LOST ON THE PLAINS IN A BLIZZARD. Page 312.
APPOINTED MAIL AGENT AT LATHAM.
making a round trip every three weeks, the limited salary of
an overland express messenger was not sufficient
remuneration (sic). The responsibility was great, to say
nothing of the hardships necessarily incident to performing
the arduous duties. It was a terrible task to ride six
successive days and nights across the plains without the
opportunity of disrobing. In short, the work was getting to
be a little monotonous. As I then felt, there was not wealth
enough in the mines of Colorado to induce me longer to
continue in the business, while hostile Indians were on the
war-path. Besides, highwaymen had already appeared at
various sections along the "Overland" line throughout the
West and Northwest.
office to the various points along the route westward, and so volunteered a few suggestions to the Washington official, which were accepted as timely. Two or three forms of mail way-bills were prepared, and I printed them by order of the department official, proofs having previously been submitted to him. He departed with the printed matter on Saturday for St. Joseph, Mo. The next morning I was agreeably surprised to receive from him the following note:
"ATCHISON, October 31, 1863.
"Frank Boot, Esq.: DEAR SIR --I shall advise the appointment of local agent at Latham, and also an agent to travel on the overland mail route. If you wish, I will recommend you for one of these places. Answer me at St. Joseph on Monday. I do not know what the pay will be, but may say it will not be less than $900 per annum. Say nothing about this, or there will be too many applicants.Yours, etc., A. N. ZEVELY."
I promptly replied to the note and gave an affirmative answer, but heard nothing until the following telegram was received, on the morning of November 23:
"WASHINGTON, November 21, 1863.
"To Frank Root, Atchison: You are appointed local agent at Latham, at $1000 a year. Instructions by mail.
A. N. ZEVELY,
Third Assistant Postmaster-general."
I made preparations to start on short notice after receiving instructions, which came to hand a few days after my appointment. Accordingly I left Atchison November 30, and reached my destination a little less than eight and one-half days, or three days behind schedule time. It was one of the most trying trips I ever had across the plains. The second night out from Atchison, in the Little Blue valley, we were caught in a fearful blizzard, and at intervals encountered snow from two to five feet in depth. We also had the misfortune to break down along the river; and, besides, were unavoidably detained several hours on account of having to wait for stock at Kiowa, an important station on that stream. As the stage slowly moved westward, more snow was encountered all the way to Fort Kearney than I had ever before known on the overland route. Way up on the Platte, a few miles west of Cottonwood Springs, owing to the slippery road, caused by a storm of rain and sleet, and because the stock was not roughshod, the passengers, and all hands on the stage, were obliged to help push the vehicle with the heavy load up the few steep, slippery grades. For the next 100 miles the roads were heavy and slow progress was made.
After leaving American Ranch, about seven o'clock in the evening, we were caught in a severe snow- and wind-storm--a regular old-fashioned plains blizzard--and the night being dark we lost the road, and wandered about for four or five hours. The outlook was anything but encouraging. I was on the box with the driver facing the storm, but it was impossible to see ahead twice the length of the coach. Neither of us could tell where we were or in which direction the road lay, and everything indicated that we must stop there all night, and, perhaps, lose the team by freezing. But we managed a little before midnight, by the instinct of the faithful stage animals, and very much to our surprise, to pull up at Beaver Creek station. The storm was still raging and, what seldom occurred on the overland line, we were obliged to lie up until morning. Many rough snow-storms have I encountered in Kansas, Nebraska, and on the plains, but was never caught in one more severe than this. We lay down on the floor at the station, rolled up in our blankets and robes for a few hours' sleep, got an early breakfast, and, with fresh team and a new driver, rolled out from Beaver Creek by daylight, the storm in the meantime having subsided. But it had left drifts like miniature mountains in many places, So that for the next sixty miles westward to my destination the team could not go out of a walk.
