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Murder in the Mountains – Convict Lake, CA Quadrangle

Latitude: 37.588737
Longitude: -118.858819

Monte Diablo Lake, located on the eastern slope of the Sierras, used to be a beautiful 140-feet deep, clear, sapphire blue alpine gem ringed by towering peaks. Today, it is still all of these things, however, it has since been given a new name as a result of a violent event that happened on September 23, 1871.

Convict Lake, California
Courtesy of kjaliye (flikr CC 2.0)

The transcontinental railroad had been robbed for the first time out west, the amateur crooks quickly captured, then jailed in Carson City, Nevada. Next, came a riot, followed by a brazen jail escape, with 29 convicts breaking out and fleeing. Six of those men traveled together, heading south towards the rugged, imposing mountains hoping to slip into California undetected.

Thinking they were being followed by a lawman on horseback, the gang of six circled around and brutally murdered Billy Poor, a young man who was making his first mail run as a new Pony Express rider.  This inflamed the local community who immediately formed a posse intent on capturing and hanging the killers.

Several members of the posse eventually caught up with three convicts in Monte Diablo Canyon (the other convicts had slipped away earlier) and a gun fight erupted near the head of Monte Diablo Creek.  During the fight, posse members Robert Morrison and Mono Jim were shot and killed, another was wounded, and the convicts escaped towards Bishop.

Four days later, a separate posse finally captured the three convicts, and local vigilantes hanged two, with the third being returned to jail.

To honor the fallen, Monte Diablo Peak was renamed Mount Morrison (12,277′), and an adjacent summit was named Mono Jim Peak (10,896′).  Monte Diablo Creek and Lake were renamed Convict Creek and Convict Lake, respectively.

Today, Convict Lake is an extremely popular destination for anglers, and it also provides access to the unrivaled John Muir Wilderness for equestrians and hikers seeking solitude on the numerous trails and high peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Nowadays, Convict Lake offers up tranquil waters, serene skies and magnificent vistas to those looking to escape everyday stresses.

Convict Lake also has some very interesting non-violent history, and has even been featured in various movies, TV shows, and books. You can read more about that on Wikipedia.

Convict Lake Map
7.5 Minute Topographic Map of Convict Lake, California
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Battle of Las Animas Canyon Monument & Buffalo Soldier Cemetery – Victoria Park*, NM Quadrangle

Latitude: 33.0541
Longitude: -107.7528

On September 18, 1879, Buffalo Soldiers (African-American regiments formed after the Civil War) serving with Companies B and E of the 9th U.S. Cavalry based in Fort Stanton, New Mexico, were ambushed and pinned down by the infamous Chief Victorio and approximately 60 of his warriors from the Warm Springs band of Chiricahua Apache.  As the soldiers pursued Victorio into the mouth of Massacre Canyon (named after this incident) where it joins Las Animas Creek, the soldiers quickly became trapped and forced afoot as their mounts were shot from under them by Apache warriors camouflaged and holding positions high above in the steep, rocky canyon walls.  Two nearby companies, C & G, also in pursuit of Victorio, heard the gunfire and came to assist, but they too, were instantly pinned down.  The battle raged for hours until finally the soldiers were able to retreat under the cover of darkness.

During this tumultuous period in the desert southwest, the Warm Springs Apache had already been removed from their native lands at Ojo Caliente, and forced to live with their sworn enemies on the San Carlos Indian Reservation in Arizona. After having escaped San Carlos twice, the Warm Springs Apache were eventually relocated to the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation at Fort Stanton, New Mexico, but due to incredibly poor living conditions and catching wind that the government was to send the group back to San Carlos, Victorio and his warriors fled again, swearing never to return.  Thus began his most violent rampages throughout the region, and in turn, the 9th Cavalry’s arduous and dangerous pursuit.

Official military reports of the event vary, but list either five or six troopers killed, two or three Navajo scouts killed, one civilian killed, and 32 horses killed in the battle.  No Apache were believed killed.  Oddly, none of the reports seems to directly correlate with the 32-plus actual graves at the monument site.  Three soldiers, Lieutenant Robert Temple Emmet, Lieutenant Mathias Day and Sergeant John Denny received the Congressional Medal of Honor for acts of bravery during the battle.

