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‘Gleams of Underground’

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
University of Missouri School of LawBig Bill Haywood, a union leader in the Colorado Labor Wars of 1907, has a role in the storytelling poem, "Gleams of Underground."
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There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold.

My father often recited these lines from “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” It was not until I was an adult that I understood why it was his favorite poem. Robert Service, the author, published it in 1907 and it was popular in Aspen at the time my father was a teenager. The verses were based on Service’s experiences during the Yukon Gold Rush.

As a teenager, my father spent hours listening to tales of prospecting told by the older miners who had journeyed to the Yukon. He said Jack Atkinson, who was one of the founders of Ashcroft and an early partner in the Little Annie Mine, told the best stories. Atkinson, like many early residents of Aspen, traveled from one gold-mining bonanza to the next, filing claims. From Aspen they ventured to Cripple Creek, then on to Montana, Idaho and Nevada. The Yukon was one of the last big “rushes.”

Canadian children learn “The Cremation of Sam McGee” just as American children study Jack London’s ” The Call of The Wild.” Each story expresses the challenges of survival in northern latitudes. There was more emphasis on poetry in my father’s and grandfather’s time and, while they mastered the art of storytelling, they preferred verse to prose in their writings. They composed many four-line verses in which second lines rhymed with the fourth.

A poem, “Gleams of Underground” by Alexander Chisholm, fits the mode of Service and his devotees and is as close as Aspen comes to an epic about its past. The poem is a memoir of 1890 to 1920 with the story split between a gold camp, Bromley, in Lackawanna Gulch on the back side of Independence Pass, and the coal mines of Newcastle.

In Aspen’s mines pure silver glowed,

Of silver Aspen was the queen,

Each day upon the Aspen road

Long lines of freighters’ teams were seen.

Those lines referred to an early road to Aspen that continued up Hunter Creek, down into Lackawanna Gulch, and on to Leadville. The mines produced minerals on and off for 40 years. There is little left to see of those old workings because the Midnight Mine salvaged the equipment as it expanded its operations in the 1930s.

The poem includes extensive passages that describe the back side of Independence and mining operations.

Small creeks came gushing down the hills

In limpid, rippling sparkling flows,

Each one fed by a hundred rills

That trickled from the melting snows

The 2,650 verses detail the development of the coal mines around South Canyon and Newcastle. The poetic descriptions of underground gas explosions, fires and cave-ins develop a reader’s understanding of turn-of-the-century coal mining. A side story features union battles focusing on the organizer Big Bill Haywood. Chisholm sides with the mine owners against the union in his telling.

The plot revolves around a love story with clandestine underground meetings. A mine owner’s daughter is the prize, but her mother resists a working-class miner for her daughter’s future.

They sang its praises long and loud

Around the world its fame still rings

A thousand bathers would not crowd

The spacious pool at Glenwood Springs

Local color and history hold the reader’s interest: railroads, ephemeral towns, mining folklore and connections to the Ute Indians.

“Gleams of Underground” was published in 1967. Although the publisher no longer exists, many copies still circulate in local libraries and antiquarian bookstores. History hounds will find a worthwhile read, not for accuracy, but for the writing style. Chisholm, my father declared, was a real turn-of-the-century homegrown author.


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