Jane Little Botkin
Taking beautiful US Highway 6, east of Denver, my son and I began my first journey to discover Frank Little’s story in Colorado. This highway is gorgeous as it follows Clear Creek all the way into the county of the same name and merges with Colorado 119. The road is often closed during the winter, but for this first journey, our timing was perfect. I urge you to drive it when it is open, instead of the congested I-70. I have been on I-70 in snow, ice, and rain, and it is no picnic.
Many of you may be skiers, like me, who are familiar with Colorado ski resorts. What you may not know is that before Colorado attracted folks to this sport and other tourism, it drew men who were determined to get rich digging in the earth or panning in creeks and rivers. In fact, there are some who sift through old mining tailings for tiny golden grains today. If you do drive west on I-70 out of Denver, you begin to see all sorts of tailing piles, maws of old mines, and various structural remnants. Today’s ski resorts Dillon, Breckenridge, Vail, Telluride, and Leadville are all former mining camps, “repurposed” for a newer way of attracting income to Colorado.
The location that my son and I aimed for—Black Hawk—Central City—was east of Winter Park ski resort. This area, once known as the “Richest Square Mile on Earth,” had been full of Scottish, Cornish, and Irish immigrants, muddy streets, whore houses and gambling, and generally rowdy rapscallions! Watch the movie, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and you can get an idea of how these ne’er do wells made early fortunes, men like a destitute John H. Gregory, an ex-Southerner who first struck gold in what is now Black Hawk, Colorado.
Black Hawk is now a little Las Vegas, the largest gambling town in Colorado, in that it features tall casinos, shows, and $2.99-prime-rib lunches. As we drove through the narrow main street, we noted a mix of mining debris and tall casino-hotels. Historical reminders of Black Hawk’s former life abounded. I resolved that my next trip would involve my husband with more time in town. We next headed to nearby Central City, the sister city of Black Hawk just a rock's throw away, another former mining camp-turned-casino-tourist destination. There I began my research in the Gilpin County and Clear Creek County courthouse and the county library. From there, I planned to make a short drive up the hill to the ghost town of Nevadaville and possibly my Frank Little connection. After a prime-rib lunch, of course!
I don’t know if any of you are interested in family genealogy like I am, but if you are, then you always have your ears open to family anecdotes, stories generationally passed down. For example, I had heard that I had an uncle who was hanged for his socialist bent from a telephone pole. I also was told that I had another uncle, (Frank Little’s and my great-grandfather's brother), a miner in Cripple Creek, Colorado, who had married a woman named Emma. Like most family stories that have been stretched via ancestral tongues, my family anecdotes had lost some of their reliability. But there is always a seed of truth. I later found that Frank was not hanged from a telephone pole or for being a socialist. I knew nothing about Fred Little. If he was in Cripple Creek, then perhaps he introduced his little brother, Frank, into hard rock mining. The logical thing to do was go to Colorado. This next trip turned into three trips!
With a knee surgery, I was restricted to home for a few months, so my computer became my best research tool. I was able to go into a Colorado marriage database where I found Emma’s maiden name, Harper. Then using Ancestry.com, I found a cousin, a Harper, who helped me immensely although we didn’t meet face to face until a couple of years later. Susie started me on Fred’s trail. Emma had indeed married him, and now I knew where to begin my research in Colorado! Another boon was that my son had just moved to Fort Collins to work on his masters’ degree while his wife was in veterinary school at CSU. He became my first guide on this adventure, and we had a blast!
After my son and I left Alice, we returned to Central City—this time from I-70. Near Central City is Nevadaville, a ghost town sitting on a slope of Bald Mountain near the Continental Divide and the Clear Creek County line, and also on an edge of the “richest square mile on earth.” If one were to drive up Main Street or Nevada Street, a dirt road crawling about a mile west out of Central City alongside Nevada Gulch, he or she would glimpse relics of brownish-gray foundations that once supported wooden framed businesses and houses. An old jail, city hall, and handsome red-brick saloon sit solitarily among the ruins with blank windows peering sadly at each other, leftovers from better days when thirteen saloons and one theater lined Main Street. Mining rubble is everywhere. More intact, durable-stone survivors possess contemporary signs to engage the curious visitor: Stuff, Miscellaneay [sic], Antiques, Books, Trading Post, etc.