On the morning of December 8, 1863, I entered upon my duties as local agent of the post-office department at Latham,* and
*Latham was almost due east, not to exceed three and a half miles, from the present sites of Greeley and Evans. From the station south it was a level, gravelly, sandy plain as far as the eye could see. It was practically the same all along the south fork of the Platte, except at intervals there were clusters of cottonwood and willows. Some of the gulches extending at right angles to the river had an occasional small cedar grove, the trees being badly stunted. Freighters and pilgrims by the Platte route used to cut the cedars and use them for fuel in cooking while camping; so they were soon all gone. Buf-
FRANK A. ROOT,
Overland mail agent at Latham station, 1863-'64.
continued there until the middle of the following October, at which time the stage route was changed to the Denver cut-off, twenty-five or thirty miles to the south. By this change Latham was forever abandoned, after only something like a year's existence. And, "lest we forget it," be it known that Latham was in Weld county, on the south fork of the Platte, a little below the mouth of the Cache la Poudre river,* and about sixty miles northeast of Denver. Weld county at that time extended east to the Kansas line and north to the Nebraska line. A half-dozen additional counties have since been carved out of it: Logan, Morgan, Phillips, Sedgwick, Washington, and Yuma. Weld still remains one of the richest agricultural counties in the state.¶
Latham was named in honor of Milton S. Latham.¥ one of
falo--or bunch-grass was abundant all along the valley, and this made the finest pasturage. Stock grow fat on it. Cattle would leave the taller grass along the banks of the stream and gradually move back on higher ground to the nutritious buffalo-grass, which appeared the natural feed for them. It was practically the same nearly all the way from Latham up the Cache la Poudre, river to Laporte, thirty-five miles--a natural stock country, but thought to be comparatively worthless as an agricultural region. The country east of the base of the mountains, at Laporte, where the Cache la Poudre rushes from the foot-hills to its junction with the South Platte near Latham, and from the latter station sixty miles southwest to Denver, along the north side of the Platte, is undoubtedly one of the richest agricultural portions of Colorado. The region embraces the valleys of the St. Vrain and Thompson and their tributaries, and is very fertile. It is pronounced unsurpassed for the production of wheat, rye, oats, barley, potatoes, and nearly all kinds of vegetables. The variety of potatoes known as the "Greeley" practically has no equal in flavor and none can command the price it does in market. As a fruit-growing region it has long since been demonstrated to be one of the best. The berries raised in that vicinity command enormous prices, for nothing can compare with them. The Greeley colony--named for the lamented journalist--started in the spring of 1870 with a fund of $150,000. This was judiciously invested in lands, irrigating canals, a mill power, and a "colony fence," enclosing the entire tract, thus for some time saving any further expense in building individual fences. Wheat has long been the great staple raised by the colony and its yield most of the time has been enormous, often as high as forty or fifty bushels per acre being realized, which has brought from ninety cents to $1.50 per bushel.
*The Cache la Poudre is an important stream. It has several prominent tributaries, among which are the Big and Little Thompson, Lone Tree, Box Elder, St. Vrain, and Crow creeks. Irrigating canals now run through the unsurpassed agricultural section, with numerous ditches, leading in all directions, which furnish ample moisture for the hitherto vast and region.
¶ The original county-seat of Weld county was located at old St. Vrain. Later it was given a temporary abode at the houses of two neighboring ranchmen. Next it went to Latham, four or five miles from Greeley and three miles due east from Evans, and remained for several years, that town and Greeley being about four miles apart. There was a lively competition between the two latter towns, and for several years there was a bitter county-seat fight, first one getting it and then the other. The election in 1877 settled the contest, when Greeley won the prize, and ever since it has remained there. Greeley is a temperance town, never having had a saloon, while Evans is a licensed-liquor town.
¥ Senator Latham was a passenger over the stage line in November 1862 on his way from California to Washington. While at Salt Lake the council tendered him the hospi-
California's distinguished senators of an early day. The stage station was the only house there. It was a substantially built one-and-one-half-story log structure, fronting south. There was a large one-story, rough-board addition built on the north side, fronting both east and west, in which were a large dining-room, kitchen bedroom, and a storehouse. Its location was important. It was the junction of the branch stage line to Denver, and stages made close connections east and also with the main line to Salt Lake and California. Besides, it was a storehouse for supplies for three divisions, and this made it the most important way station on the overland route between Atchison and Placerville.
