets and backpacks in place, we headed east at 11 am., with Peterson our turnaround destination. 13.5 miles to Peterson.

Along the way, we were treated to sights, sounds, fragrances, and camaraderie that would be hard to match in any other almost-level bike trail. We went with the flow of the bike traffic and the Root River, past our campsite at Eagle Cliff, past the Overland Inn in Whalen, past farmyards that could have appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, past geese with bills agape looking for a handout. To Peterson.

Peterson is another historic railroad and milling town on the Root River, built on land donated by settler Peter Peterson Haslerud. There we relaxed in the city park, had lunch, and soon headed back, stopping at the Overland Inn for ice cream on the way. The Overland Inn was a must for the children. We had spent a memorable night there years earlier, amid bargain period-piece furnishings (1940s and 50s) they had never seen before nor could imagine.

We pulled into Hardware Hank at 4 pm. on the button. During our return trip, I pondered the irony of a simple two-wheel transportation technology like the bicycle trampling on the bed of a once-proud railroad. The first real bicycle, the so-called "high wheel" bike, appeared in 1870, about the time Lanesboro was born. The pedals were still attached directly to the front wheel, as they are in today's tricycles. The mechanism I was employing had to wait for advances in metallurgy, for the development of metal "strong enough to make a fine chain and sprocket small and light enough for a human being to power. "

Molybdenum came to mind. Bicycle chains contain it. Bicycle gears contain it. Some bicycle frames are made of a super-strong "moly-chrome" alloy. Riding on the old railroad bed east of Lanesboro, we were being supported with the help of a mineral wrested from a mountain somewhere, probably in Colorado. Probably from the Henderson mine in Empire, successor to the Climax Mine.

Empire, Colorado, northeast of Leadville. Settled by people from New York, the "Empire State." Rated "semi-ghost" by

    --William Hoffman

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are the writer's own.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        The "Track to Nowhere" on the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railway. The Leadville gold and silver boom of the 1860s and 70s launched the career of financial writer Charles Dow. Railroad stocks dominated the early Wall Street stock averages he put together in the 1880s with colleague Edward Jones, the Dow Jones Averages. Fifty years later, just before the Great Depression, industrial stocks dominated the averages. Today, the rise Internet stocks signals yet another seismic shift in our economic foundation. Picture (c) the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railway. All rights reserved. Used by permission.