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Fishing for a Jeep: (1st 1956 Mining Story)

March 29, 2012

In the summer of 1956 thirteen men were living in a huge old building at the entrance to the Reynolds Tunnel, reopening the Summitville gold mine deep in the San Juan Mountains. I was the mining engineer, required by Colorado law, on my second college summer vacation working as a prospector. Ray (about 40) was the head miner in day-to-day charge of eleven other Leadville hard-rock miners he had hired. I think he had attended some high school, and he was very smart, a good leader and admired for his knowledge of mining and good sense by me and the rest of the crew.

The picture to the right shows some of the Summitville miners in front of our building.  Ray is the short man with a light cap standing in front of the window.  Schmitte sits at the bottom of the steps.  (The guy sitting on the Jeep is a company man visiting for the day.  Dirk not present.)

Late in the summer the company home office decided we needed a geologist and sent us Dirk, the fearless. He was from Holland with a PhD and about a decade of field experience in North Africa. As I showed him around he drove our Jeep across landslides which I was sure would send us down to oblivion. He had never seen an American mountain lion, so when we discovered an occupied den he shot down it with his 22 caliber pistol to summon the beast from the vasty deep while I put some distance between the den and myself. Fortunately, Hot Spur’s question was answered in the negative. [See Henry IV, Part 1, Act 3, Scene 1.]

One Sunday Dirk decided to go fishing. He was told of a great place across a pass from our home. So I took him up to the pass and showed him the large quaking bog at the top. When we walked out to the middle on apparently solid ground and I began to jump up and down, waves spread out marking the edge pretty clearly. After warning him to avoid the area on his way home, he drove the jeep to the fishing stream and I turned back home.

The fishing was so good that Dirk did not start back until it was getting dark. Recall that he was fearless; so he thought Theodore is too cautious so I will take the direct route over this perfectly flat area. About 200 feet in the jeep broke through the surface. Dirk rescued his trout and walked back to a good supper.

The company had equipped these jeeps with lots of special equipment so we knew we had to retrieve it, but we could do nothing at night. After breakfast all 14 of us gathered equipment that we thought might be useful and went up to the edge of the bog in the other jeeps. Fortunately the front bumper of the jeep had caught on a big piece of wood, so we quickly attached a long cable and secured it to a large tree growing at the edge of the bog.

Now this is the interesting part. We three boss-men discussed how to retrieve the jeep for about half an hour, without coming up with a viable plan. Only THEN did the youngest miner in the group speak-up.  He had left Leadville for Oregon and spent a few years as a logger. (Both occupations are dangerous, but on the average loggers live longer.)  He knew just what to do but also knew that he had to wait to tell us big guys.

We quickly cut down an 80 foot tall tree and used a jeep on solid ground to move its butt against the tree at the edge of the bog. A jeep at the far end could pull the top of the tree about 50 feet with great force. So we attached the cable about 1/3 of the way from our fulcrum and put three hand cranked come-alongs into the cable connection. As the jeep on land drove forward, the jeep in the lake moved towards shore. As the jeep on land backed up, we furiously took up as much slack as possible with the come-alongs while others tried to keep the jeep in the water from sinking or moving back.

By mid afternoon we had our jeep back and by mutual agreement took the rest of the day off with praise for our young hero and a few snide remarks about Dirk.

You ask, did he learn caution? The summer was almost over, but I saw no indication that he did.


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One Comment
  1. Laura Schmidt Ainge permalink

    I really enjoy your Summitville stories. The man sitting on the bottom step “Schmitte” is my grandfather. My dad also worked up there in the late 60’s and my mother lived up there from about 1938 until the mine shut down in the 40’s. Her dad and grandfather also worked up there.

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