Prominent as Latham was in 1864, the name of it at this late day is seldom mentioned. There are scores of people born in Weld county and still living there who probably have never heard of this station which was wiped out five years before the capital of the county was dreamed of. There are hundreds of people now residing in the vicinity who could tell little or nothing of the history of the old station as it was in the palmy days of overland staging.
It was during Lincoln's first administration that I held my position. A portion (and the most important part) of my duties was the checking and dispatching of the through overland mails destined for California, Salt Lake, and leading points in Nevada and Montana. The position was one of importance at that time, and of great responsibility. Previous to the location of an agent there, thoughtless drivers or stock tenders, in reloading the mails on the coaches, when two or three Concords were standing in front of the office waiting to be loaded, would carelessly throw on the mail-sacks so that California and Montana mails would be returned to Atchison and east-bound mail-pouches sent back to Salt Lake and to the Pacific.
To obviate this perplexing and seemingly inexcusable annoyance was a part of my duty while in the service of the post-office department at Latham. At times it was a rather lonesome position to fill; but while the stages were standing there, and a score were tak-
tality of the city. The distinguished senator returned his thanks for the courtesy, but on account of his brief stay was unable to accept. The Mormon leaders remembered the minority vote of Senators Latham and McDougall against the anti-polygamy bill and other courtesies rendered by the former to Utah's representative at the national capital. it is supposed, the offer was in recognition of these services.
ing their meals, it was the busiest way station on the line but, of course, this was only for a brief time each day.
The eating station was kept by Mr. W. S. McIlvain, a genial warm-hearted man, who was also the stage company's agent. With the aid of his estimable wife, assisted by Miss Lizzie Trout, whose services had been secured at ten dollars a week as cook, he gained the reputation of keeping one of the best eating-houses on the entire line of nearly 2000 miles. "Mac," as he was widely known, was originally from Kentucky, and was noted for his hospitality. He spared no pains to have his table supplied with the best to be found in the Denver market. He bought the very best coffee, paying one dollar per pound for it. He also bought fresh butter and eggs from the ranchmen in the vicinity, often paying $1.25 per pound for the former and $1.50 per dozen for the latter. The price of nearly everything else used on the table was in proportion.
Except at the hours when the stages arrived and departed each day, the station at Latham was a desolate and lonesome place. The nearest neighbor was a ranchman named Westlake, nearly three-quarters of a mile southwest toward Denver. He was on the main road and kept a gin-mill and a few goods for sale to the ranchmen in the neighborhood. He made the most of his money selling "cold pizen" to the numerous freighters and ox drivers passing up and down the Platte.
There was little of interest to admire in the immediate vicinity, but to the west a distance of fifty miles or more were the Rocky Mountains, the sides green with pine and quaking asp, and the peaks and summit most of the time covered with snow. Between Latham and the mountains were also two quite important streams--the St. Vrain and Thompson--tributaries of the Cache la
MISS LIZZIE TROUT.
Poudre. To the south of the station for several miles the ground was apparently as level as the floor. A few rods to the north the clear waters of the South Platte and an occasional tree or cluster of willows and cottonwood saplings along the banks of the Cache la Poudre broke the monotony in that direction. Cacti covered thousands of acres and sage-brush was very plentiful. Near where the beautiful, progressive town of Greeley is situated was quite a grove of large cottonwoods, which added not a little to the appearance of the distant landscape.
While it was against the rules of the stage authorities to allow any liquor about the station, the thirsty drivers and stock tenders knew they could always get a drink or a private bottle filled at Westlake's. They had often heard the pioneer ranchman and keeper of the place say that he might run short on the "luxuries of life," but the "necessaries" he would always keep in stock.
Calls from neighbors were few and far between at Latham, except a few of the ranchmen who came quite often to the postoffice for their mail, I being deputy Nasby at that office and having charge of everything connected with postal matters.
In a radius of ten miles from Latham there were less than that number of ranchmen; but, in a number of respects, the station was looked upon as a very important point. It was a storehouse for grain, soap, candles and "dope" for the stage company. There it was that the stage teams forded the South Platte on their way to and from Salt Lake and California, and there it was that the mail-pouches for the Pacific slope were taken off the stages, immediately on their arrival, and examined, reloaded and rechecked for their destination.
