Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Lined up single file, nose to tail, the horses stood exhausted in the narrow trench, thankful for the respite, while the men accompanying them spread out among some large boulders close beside the avalanche path. The snow along the sides of the constricted passage towered over the horses’ heads, and yet there were 2 or 3 feet of the soft stuff under their legs, creating a nightmare of hurried escape in the mountains 9 miles east of Aspen.

Billed as one of the worst in Colorado history, the 1899 storm had raged intermittently for weeks at the Hunter’s Pass gold mine and at the now-ghost town of Independence, putting a stop to all mining operations and preventing supplies from reaching the intrepid miners. Little did the inhabitants know, but this latest January storm of nine days was wreaking almost perfect havoc on their little mining town.

In spite of the heavy snows and incessant, howling winds, the tiny town of Independence had not seen a snowslide all winter, not until the afternoon of Jan. 30, 1899. A quiet, unobtrusive release opposite the town slid harmlessly to the edge of civilization without causing much consternation. Then, about 9 o’clock that night, a blast of snow came down a draw opposite the conglomeration of log structures, the sheer size of it obliterating a large barn that housed George Frost’s freight teams. Buried under heavy snow, beams, freight wagons and other accouterment of the trade, the horses were eventually extricated, largely unscathed.

A small cabin next to the stable was buried under about 10 feet of snow. Quick attention to the matter by other residents allowed the occupants to be successfully dug out from the still-standing structure, although it was said they were a little “scairt.” Most of the residents did not hear the slide coming and were caught off guard, although no one was injured or killed. One cabin was totally demolished, but its tenant was visiting down the street.

With unstable snow all around, at a depth never before seen, with 300 cords of wood essential for heat buried under tons of snow from a third avalanche and supplies running out, it was decided the best course of action would be to move the horses (their feed buried under the debris, as well) down the pass to Aspen. Before gasoline power, horses and mules were major transportation links between civilization and the frontier, and to save the horses, so rudely put out of a home, was a noble gesture.

At least that was the excuse, as a force of nearly 100 men volunteered to dig a trench down the mountain to extricate the horses, a reasonable way to escape the impending doom at Independence. Many men were on homemade skis. Fearing a return of the storm and instead of waiting for the snow on the bottom of the trench to freeze overnight, the caravan plunged forward early on Feb. 2, the soft snow underneath causing the horses to struggle and founder, the men assisting as best they could.

About midnight, the miners were exhausted and hungry, the horses possibly worse off, and just at the edge of what they considered to be the last avalanche path, the men took a “lunch” break, letting the horses regenerate as well, before a last-ditch effort to reach a safe overnight stop.

The 16 horses waited quietly, trusting their fate while the men rested behind in the shelter of some rocks when a loud “boom” rocked the clear night air. Scrambling for safety, the men managed to dodge the brunt of the avalanche, although some were buried in peripheral loose snow. The horses, about 20 feet in front of the men, were trapped forcefully in the fast-moving flurry, crushed by its weight. Several horses were found later on top of the debris, crushed to death by the force of the rumbling snow. Only two horses survived, and one of those had to be put down after suffering serious injuries. The buried men were quickly dug out, and the entourage limped safely toward Aspen.

If there were any old-timers left, they’d still be talking about it.

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