The J. R. Rowling Building, occupied by a general store off and on during its history, continues to host monthly Masonic meetings upstairs. With its red-brick facade, the building dominates what is left of this frontier ghost town. Next door to it sits an old saloon. I was especially interested in seeing the Rowling building since on the same second floor was Cannon’s Dance Hall where Emma Harper graduated in 1894. Besides having a copy of Emma’s graduation announcement, thanks to my cousin Susie, I had discovered an old newspaper article describing the graduation. The paper reported Emma’s salutatory speech, “Woman,” to be “bright and entertaining and showed earnest and careful preparations.” Stepping back in time, I could only imagine how on the evening of June 28, 1894, Cannon’s Dance Hall was called Cannon’s Opera House to add to the enormity of Emma’s family’s celebration. The lively saloon next door would not have detracted from the event.
I made a second trip to Central City, Black Hawk, and Nevadaville that winter with my husband. This time snow covered old industrial scars of the area, enhancing Nevadaville’s color and texture, a photographer’s dream. By now, I had Emma’s story and was ready to move on to her early life with my hard-rock-miner uncle Fred—this time in Cripple Creek. Another trip had to be planned.
I didn’t find Frank Little in Black Hawk or Central City, Colorado. Nope, he was never there, at least not mining. But his brother Fred Little was—sometime—and Fred drew Frank into hard rock mining. Instead my son and I found Emma Barbara Harper Little’s story, and it began in the Alice mining camp. Emma plays an important role in Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood That Stained an American Family.
At 10,300 feet, Alice still sits below the crest of St. Mary’s Glacier, a spectacularly beautiful location. The once-booming mining community, built in a small, piney valley, can be reached by a series of treacherous switchbacks following the Fall River from Idaho Springs, twelve miles below on I-70 West, or from a rough road winding down Yankee Hill, one mile above at an altitude of about twelve thousand feet, connecting the Nevadaville ghost town and Central City-Black Hawk mining communities.
The 1886 Harper cabin, in which Emma was born, is still standing and was featured in a Rand-McNally ad in 1972. It later became a boarding house for miners, and this is likely how Emma met Fred. One illustration used in my book is a photograph of these boarders, found underneath the cabin’s floorboards (along with a 125-year-old can for condoms) when the building was remodeled. My Harper cousin Susie has great memories of this place when her father still owned the property and the nearby mines! And she became a wonderful resource for my research.
The school where Emma taught is also still standing, repurposed as a home. But we needed to learn more about Emma and figure out how my uncle Fred, a lowly migrant miner who was living in Cripple Creek met Emma, the daughter of a mine owner. We were certain that somehow the story would connect to Frank Little. And we were right!
Concluding our third and final trip to Colorado to research Frank Little, my husband and I made the scenic drive to Cripple Creek, about an hour away from our hotel in Colorado Springs. We drove northwest to get around the mountains, passing the entrance to the Garden of the Gods at Manitou Springs, the exit for Pikes Peak once again, and then on to new territory through old mining camps. Our trip then dipped southwest, and we eventually came to a loop that encircles what was once the Cripple Creek Mining District.
Of the various mining camps in the district, only the towns of Cripple Creek and Victor have survived until present, although not to the same degree. Cripple Creek has flourished, while Victor appears to still struggle from the past. Other camps, towns, and gutted gulches have been absorbed by the vortex of an open ground mining operation, the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company. A whirlpool in an ocean of aspen and grassy hills, spinning and swallowing old mining camps into some hell below, the company is the largest gold mining operation in the United States. Looking northward out of Victor today beyond Battle Mountain, mountain scenery has been reduced to this barren hole. Yet aspen, pine, and some spruce still decorate the remaining ancient timber head frames at mines that once had promising names—America Eagle, Vindicator, Ajax, Independence—all from a more propitious time. As a testament to the less technical past, burros amble freely along the Golden Loop Parkway that enters Cripple Creek.
