Isabella L. (Isabella Lucy) Bird.

A lady's life in the Rocky Mountains online

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Works by the same Author.


With Illustrations, Crown 8w. 7s. Qd.


Post Svo.



With, Illustrations. Svo. In the Press.









[The Right of Translation is reserved,]


Printed by R. & R. CLARK, Edinburgh.









THESE letters, as their style sufficiently indicates, were
written without the remotest idea of publication. They
appeared last year in the Leisure Hour at the request of
its editor, and were so favourably received that I ven-
ture to present them to the public in a separate form, as
a record of very interesting travelling experiences, and
of a phase of pioneer life which is rapidly passing away.

I. L. B.


October 1879.



Lake Tahoe Morning in San Francisco Dust A Pacific mail
train Digger Indians Cape Horn A mountain hotel A
pioneer A Truckee livery stable A mountain stream Find-
ing a bear Tahoe .... Pages 1-16


A lady's " get-up "Grizzly bears The "Gem of the Sierras"
A tragic tale A carnival of colour . . 17-24


A Temple of Morpheus Utah A "God-forgotten" town A
distressed couple Dog villages A temperance colony A
Colorado inn The bug pest Fort Collins . 25-39


A plague of flies A melancholy charioteer The Foot Hills A
mountain boarding-house A dull life " Being agreeable "
Climate of Colorado Soroche and snakes . . 40-48


A dateless day " Those hands of yours "A Puritan Persevering
shiftlessness The house-mother Family worship A grim
Sunday A "thick-skulled Englishman" A morning call
Another atmosphere The Great Lone Land " 111 found " A
log camp Bad footing for horses Accidents Disappoint-
ment 49-72



A bronco mare An accident Wonderland A sad story The
children of the Territories Hard greed Halcyon hours
Smartness Old-fashioned prejudices The Chicago colony
Good luck Three notes of admiration A good horse The
St. Vrain The Eocky Mountains at last " Mountain Jim "-
A death hug Estes Park . . . Pages 73-96


Personality of Long's Peak "Mountain Jim " Lake of the Lilies
A silent forest The camping ground " Ring " A lady's
bower Dawn and sunrise A glorious view Links of
diamonds The ascent of the Peak The " Dog's Lift "Suffer-
ing from thirst The descent The bivouac . 97-118


Estes Park Big game "Parks" in Colorado Magnificent
scenery Flowers and pines An awful road Our log cabin
Griffith Evans A miniature world Our topics A night
alarm A skunk Morning glories Daily routine The panic
" Wait for the waggon " A musical evening . 119-142


"Please ma'ams." A desperado A cattle hunt The muster
A mad cow A snow-storm Snowed up Birdie The Plains
A prairie schooner Denver A find Plum Creek " Being
agreeable" Snowbound The grey mare . 143-166


A white world Bad travelling A millionaire's home Pleasant
Park Perry's Park Stock raising A cattle king The
Arkansas Divide Birdie's sagacity Luxury Monument
Park Deference to prejudice A death scene The Manitou


A loose shoe The Ute Pass Bergen's Park A settler's home
Hayden's Divide Sharp criticism Speaking the truth

Pages 167-192


Tarryall Creek The Ked Range Excelsior Unfortunate pedlars
Snow and heat A bison calf Deep drifts South Park The
Great Divide Comanche Bill Difficulties Hall's Gulch A
Lord Dundreary Ridiculous fears . . 193-207


Deer Valley Lynch law Vigilance Committees The Silver
Spruce Taste and abstinence The Whisky Fiend Smartness
Turkey Creek Canyon The Indian Problem Public rascality
Friendly meetings The way to the Golden City A rising
settlement Clear Creek Canyon Staging Swearing A
mountain town . . . . 208-223


The blight of mining Green Lake Golden City Benighted
Vertigo Boulder Canyon Financial straits A hard ride
The last cent A bachelor's home " Mountain Jim " A sur-
prise A night arrival Making the best of it Scanty
fare ...... 224-238


A dismal ride A desperado's tale "Lost! Lost! Lost!"
Winter glories Solitude Hard times Intense cold A pack
of wolves The beaver dams Ghastly scenes Venison steaks
Our evenings . . . . . * 239-252


A whisky slave The pleasures of monotony The mountain lion
"Another mouth to feed" A tiresome boy An outcast


Thanksgiving Day The new-comer A literary humbug
Milking a dry cow Trout-fishing A snow-storm A desper-
ado's den .... Pages 253-270


A harmonious home Intense cold A purple sun A grim jest
A perilous ride Frozen eyelids Longmount The pathless
prairie Hardships of emigrant life A trapper's advice The
Little Thompson Evans and "Jim" . . 271-284


Woman's Mission The last morning Crossing the St. Vrain
Miller The St. Vrain again Crossing the prairie "Jim's"
dream " Keeping strangers " The inn -kitchen A reputed
child-eater Notoriety A quiet dance " Jim's " resolve The
frost-fall An unfortunate introduction . . 285-296


Estes Park . . <' . . . Frontispiece.

