Passing History - A Short Memoir on Silverplume Beginnings

  Nathan Abels, "Clifford Griffin", Acrylic and Ink on Rag Board, 14x18", 2009

Nathan Abels, "Clifford Griffin", Acrylic and Ink on Rag Board, 14x18", 2009

EXIT 226 for Silver Plume had always seemed something of an afterthought, easy to overlook and overshadowed by the more bustling exits for nearby Georgetown and Idaho Springs. Silver Plume was one of those exit names that just drifted through your thoughts, lingering a moment, but rarely exerting a pull off course. There are exits like this all over the country, ones for small towns you zip by without considering more than a few seconds, if any. How many times had we driven past this unassuming exit sign off I-70 on our way to and from the Colorado mountains? Dozens? More? Definitely many more for my husband, who grew up in Colorado, and in his twenties had a nerve-wracking job driving tourist-packed vans back and forth between Denver and Vail during ski season.

Except this time, this late summer day, the modest Silver Plume exit sign managed to corral our attention. The mountains were green from afternoon rainstorms, and it was weeks before the trees would begin to shimmer in gold and crimson. We had taken the scenic way back to Denver from Aspen, driving up Highway 82 and over Independence Pass at 12,096 feet, gleefully opening the car windows to shout as my husband’s mother had taught us, “We’re independent!” We had crossed through altitudinous Leadville - so high it’s nearly above tree line, the highest incorporated city in the country - then past clear and deep Turquoise Lake on the outskirts of town, a startling response to Leadville’s barren terrain. Highway 91 meandered down to lower ground, connecting us to I-70 and its urgent stream of traffic just west of Frisco. Thirty miles east, the modest Silver Plume exit sign surged out of evanescence into clear focus.

There it was.  We had found our name, right there in plain sight, a sign not all that different from exit signs for overlooked small towns on pulsing highways elsewhere, everywhere. What name could possibly be more evocative of the capturing of personal stories, of the writing of stories, and even, of the hazard of stories lost? Silver Plume, lyrical to say and laced with a veneer of history and grace. Here was an old and storied name for our new creation, our customized personal memoir business. Here was a name intrinsically linked to a trove of stories we could have easily missed; here was a metaphoric and visceral lesson in the possibilities within a fleeting moment. We adapted the name slightly, settling on Silverplume Press.

Of course the timing had something to do with it. We had been mulling over names for months, letting them sit in our thoughts, and looking for the one that just felt unequivocally right. It was not unlike considering a name for a baby. When the right one comes along, you just know.

Plus, here was reassuring clarity in another name. We were in Clear Creek County, its namesake waterway, Clear Creek, visibly winding its way through the historic old mining communities of Silver Plume and Georgetown, only to cascade down into Golden, past the Coors Brewery and the Colorado School of Mines, until finally washing out in the Mile High City.

A little history about our near namesake

Forty-six miles west of Denver, the Silver Plume exit leads to a historic mining camp - a mere fifth of an acre - set 9114 feet above sea level, 12 miles from the Continental Divide. Old buildings and mining structures dot the rocky landscape, hearkening back to times long gone. While the past is visibly everywhere, life resolutely continues here. The population today hovers a bit below 200, its residents deliberately choosing a removed small town life.

Silver Plume was flush with life back in the Colorado Silver Boom, a period stretching from 1864 to 1993. More than 2000 people - men, women, and children - lived here at the height of the boom in the late 1870s through the turn of the century. During that three-decade boom, more than 82 million dollars worth of silver was extracted in Colorado. Starting in the late 1870s, one of the biggest buyers of all that silver was the US Government, right behind the British Crown in India, where silver was used to make Indian rupees.  

The Silver Boom began in 1864, at the junction of the Clear Creek and Platte rivers just west of Denver. Clear Creek and its gold and silver spawned the Clear Creek Canyon mining camps of Georgetown, Idaho Springs, and Silver Plume, the last of which was officially founded as a town in 1870. "Commodore" Stephen Decatur, then editor of nearby Georgetown’s newspaper, the Colorado Miner, is believed to have come up with the town’s evocative name, a reference to the feathery streaks of silver found embedded in mined ore.

The timing was good for western miners. Long veins of silver ore, mineral deposits extending from Boulder to Telluride, had been hidden deep underground for millions of years. They only became visible once erosion stripped away the top layer of overburden to unveil gray rock embedded with feather-like formations in the mid 1860s. Those silver plumes fostered the lives of miners and their families in small mining towns stretched across the state.  

