Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Life On The Side Of A Mountain

In southwest Colorado’s mining districts, remnants of massive boarding houses hug the cliffs of some of the country’s highest mountains. How prospectors decided to look for gold on the rugged peaks boggles the imagination. But they did, and some struck rich veins. Removal of the ore required a sizeable workforce.
Author Photo in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado
Successful mines were big business. They brought in the latest technology and provided well for their employees. A miner who wasn’t happy “tramped” to the next mine where conditions might be better. Remote mining companies created miniature cities in a single building with up to three hundred residents. Some boasted a mercantile, barber, library, and even musical entertainment. Their large dining rooms provided a social center where dances and weddings were held.

Even the hardiest of mountain men avoid winters in the San Juan Mountains, which last for about ten months. But mining companies couldn’t choose a comfortable location where workers could live in town. They had to follow the gold.

Many of the dwellings provided access directly to the mine, allowing workers to avoid the harsh winter weather. Miners would hang their sweaty, damp clothes to dry-out between shifts in a “dry” room near the mine entrance. This kept the dirty mine clothes out of the bedrooms.

Some boarding houses sat on flat spots near the mine where roads could bring people and supplies to the site. Others were built into the side of a hill where the most direct access was on a tram which ran on cables hundreds of feet above the ground. Even ladies who visited for dances rode the trams in their finery.
Author Photos at the Mayflower Mill near Silverton, Colorado
The side of the cliff provided a handy waste disposal site. For example, at boarding house for the American-Nettie mine near Ouray, Colorado, the attached outhouse hung over the cliff. No one lingered there for long. The draft in the winter packed the hole with snow. A club sat nearby to clear the opening before sitting down.

Detroit Photographic Co. Colorado. "American-Nettie" mine, Ouray. [Between 1898 and 1905] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Close Up of Building and Outhouse
Cooks emptied slop buckets over the side of the cliff, creating a feeding ground for mountain critters, like pikas and marmots. According to first-hand accounts, the stampede to supper at the dining hall’s long tables was no myth. Miners ate vast quantities of food, which had to be brought up by mule train or on trams. Poor quality food could create an uprising.

A cadre of cooks prepared meals—head cooks, second cooks, bakers, dishwashers, pan washers, and flunkies. Yes. Flunky was an official job title for someone who did the odd jobs no one else wanted to do. He earned as much as a miner. Head cooks made more.

One thing the boarding houses did not have was a bar. It is thought that company policy limited alcohol consumption at most sites. This rule would have toned down the rowdiness, and kept men ready for work.

As the mines were depleted and transportation into the mountains improved, boarding houses became a relic of a bygone era. The perfect thing to feed the imagination of an author.

Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.
She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.

“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?
For a Free Preview, click here:


  1. Wow! I guess I never had a picture in my head of how "developed" these mining communities could be. In my head I guess I always pictured tents and hastily built shacks. I never imagined hotel-sized buildings and luxuries like restaurant food! Thanks for the post!

  2. It took me by surprise too. When I started my research, I expected to write about something more primitive.

  3. I'm not sure I would have climbed into a tram in all my finery to go to a dance at a gold mine!

    1. Me neither. There were probably plenty of available men in town.

  4. I haven't heard about these types of boardinghouses before. Very interesting.

  5. Fascinating article. I've heard of some outlandish outhouses, but the American-Nettie wins the prize!