Tim Willoughby: The tale of an acrobatic rat and a miner’s misplaced blame
Legends & Legacies
Evidence of an overnight visitor to my kitchen, a nibbled banana and some droppings kicked off a week of traps, snaps and dead rats. In some cities, such as New York, rodents outnumber people. But for most of us, rat encounters occur infrequently. As I disposed of the small corpse with a long hairless tail, I remembered a different kind of rat tale.
Mines attracted rats and Comstock miners maintained a complex relationship with them. The men did not like to compete with rats for their underground meals. But they appreciated a rat behavior that functioned as a warning signal. Coal miners used to carry caged canaries underground because they were more sensitive to carbon monoxide than humans. A dead bird signaled the presence of the poisonous gas. Similarly, Comstock miners watched for rats that scurried about, a behavior that portends a cave-in. The rodents seemed to sense mass movement before the miners did.
Despite rats’ warning behavior underground, miners maintained a love-hate relationship with the creatures that lived at ground level. One of the more famous stories concerned the introduction of cats in Leadville to kill and eat the rats. The cats did their job so well that feral cats overran the city. Leadville tried to counter the story with an article published in mining camp newspapers. The article said the town’s 10,200-foot elevation “was fatal” to both cats and rats.
Altitude determines the kind of rat inhabitants that live in an area. The bushy-tailed wood rat prefers higher elevation forests. People are not as likely to scorn them because they resemble squirrels. Both grow to be about the same size, perk up cute round ears on the front end and flash bushy tails at the other end.
Wood rats do not hibernate, so they must enjoy a warm miner’s cabin to nose about in during winter. Or they may prefer to den within a mine tunnel where they would never freeze. Most people do not see these nocturnal beasties, yet hear them scampering in the dark.
If a wood rat — also known as a pack rat — comes across a glittering object in its path, it will exchange whatever it is carrying for shinier treasure. This behavior earned it a third common name: trade rat. Many miners may have felt empathy for the rats. At some point in their lives, they had dropped everything to pursue shiny silver.
In the 1920s my father lived at a Midnight Mine cabin with three other miners. One weekend, two of the men went to town and left an itinerant miner with my father. Late in the evening the two of them were reading. Just before he turned out the light the other miner complained, “Damn rat in here again!”
My father had lived around the creatures for a long time and rather liked them. Others feared bubonic plague and killed the potential carriers. But my father would leave a snack for them.
In the morning the other miner said, “Rat took my watch — it was right on this chair by my bed and so help me I’m gonna blast him and soon.”
Father was well aware that pack rats would squirrel away any metal objects. The habit had led to many entertaining stories. And he held a different vantage point in the cabin. He was not fond of his cabin mate, but he maintained his legendary sense of humor.
“Yes, I expect you will do that, all right,” Father said, “but it does seem a pity. This is an unusual rat. You know this rat is an acrobatic rat.”
“What do you mean?” the other miner replied with sarcasm.
Pointing, my father said, “He had to be acrobatic to take your watch and fob from your chair and hang it up on that nail on the cabin wall.”
The other miner saw his mistake, pocketed his timepiece and — without another word — left the cabin. Father said at times he respected wood rats more than men.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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