Bad footing for horses . . . . To face page 67

Grand Crater . . . . . 101

Lava beds, Long's Peak ... , , . ^ 107

My home in the Eocky Mountains . ., ,, ,, 120

The Great Divide . -. ',. . ,, ,,203

An Indian Camp > . . . ,, 215


Lake Tahoe Morning in San Francisco Dust A Pacific Mail-
TrainDigger Indians Cape Horn A Mountain Hotel A
Pioneer A Truckee Livery Stable A Mountain Stream
Finding a Bear Tahoe.

TAHOE, September 2.
I HAVE found a dream of beauty at which one might
look all one's life and sigh. Not lovable, like the
Sandwich Islands, but beautiful in its own way!
A strictly North American beauty snow-splotched
mountains, huge pines, red- woods, sugar pines, silver
spruce ; a crystalline atmosphere, waves of the richest
colour ; and a pine-hung lake which mirrors all beauty
on its surface. Lake Tahoe is before me, a sheet of
water twenty-two miles long by ten broad, and in
some places 1700 feet deep. It lies at a height of 6000
feet, and the snow-crowned summits which wall it in
are from 8000 to 11,000 feet in altitude. The air is
keen and elastic. There is no sound but the distant
and slightly musical ring of the lumberer's axe.

It is a weariness to go back, even in thought, to
the clang of San Francisco, which I left in its cold
morning fog early yesterday, driving to the Oakland



ferry through streets with side-walks heaped with
thousands of cantaloupe and water-melons, tomatoes,
cucumbers, squashes, pears, grapes, peaches, apricots,
all of startling size as compared with any I ever
saw before. Other streets were piled with sacks of
flour, left out all night, owing to the security from
rain at this season. I pass hastily over the early part
of the journey, the crossing the bay in a fog as chill
as November, the number of " lunch baskets," which
gave the car the look of conveying a great picnic
party, the last view of the Pacific, on which I had
looked for nearly a year, the fierce sunshine and
brilliant sky inland, the look of long rainlessness,
which one may not call drought, the valleys with
sides crimson with the poison oak, the dusty vine-
yards, with great purple clusters thick among the
leaves, and between the vines great dusty melons
lying on the dusty earth. From off the boundless
harvest-fields the grain was carried in June, and it
is now stacked in sacks along the track, awaiting
freightage. California is a " land flowing with milk
and honey." The barns are bursting with fulness.
In the dusty orchards the apple and pear branches
are supported, that they may not break down under
the weight of fruit ; melons, tomatoes, and squashes
of gigantic size lie almost unheeded on the ground ;
fat cattle, gorged almost to repletion, shade them-
selves under the oaks; superb "red" horses shine,



not with grooming, but with condition ; and thriving
farms everywhere show on what a solid basis the
prosperity of the " Golden State " is founded. Very
uninviting, however rich, was the blazing Sacramento
Valley, and very repulsive the city of Sacramento,
which, at a distance of 125 miles from the Pacific,
has an elevation of only thirty feet. The mercury
stood at 103 in the shade, and the fine white dust
was stifling.

In the late afternoon we began the ascent of the
Sierras, whose saw-like points had been in sight for
many miles. The dusty fertility was all left behind,
the country became rocky and gravelly, and deeply
scored by streams bearing the muddy wash of the
mountain gold-mines down to the .muddier Sacra-
mento. There were long broken ridges and deep
ravines, the ridges becoming longer, the ravines
deeper, the pines thicker and larger, as we ascended
into a cool atmosphere of exquisite purity, and before
six P.M. the last traces of cultivation and the last
hardwood trees were left behind.

At Colfax, a station at a height of 2400 feet, I got
out and walked the length of the train. First came
two great gaudy engines, the Grizzly Bear and the
White Fox, with their respective tenders loaded with
logs of wood, the engines with great, solitary, reflecting
lamps in front above the cow-guards, a quantity of
polished brass-work, comfortable glass houses, and


