and children accompanied their men, even though it meant leaving behind
all that was familiar.
In 1879, far from her native Cornwall, 33 year-old Mary Webster died and
was buried in a small wooded cemetery near the town. Someone, perhaps her
husband Joseph, engraved her stone with the above epitaph. The verse reflects
more than her life alone, it reaches out to us to remember a life and time
that is gone forever.
Only ten years before, in 1869, a lone prospector had hunted for elk rather
than gold. He found neither, but stumbled across a rock outcrop that he
couldn't identify. When it proved rich in silver, the word got out and the
boom was on. It was Colorado's first major silver rush.
The town of Caribou was laid out in September, 1870, but couldn't grow quickly
enough. A city of tents clung to the mountainside while carpenters feverishly
built boarding houses, stores, and saloons. Soon the town had hotels, billiard
and dance halls, blacksmith shops, a stable, a photographic gallery, a church,
a school, and its own newspaper. The Caribou and Poor Man mines had started
Other mines included the Trojan, Boulder County, Sovereign People, No-Name,
Spencer, and the Seven-Thirty. The mining world's attention focused on Caribou
when a magnificent collection of silver ore was displayed at the nation's
Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1876. Specimens
even found their way to the British Museum in London.
Americans filled the jobs of carpenter, teamster, and common laborer, but
Caribou owed its success to experienced Cornish miners who blasted tunnels,
timbered drifts, and removed underground water. The two groups mixed freely;
neither lived in their own section of town. In Caribou's early days, sixty
per cent of the population was estimated to have come from Cornwall.
Everyone seemed to have a brother back home, and new arrivals stayed with
friends or relatives. If there wasn't enough room, they lived in one of
the boarding houses run by Cornish women who often loaned a miner money
for his ship passage. When a married man couldn't afford to bring his family,
his employer deducted part of his wages and sent them directly to the miner's
wife to cover the costs of the long journey.
Miners and their families spent two weeks or more on the open seas. Then
they traveled overland two thousand miles by rail or by wagon to Denver,
in Colorado Territory. Finally, after covering fairly level terrain, they
began a two-day stagecoach ride to the dizzying heights of the Rocky Mountains.
Besides bringing their families, the miners brought their Methodist religion
and silver cornet bands, along with a love of singing and fondness for beer.
All were welcomed in the new community.
The miners, however, had an easier time assimilating to their new home than
did their wives and children. Arthur Cecil Todd, in "The Cornish Miner
in America" wrote, "A mine is much the same the world over as
a harbour is to the homing fisherman. The Cornish were both miners and fisherman;
and indeed they used the same terminology for both pursuits, for a mine
was under a captain and its depth was measured in fathoms."
Silver mines in Caribou may not have been much different from the copper
and tin mines in Cornwall, but above ground, the Cornish families had entered
another world. Instead of the lush green countryside and blue seas of their
homeland, the new residents and their families found themselves at ten thousand
feet, near the top of the Continental Divide whose rocky spine separates
the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The scenery was spectacular, but the harshness of the climate had already
become legendary. Caribou has rightly been called "the place where
the winds are born." Instead of the snug stone cottages or rowhouses
the new immigrants had been used to in Cornwall, they lived in quickly constructed
log and frame buildings braced against the relentless westerly winds.
So much snow fell in Caribou that for many months the color of the landscape
was white. Supposedly a newcomer once asked, "Just how long are the
winters around here?" and was answered, "Don't know. I've only
been here three years." Another story recalls a resident who said,
"Gawd, I hope when summer does come, both days is nice." Although
wild raspberries and currants managed to ripen by late August, the growing
season was too short for garden crops other than hardy plants such as lettuce,
rhubarb, and peas.
Besides the wind and snow, disease took a tragic toll. Epidemics of scarlet
fever and diphtheria stole the lives of many children. One Cornish woman,
Elizabeth Stephens, bore twenty children, of which only five lived to adulthood.
Bedrock was so close to the surface that graves had to be blasted instead
of dug. Some were never marked. Often, when death occurred it the winter,
the bodies had to wait until spring to even be buried at all.
But neither snow nor wind nor illness was as destructive as the fire that
swept through the town in 1879, the year that Joseph Webster buried his
young wife. Hoist men hurriedly brought their miners to the surface. Men,
women, and children joined together and formed bucket brigades and managed
to save some of the buildings in the business district while their own homes
went up in smoke.
A number of discouraged families moved away, but others remained as mining
continued through a slow decline in the 1880s. The federal census in 1880
showed Caribou with a population of 549, of which 215 were from the British
Isles, predominantly Cornwall. When a sharp decline in the price of silver
in 1893 ended Caribou's initial period of mining activity, only a few old-timers
remained. Two more fires, in 1899 and 1905, burned most of Caribou's remaining
By then, the Cornish miners and their families had moved to lower elevations
with warmer climates and had invisibly blended into the American culture.
Their impact on mining in Caribou and other mining camps of Colorado was
significant, but their identity as a group had disappeared.
In recent years, a few of the mines have been reopened, but all that remains
of the old town is part of one log cabin and a few stone walls. Mine dumps
and the stone foundation of an old mill are silent reminders to past glory.
Every spring, melting snows give way to a brilliant array of colorful wild
flowers that blanket the mountain meadows. Today, the scenery is enjoyed
by hikers. Most have never heard of the Cornish miners or the area's mining
Neither have many of the passers-by seen the Caribou cemetery, hidden in
the trees and now crumbled and decayed. Wooden fences around illegible markers
have fallen to the ground. Iron fences are rusted and twisted. Gravestones
have broken and fallen, and, tragically, most of the few that once survived
have been vandalized. Some graves are merely sunken depressions.
The story of Caribou is the story of the American frontier. The town, just
one of many, was given birth, life, and death. So, too, were its residents
who took their loses in stride. In a letter to a brother in Cornwall, Caribou
mine foreman Richard Harvey wrote of his young daughter's death, "The
heaviest affliction we ever had to befall us. But the dear pet is gone to
a happier clime only a little before us - for life is but short to those
of us who live the longest."
The engraver on Mary Webster's gravestone was equally philosophical when
he wrote, "Remember friends as you pass by." That is all we can
do. In Caribou there are only memories - and the wind.
can read more by Silvia Pettem by visiting