It was only a few miles from Latham to where is now the county-seat of Weld county, the wide-awake city of Greeley. But at that early day --1864--Greeley was not dreamed of. The first building in that town--named for the New York Tribune founder--was erected in the spring of 1870. In fact, there was not a town containing a score of houses on the line between Atchison and Denver after leaving Marysville in Kansas, on the Big Blue river, 100 miles west of the Missouri.
During the latter part of 1863 and early in 1864, fabulous gold discoveries were reported at Bannock, in Montana, and shortly afterward there was an immense rush from all parts of the country to the promised new El Dorado. The overland stages during
the "fever" did an immense business in transporting the anxious gold seekers. The rush and excitement. were only equaled by the discoveries made in California during the period of the gold fever in 1849 and the Pike's Peak discoveries a decade later.
While the mad rush to Bannock was at its height, in the summer of 1864, a goodly portion of the great overland travel to that Northwest camp went through by private conveyance. It came up the valley and crossed the South Platte at Latham. It was during that spring or the summer previous that "honest" Beni. H. Eaton, afterwards governor of Colorado, crossed the Platte, and located his ranch near where Greeley now is, the immediate surroundings having since become a real garden spot.
There had been little difficulty in the stage teams fording the river at Latham until the great flood in Cherry creek, which occurred on the night of the 20th of May, 1864. At that time the flood, which came with hardly any warning, swept away, almost in an instant, the Rocky Mountain News office and a score or more of other buildings in Denver, resulting in the destruction of a large amount of property and considerable loss of life. This flood caused the Platte to rise at Latham so it was nearly bank full on the afternoon of the 21st. The next morning it was several feet higher, and out of its banks. It was a very severe and trying task to get the mail for Salt Lake, Nevada and California across the mighty river.
During that terrible flood the water rose rapidly for two days, but no one imagined the result. I had the mail rowed across the river in a skiff, taking personal charge, and landing it on high, dry ground on the opposite shore. I then waited for the eastbound stage, which was on the way here from the next station, a few miles west, it being impossible to ford at Latham during the unprecedented high water.
The large amount of mail necessitated making two trips across with it, but imagine my predicament when I made the discovery that I was entirely surrounded by water, which was still rapidly rising. While waiting for the stage, the fellow that rowed me over had gone with the skiff back to the stage office, on the south side of the river. For my personal safety I felt unconcerned; my only thoughts were for the safety of the mail. There was great danger that it might get wet from the rapid rising of the river, and this, for the time being, caused me no little uneasiness.
Piling up the mail pouches one on top of another on the highest and dryest spot of ground remaining--all told, only a few feet square--I waited patiently for the east-bound stage, then due from California. The minutes seemed like hours and I was getting more anxious. In due time the long-looked-for stage came as near as the driver cared to venture, but it was impossible for him to get nearer than within about 100 yards. It developed that was to have an unpleasant personal trial in the art of navigation, for I had to pack each individual mail-pouch on my shoulders to the stage, wading waist deep in the cold water.
After this experiment, and for several days, until the flood subsided, the skiff was used to row the mail all the way to the stage-coach. I promptly reported the facts to the post-office department, adding that I was "getting along swimmingly." It must not be inferred that I was an amphibious biped, for, in consequence of this trying experience, I contracted a severe cold and cough, from which I suffered a long time, but still was able to attend to my duties in connection with the overland mail.
The water was at its highest stage on Friday, the 27th, when it came within two or three rods of the station. A rise of two feet more and the water would have come into my office. The bed of the river, which ordinarily was only a few rods wide at the ford, had now spread out until it was more than a mile wide, and the surrounding country, north, east, and west, looked like an inland sea. The water rose until it was from ten to fifteen feet in depth, carrying down houses, barns, stables, bridges, stock, pig-pens, chicken-coops, etc. During the great flood--the like of which had never before been witnessed by the oldest inhabitant or by any of the Indians--it was no easy matter to get a quarter to half a ton of mail across the river in a skiff, where it would be put on board the stage for the Pacific coast. There was fully double the amount of mail matter going west to California and intermediate points than was coming east. Going direct to Denver, without crossing the river, there was from 350 to 500 pounds daily, while the amount coming from Denver did not exceed an average of 150 pounds a day.