Throughout the next decade, miners encouraged in part by famed New York-Tribune editor Horace Greeley's 1865 call to "Go west young man, go west" energetically unearthed floods of silver in Colorado. Initially flush, they soon found themselves faced with a glut, a boon’s seeming metamorphosis to a bust. The 1873 coinage act discontinued coinage of the US silver dollar after the US and many European countries moved to a gold standard of currency. It was hardly a surprise when the market price for silver tanked soon after. Congress responded to the marked distress of miners and western farmers by passing the Bland-Allison Act in 1878. It authorized the US government to buy up two to four million dollars a month of silver bullion to make legal tender silver dollars. And with that, the silver party was back on.

The dwellers of Silver Plume had to have been scrappy, entrepreneurial, ambitious, and hardy.  Mining is a notoriously difficult endeavor, hard on the body, spirit, and mind. Imagine the families who followed; the women who ran households in a frontier settlement 9000 feet up barely passable mountain roads; the children who grew up there, who went to school there. These fortune seekers had arrived at this tiny mining camp from far and wide, from the east, from the midwest, even from Europe. Imagine the physical interactions, the cross-cultural melange as those settlers bumped shoulders and elbows in the Main Street saloons, the hotel, the boarding houses, the butcher shop, the theater, the school, and the Catholic and Methodist churches. These buildings popped up quickly, framed fast and spare in response the town’s swelling of activity.

Tales are still told of those early days, and you can find evidence of lives lived long ago amid not only black and white photographs, but lingering ghost stories as well. There’s the obelisk grave of Clifford Griffin (notable for sharing my last name, but of no relation) set on a scenic mountain ridge 1500 feet above Silver Plume. Born in Shropshire, England at Brand Estate in 1847, Griffin was the son of Alfred Griffin Esquire. He was known to be something of a searcher, restless, and attracted to nature. Though he had envisioned studying poetry at university, he had been dissuaded by his father.

  Clifford Griffin near his eventual resting place. Full image at top of blog.

Clifford Griffin near his eventual resting place. Full image at top of blog.

Griffin left England and headed to Colorado and the mining boom in part to escape grief and loss. He lost his fiance the night before their intended wedding, her death wrenching and unexpected. Griffin’s brother, Heneage Griffin, owned the eponymous Seven-Thirty Mine in Silver Plume, named explicitly for the start of its shift time. Clifford Griffin was hired as superintendent of the mine. And while mining proved financially enriching, happiness continued to elude Griffin. A skilled violinist, he was said to have mourned his fiance by playing violin music each evening from the front stoop of his cabin, set high above Silver Plume amid sharp canyons, right next to the mine. Townspeople below would listen each evening, lingering outdoors in fading light to enjoy his impromptu concerts.  Until one night the music stopped. Griffin dropped his violin and shot himself next to a neatly prepared stone grave. A suicide note specified his intent to be buried there. His grieving family installed a plaque, commemorating his life and death in 1887. Town lore persists that Griffin’s music can be heard faintly over Silver Plume’s hills on summer evenings. 

There were plenty of others as well, people with the kind of human stories that stay grounded and circumvent legend. There was construction man Walker Anderson, who lived from 1866 to 1904, and was named to the Colorado Black Hall of Fame in 1973. Anderson was a pioneering miner who owned mining claims in Silver Plume and worked as a miner in Blackhawk and Central City. Early on Anderson seized opportunities, and at the age of 14 headed to Denver to learn the bricklaying trade. He went on to help build the Denver State Capitol, the Denver Courthouse, the Daniels and Fisher building, the Mining Exchange, and the Opera House in Central City.

 Firefighters of the Silver Plume Hook and Ladder Company

Firefighters of the Silver Plume Hook and Ladder Company

And consider the fleet-footed men of the Silver Plume Hook and Ladder Company Number One, who on July 4, 1884, won the Championship Belt running events, winning the straightaway race  in 27.5 seconds and the 200-yard dash in 24 seconds. Firefighters in Silver Plume had to be intrepid and adaptable, and it was a good thing they were fast. In November of that same year, a fire broke out in a Main Street saloon and whipped through downtown Silver Plume, the flames devastating and decisive. The  scrambling firefighters had only leather buckets of water to fight the fire. By the time the fire under control, the Eastern side of Silver Plume had sustained serious damage. Response the following day was immediate, with townspeople calling for a bond issue for an improved water system, one that ultimately endured until the 1980s. In 1885, town officials upgraded Silver Plume’s firefighting equipment, purchasing a hand pumper, shipped from St. Louis. And by the following year, downtown Silver Plume was completely rebuilt. 