Located on private property that was homesteaded shortly after the Victorio War, the Buffalo Soldier/Massacre Canyon Cemetery was officially dedicated with full military honors on June 14, 1997 as a result of research efforts by the New Mexico Home Town Heroes Committee for the National Medal of Honor Society and the New Mexico Army National Guard.  Much of the actual battlefield lies just to the northwest on Gila National Forest land.

For a short but informative video depicting the history of Buffalo Soldiers stationed in New Mexico, visit KNME’s Moment In Time site:

Another highly detailed account of the event and participants may be found by visiting the following link to the Boots and Saddles New Mexico Foundation.  Author Ken Dusenberry’s article provides a great understanding of the events leading up to this battle, and provides additional information about the dedication ceremony and later archaeological study:

* Despite encompassing the homeland of Victorio and his people, this USGS Quadrangle was incorrectly named Victoria Park.  The US Forest Service is now using the correct nomenclature.

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Cascade Canyon Wye – Electra Lake, CO Quadrangle

Latitude: 37.5945
Longitude: -107.7777

For those of you who are rail buffs, you may already know a bit about this feature, or at least, its function.  The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway historically operated between Denver and Salt Lake City, with numerous spurs connecting to the various mining and lumber towns scattered across the Rockies.  Today, most of the original line has long been abandoned and removed.  One particularly popular stretch still in operation, however, is a 45-mile section run by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNG), which takes tourists between these two quintessentially western mountain towns and follows the scenic Animas River through steep, forested terrain.

Located approximately 26 miles north of Durango, the Cascade Canyon Wye was constructed in 1981 to provide the D&SNG a place to turn around during winter excursions when heavy snow pack prevents the train from proceeding all the way to Silverton.  In addition to the triangle-shaped track that allows the train to make a three-point turn and reverse direction, a structure has also been erected on the banks of the Animas that serves as a lunch area for winter passengers.

The next few miles of track north of Cascade Canyon Wye pass additional historic sites, such as the impressive steel Tefft Bridge built in 1887 (named for an early forest ranger Guy Tefft), and an abandoned boiler.  Per Robert T. Royem, author of America’s Railroad: The Official Guidebook, this wood and coal powered boiler came from Locomotive 32, the “Gold King” and was sacrificed by the side of the tracks in order to power a sawmill and other machinery used by the railroad company around 1910-1911.  A little farther up canyon, Cascade Siding (no longer in existence) was used by ranchers to load and transport livestock from the area.  A section house was also located here at one time, and the siding saw additional action as recently as January 2001, when the D&SNG assisted the Colorado Division of Wildlife in releasing a number of bighorn sheep into the surrounding Weminuche Wilderness.

To anyone planning a visit Southwest Colorado: be sure to check out Durango and ride this infamous train (think Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid).  You will revel in the natural beauty of the region and see plenty of local history come alive while on the rails!

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Chautauqua Park – Eldorado Springs, CO Quadrangle

Latitude: 39.9994
Longitude: -105.2813

I’m currently doing some work in Boulder, Colorado and thought it would be appropriate for my very first post to feature a local quadrangle – Eldorado Springs.  Those of you familiar with the area have most likely visited Chautauqua Park and hiked its trails just southwest of town.  But do you know the history of the name?  I did not, so naturally I looked it up.

I assumed it was a Native American word (which it is), but did not know it means roughly “foggy place.”  It first originated in New York, and Chautauqua County, NY was the first jurisdiction to assume the name.

Chautauqua (pronounced “sha-taw-kwa”) soon became the term for an adult education and enlightenment movement that began in the above-mentioned county.   In 1874, a local Methodist summer camp began offering secular activities in addition to the standard religious offerings.  At the time, cultural enrichment and travel was a luxury enjoyed only by the very wealthy, so the ability for rural families to experience the arts and listen to guest lecturers in a natural setting became wildly popular.  Because of the success and appeal of the “Mother Chautauqua” as the original New York Institution was later nicknamed, several hundred “Daughter Chautauquas” were eventually established nationwide by the mid-1920’s.

With the advent of radio and television and improved transportation, rural Americans were no longer so isolated and starved for culture and education.  The popularity of Chautauquas steadily diminished and today, Colorado’s Chautauqua Park  is one of only three remaining Chatauquas in the United States.  It was established on July 4, 1898 and is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

So, next time you find yourself  in the Boulder area, be sure to check out Chautauqua Park and see for yourself what Teddy Roosevelt meant when he called the institutions “the most American thing in America.”