Dave McCutcheon, a wide-awake, rustling driver, for some time employed along the Cache la Poudre between Latham and the base of the mountains, seeing an opportunity to make some extra money during those stirring times in consequence of the
flood, improvised a sort of combination skiff and flat-boat, and for a short time ran a temporary ferry across the south fork at Latham station. He hired some of the boys at the station to do extra driving for him, and, while the high water contined (sic), made as much as twenty-five dollars a day rowing parties across the South Platte, just below the mouth of the Cache la Poudre.
The immense rush of people up the Platte in the direction of the Cache la Poudre and westerly over the Cherokee trail was owing to the new gold discoveries at Bannock. A great many had come up the Platte river to Latham because the crowd waiting to cross at old Julesburg--140 miles below--was so great it was impossible for the ferryman there to accommodate all. Of course this was a bonanza that did not last a great while, but McCutcheon made it pay him handsomely while the rush of gold seekers for the Northwest continued and the flood lasted. He would take wagons successfully across, but it would be necessary to take the vehicles apart in order to get them over on his boat. The teams had to swim across.
But Dave McCutcheon was equal to all emergencies. He was a large, powerfully built young man, and seemingly as strong as an ox. He could consume considerable whisky, and he could also do a great amount of heavy work when necessity required. Besides, he was an amateur pugilist, and he had a hide in toughness only exceeded by the rhinoceros. Some of the stage boys at the station who thought they understood the science of pugilism used to try and stand up before him, but in nine cases out of ten he could come pretty near knocking them out in the first round. I know this to be true, for I once put on the gloves and stood up before Dave. It was only for a second or two, for I was knocked off my feet with a bloody nose almost as quick as a wink, to the amusement of the boys who were looking on. I asked McCutcheon one day if there was anything on the "Overland" that could knock him out. He said: "There is nothing on the stage line that I cannot stand up to, unless it be the 'forty-rod poison,' sold under the name of whisky at an adjoining ranch. Some of that," he continued, "would knock the devil himself out, if he merely smelled of the vile stuff."
The winter of 1863-'64 was a cold and very severe one, exceedingly disastrous to stock on the upper South Platte. Hay along that stream was scarce, and, on account of the immense
traffic, the demand for it steadily increased. The large number of freighters then crossing the plains made business at the ranches extremely brisk. Hay in the Denver market advanced to seventy-five dollars a ton. The price was a great temptation to many ranch men in the valleys, who disposed of the most of their supply and allowed their cattle to graze on the range, which was covered with snow, till they were reduced to mere walking skeletons.
Quite a number of ranchmen who had sold their hay to the stage company before the great advance in the price of the article would, under cover of night, steal a portion of it to supply their needs. Freighters and pilgrims en route to Denver scores of times tried to buy, borrow or beg of the company enough hay to give their stock a single feed, but, owing to the limited supply on hand, they would invariably be refused. It was necessary that the overland mail be kept moving, and to do this required hay, and lots of it. Holladay would rather buy hay than sell, and there appeared to be none in sight that could be bought at any price. Therefore, some who could not get hay by other means would, as a last resort, under cover of darkness, steal it.
In the latter part of February, 1864, several attempts were made to bribe the stage company's stock tender at Latham station. Frequently he would be offered by freighters and pilgrims as high as ten dollars for enough hay to feed a four-horse team a single night, but he was honest and faithful to the trusts imposed in him and invariably declined the tempting offers. Armstrong was the name of the faithful stock tender. No doubt thousands of dollars' worth of hay and grain were stolen from the stage proprietor during that severe winter, yet the traffic on the Platte was so great and feed so scarce that many horses and cattle died of starvation.
The weather during the 1st and 2d days of June, 1864, as I remember, was remarkably cold; a long rain, followed by sleet, making it very disagreeable in the upper South Platte valley. It was so cold at Latham we were obliged to have fires all day and to be dressed with heavy winter clothing. Considerable snow had fallen on the continental divide, which was plainly in view from the station, though fifty to seventy-five miles away; the fresh, silvery-white mantle adding much to the beauty of the scene. The snow on the mountains was visible west, northwest and southwest for a long distance, completely covering the summit,
Mardos Memorial Library