The Silver Boom lasted until the early 1890s, with the repeal of a second piece of silver legislation. The 1890 Sherman Silver Purchase Act had required the U.S. government to buy up an extra 4.5 million ounces of silver bullion each month through the issuance of legal tender U.S. Treasury notes. The legislation had been passed to appease farming and mining interests. Farmers hit hard by deflation wanted to rev up the economy. Miners wanted a solution to an oversupply of silver.

But the reaction to the law’s passage was swift and decisively negative. Many charged the legislation with triggering a drain on US gold reserves. The fear stemmed from the Act’s requirement that the Treasury notes be redeemable in silver or gold coins. It was hardly a surprise when investors opted to redeem the notes for gold coins rather than silver, accelerating the gold drain.  

People began to panic that the U.S. Government would abandon the gold standard. President Cleveland was among those concerned, and called a special session of Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893. The Colorado Silver Boom began to deflate soon after, and while Silver Plume’s  population remained stable until about 1905, it would steadily drop soon after. People moved on to places of more opportunity, their stories and footprints going along with them.

Silverplume Press - The Beginning

I had been thinking about personal memoirs for quite some time, about personal stories, and about the way the sharing of them bonds people together. There is intimacy in the telling of personal stories, a revealing of the internal. To really understand how someone thinks, to grasp motivations and choices, behavior and perceptions, you need to listen to his or her story. They reveal so much, and in a way, pin down time.  Personal stories link us in other ways as well; our collective stories intersect to create a densely knit fabric of human experience. Everyone has a story. There just isn’t any way to get through life without creating one. And the lovely thing about memoirs or personal narratives is that they come out of an urge to share. People create them because they want to tell their stories. There’s no coercion in the process.

As a journalist, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people, some famous or well known, many not. Many were interviewed because they had something to promote - a book; a particular side, idea, expertise, or opinion; a cause; a new development; an event. Some were interviewed for their reactions to events. By far, the most interesting stories I heard came from people without a clear motive for promotion. For the most part, they were not the stories of famous people. They were the stories of people who discussed coming to a juncture or a pivot point in their own lives. They were people who revealed the reasons and triggers behind the moves they made following those turning points. They were people who unveiled the forces that shaped their lives, the qualities that coalesced into the rudder that directed them, the small details that made their lives feel real. They were people giving me their personal narratives as part of the work I did capturing personal stories of change for the nonprofit organization, Encore.org. The Encore stories focused on people’s decision to change course professionally around midlife, people who switched their focus to work serving the public good, and who used their life experience and expertise to further their efforts. What most moved me about these stories was the generosity in them. There was a sense of discovery in the interviewing process, from both interviewer and interviewee.

I have benefitted from the capturing of stories in my own family as well. My father, an English professor and avid historian, has delved deep into research about my ancestors, scouring birth, marriage, death, and census records; visiting cemeteries, libraries, and courthouses; and flushing out the often dramatic stories connected to our genealogical tree. If there are details to be found, my father can find them. I had no idea my ancestors lead such interesting, complex, periodically hair-raising lives until I read my father’s essays on them. (And Dad, I know there are plenty more for me to read.)

My father built upon a framework of extensive genealogical research already done on our family history -  especially on his mother's side - filling in the gaps with the kinds of details that bring a story to life. Many of the most telling details came from revealing personal journals and memoirs, ones written with deep reflection and candor. One of the most striking observations is that these ancestors chose to write about not only the daily rhythms of their lives - punctuated by the highlights, the small triumphs, the ambitions, the self-assessments - but also of periods of grief and loss. The loss of a child, the experience of cancer. 

My father painted the stories of his own parents - my grandparents - but also their parents and relatives and numerous ancestors before them, among them southerner Edward Mitchell (1760-1837) who as a teenager fought in the Revolutionary War under General George Washington; sired ten children; and became a reverend in the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1790 he did something highly unusual for a southern man of his time and his position. Influenced by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in England, he freed his slaves. Wesley had condemned the slave trade and slave ownership in his 1774 pamphlet Thoughts Upon Slavery. Mitchell soon made another unusual move, uprooting his family from their comfortable and established life in the south to emigrate to the Illinois Territory. Here, land was cheap and slavery was forbidden. He and his family would begin a new chapter here. 