Some residents hold deep feelings concerning the present mining operation and/or past mining strikes despite excellent public relations of the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company among citizens. (See their Facebook page). In the community of Victor nearby, the last contentious battle between mine management and miners took place in 1903-1904, resulting in the miners being rounded up and placed in a bull pen, and their beloved miners’ hall destroyed, (and yep, the Victor Miners’ Union Hall has a Facebook page too!) along with any definitive records placing Fred in the Western Federation of Miners there. In an effort to interview descendants of those miners whose families were not deported (which is a hard truth about the treatment of the miners at the time), we were stifled. Animosity is still too great among old families who hold little regard for those businesses supporting the current gold mining operation. A few individuals were downright suspicious about my questions.
But Cripple Creek was different, and wonderful historians assisted us. At the base of Mt. Pisgah, this city of sin, wealth, and wonder had emerged, becoming a respectable mecca and promised land for the Western Federation of Miners and their families. In 1896, a newspaper boasted that “[mining] camps build towns, mining camps build cities, mining camps build states, even empires, and Cripple Creek is the greatest mining camp on earth.”
As an aside, the old song, “There Will Be a Hot Time in the Town Tonight,” was, in fact, written about Cripple Creek. And though their Western Federation of Miners union records were also lost in the 1903-04 strike, we were able to begin putting together what life was like for Fred and Emma in 1898-1899. But Frank Little was never there.
The next summer, my husband and I returned to Colorado to research Frank Little. My husband had a business conference at the beautiful Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, so, for me, it was the perfect opportunity to explore Fred and Emma Little’s background and look for Frank. No golf or swimming for me! Researching this book has been far more entertaining and fulfilling than any other recreation I could have experienced. It has been like solving a wonderful mystery that has many secret doors with hidden keys. Behind the opened doors were rabbits that scattered in different directions. Breaking a basic genealogy research rule, where the researcher needs to stay focused on one family line, I had to chase every rabbit to get to the truth.
I began by visiting the Western Museum of Mining and Industry in Colorado Springs. I was not a novice at researching archives, but this time I was uncertain in my approach. It was personal. When I introduced myself to the curator and explained who I was researching, I found myself stammering. That old family guilt about our “socialist who was hanged in Montana” flitted across my brain, and I added quickly, “But I am not a socialist!” I certainly do not elaborate on my research requests now or separate myself from my uncles. I am extremely proud of Frank Little and how he peacefully fought against corporate and government corruption, discrimination, and capitalism’s labor abuses (and yes, I am a capitalist). But, I did not know Frank at this moment. My face flushed, and I am certain the curator thought I was an idiot. When he showed me all the mining personnel records the museum had collected—including payroll, fatalities, store debts, etc.—I was overwhelmed with the sheer volume of documents. And this museum’s collection was only a drop in the bucket. There was no way to sift through the pages looking for any man named Little, and too many different mines operated in western Colorado. Without an index and hundreds of hours at my disposal, I quietly left. A lesson learned, I needed to do my homework before entering any archives. I needed to have better ideas of where to begin.
One day during the conference, my husband I made the train ride to the top of Pikes Peak. I had always romanticized the mountain, and the first time I rode up was with my mother when I was five years old. I believed I had photographs of my maternal grandmother, an independent woman of great adventure and intellect, climbing Pikes Peak in 1920, at least that was what I was told. She had learned driving and auto mechanics just so she could drive a 1918 Buick from Texas to Colorado. She had also once ridden in a bucket to the bottom of Carlsbad Caverns, when no elevators or easy trail existed! Yet, here was another family story with a seed of truth. My grandmother’s driving lessons were accurate and so was her climb, but I discovered later that she had climbed North Arapahoe Peak near Boulder, and not Pikes’ Peak—still a tough climb at over 13,000 feet in snow and ice.
But here I was, comfortably riding up the rosy-gray granite mountain once again. Instead of just sitting back to enjoy the ride, my notepad was open, and I quickly jotted down observations of the flora, stone, and other minerals until we reached the snow. I needed the descriptions for Fred and Emma’s train ride to Cripple Creek, yes, from Colorado Springs. It was mid-June and freezing with snow at the top of the mountain. Fred and Emma made their journey in October, an even colder journey. I would be better prepared for Cripple Creek and my research there.