This last year, my father wrote a memoir for his grandchildren, three of whom would turn 12 in 2016 and were in the sixth grade. The memoir was a closely observed and remembered account of his own sixth grade year, spent in Clayton, MO, more than 60 years earlier, in 1954. My Dad can remember (better than I can remember) the names of nearly of all his classmates along with those of all of his K-8 teachers. Dad wrote of the people around him, but also of the buildings in town - the Woolworth’s, the 5 & 10, the library, the outdoor pool, his school, the Record Bar (where you could listen to 45’s) and the car dealerships. He wrote of the freedom of riding his bike all around town, of devotedly following the St. Louis Cardinals, of hard-fought intramural sports after school, of a class project crafting marionettes for use in a puppet-show version of a dramatic episode in Homer’s Odyssey (when Odysseus and his troops are stuck in Polyphemus’ cave,) and of being skinny and small for his age. 

1954 was a historically interesting time. In May of 1954, at the end of my father’s fifth-grade school year, the Supreme Court delivered the Brown v. Board of Education decision. By sixth grade, it was unconstitutional for towns like Clayton to operate separate public schools for white children and black children. The K-8 Attucks School in Clayton for black students had offered a very different experience for students than had the K-8 school my father attended, the Maryland School. While my father had enjoyed learning in a large, well-equipped school, the students at Attucks School experienced far more crowded conditions. It was reportedly nearly a one-room schoolhouse, crammed with all nine grades worth of students, learning under one teacher. Attucks School was demolished after the Supreme Court’s ruling. 

My mother turned her primary story focus to her father and captured in text not only the events that shaped his life, but his voice and take on the world. My grandfather, John Mallory Lockhart, lived to be 101, actually almost 102. In his later years, my mother (who thrived in corporate communications in her professional life) helped him create a series of memoirs about his life, each one tackling a period in his long and dense life. She helped him share the details of his outdoorsy childhood growing up in the small town of Mellen, Wisconsin; his management position at TWA, where he worked closely with the quirkily brilliant Howard Hughes; his deeply relished marriage with my dynamic grandmother, who died too early and was acutely missed; his philosophy on investing. He had so much to share, and the time he spent with my mother crafting those memoirs ensured that his life experiences and inner workings would continue to live among his descendants.

My mother also edited the memoir of my Nana, my great grandmother Anne Gunn Wood. She drew upon a stack of notes, ones handwritten on my great grandfather's personal stationary and found in Nana's apartment after her death at the age of 103. Nana had begun to write about her life several years earlier at the age of 98. My grandmother had apparently been involved in helping her. Her notes and suggestions were on the margins. Her help though ended after she died first at the age of 76. To complete the memoir, my mother created order, logic, and structure from the pages, some numbered, some not. She included material from a videotaped interview done by my mother and her two brothers with my Nana when she was 101. And she added historical and genealogical information for clarity and further explanation of my Nana's Scottish roots. 

Not everyone, though, has a daughter or son who can tackle such a project, or the time, inclination, or conviction to take on the full process solo. Some people need help, and that’s the vision behind Silverplume Press. The idea is to get you to the finish line, to get this story of yours that’s been slowly taking shape down on paper, to pin it down before it escapes, before time wears it away, before details begin to slip. It could be that you have the details, pinned down and all, but are stymied by how to arrange and shape them into a story. Or perhaps you have the kernel of an idea about what sort of story you might want to tell, or a still unfolding story not yet played out.

Conversation is the start of how we get beyond the block. Silverplume is about fruitful conversation, about a mining of small moments. Dialogue between two people can yield unexpected findings and transport you to a place you might not get on your own. In capturing your own story, it can be tremendously helpful to be asked questions: questions you may not have considered; questions that beget follow-up questions; questions that get to the heart of what you most want to share. From there, the possibilities open wide. What will your story be?

By Jenny Griffin
www.silverplumepress.com
 

SOURCES

Martin, MaryJoy, “Suicide Legends, Homicide Rumors; The Griffin Mystery”, Spes in Deo Publications, Montrose, Colorado, 1986. 8.

Denver Public Library Digital Collections (photos and more)

The George Rowe Museum Collection (photos and more)

Silver Plume town website - http://www.townofsilverplume.org/p/home-town-of-silver-plume-colorado.html

The  Clear Creek Tourism Bureau

Wikipedia

Dustin Griffin's essays on Edward Mitchell (1760-1837), Edward Mitchell West (1814-1887), Isabel Rawn Perry (1885-1936), and Griffin's own 6th Grade Memoir. 

John Mallery Lockhart's memoirs: Howard Hughes and the Early Days of TWA - An Eyewitness Account; Tending to Business: The Next 20 Years; Uncle George; A Primer on Investing by a Self-Taught Economist; Investing in an Inflationary Market

Anne Gunn Wood's memoir - Remembering our Family