well-stuffed seats for the engine-drivers. The engines
and tenders were succeeded by a baggage-car, a mail-
car, and Wells, Fargo, and Co.'s express-car, the latter
loaded with bullion and valuable parcels, and in
charge of two " express agents." Each of these cars
is forty-five feet long. Then came two cars loaded
with peaches and grapes; then two "silver palace"
cars, each sixty feet long ; then a smoking-car, at that
time occupied mainly by Chinamen ; and then five
ordinary passenger-cars, with platforms like all the
others, making altogether a train about 700 feet in
length. The platforms of the four front cars were
clustered over with Digger Indians, with their squaws,
children, and gear. They are perfect savages, with-
out any aptitude for even aboriginal civilisation, and
are altogether the most degraded of the ill-fated
tribes which are dying out before the white races.
They were all very diminutive, five feet one inch
being, I should think, about the average height, with
flat noses, wide mouths, and black hair, cut straight
above the eyes and hanging lank and long at the
back and sides. The squaws wore their hair thickly
plastered with pitch, and a broad band of the same
across their noses and cheeks. They carried their
infants on their backs, strapped to boards. The
clothing of both sexes was a ragged, dirty combina-
tion of coarse woollen cloth and hide, the moccasins
being unornamented. They were all hideous and


filthy, and swarming with vermin. The men carried
short bows and arrows, one of them, who appeared to
be the chief, having a lynx's skin for a quiver. A
few had fishing-tackle, but the bystanders said that
they lived almost entirely upon grasshoppers. They
were a most impressive incongruity in the midst of
the tokens of an omnipotent civilisation.

The light of the sinking sun from that time glori-
fied the Sierras, and as the dew fell, aromatic odours
made the still air sweet. On a single track, some-
times carried on a narrow ledge excavated from the
mountain side by men lowered from the top in
baskets, overhanging ravines from 2000 to 3000 feet
deep, the monster train snaked its way upwards,
stopping sometimes in front of a few frame houses,
at others where nothing was to be seen but a log
cabin with a few Chinamen hanging about it, but
where trails on the sides of the ravines pointed to a
gold country above and below. So sharp and frequent
are the curves on some parts of the ascent, that on
looking out of the window one could seldom see more
than a part of the train at once. At Cape Horn,
where the track curves round the ledge of a precipice
2500 feet in depth, it is correct to be frightened, and
a fashion of holding the breath and shutting the eyes
prevails, but my fears were reserved for the crossing of
a trestle-bridge over a very deep chasm, which is itself
approached by a sharp curve. This bridge appeared


to be overlapped by the cars so as to produce the
effect of looking down directly into a wild gulch, with
a torrent raging along it at an immense depth below.
Shivering in the keen, frosty air near the summit-
pass of the Sierras, we entered the " snow-sheds,"
wooden galleries, which for about fifty miles shut out
all the splendid views of the region, as given in
dioramas, not even allowing a glimpse of " the Gem
of the Sierras," the lovely Donner Lake. One of
these sheds is twenty-seven miles long. In a few
hours the mercury had fallen from 103 to 29, and
we had ascended 6987 feet in 105 miles ! After
passing through the sheds, we had several grand
views of a pine-forest on fire before reaching Truckee
at 11 P.M., having travelled 258 miles. Truckee, the
centre of the "lumbering region" of the Sierras, is'
usually spoken of as " a rough mountain town," and
Mr. W. had told me that all the roughs of the district
congregated there, that there were nightly pistol
affrays in bar-rooms, etc., but as he admitted that a
lady was sure of respect, and Mr. G. strongly advised
me to stay and see the lakes, I got out, much dazed,
and very stupid with sleep, envying the people in the
sleeping-car, who were already unconscious on their
luxurious couches. The cars drew up in a street
if street that could be called which was only a wide,
cleared space, intersected by rails, with here and there
a stump, and great piles of sawn logs bulking big in


the moonlight, and a number of irregular clap-board,
steep-roofed houses, many of them with open fronts,
glaring with light and crowded with men. We had
pulled up at the door of a rough Western hotel, with
a partially open front, being a bar-room crowded with
men drinking and smoking, and the space between it
and the cars was a moving mass of loafers and pass-
engers. On the tracks, engines, tolling heavy bells,
were mightily moving, the glare from their cyclopean
eyes dulling the light of a forest which was burning
fitfully on a mountain side ; and on open spaces great
fires of pine-logs were burning cheerily, with groups
of men round them. A band was playing noisily,
and the unholy sound of tom-toms was not far off.
Mountains the sierras of many a fireside dream
seemed to wall in the town, and great pines stood
out, sharp and clear cut, against a sky in which a
moon and stars were shining frostily.

It was a sharp frost at that great height, and when
an "irrepressible nigger," who seemed to represent
the hotel establishment, deposited me and my carpet-
bag in a room which answered for " the parlour," I
was glad to find some remains of pine knots still
alight in the stove. A man came in and said that
when the cars were gone he would try to get me a
room, but they were so full that it would be a very
poor one. The crowd was solely masculine. It was
then 11.30 P.M., and I had not had a meal since 6


A.M. ; but when I asked hopefully for a hot supper,
with tea, I was told that no supper could be got at
that hour ; but in half an hour the same man returned
with a small cup of cold, weak tea, and a small slice
of bread, which looked as if it had been much handled.
I asked the negro factotum about the hire of
horses, and presently a man came in from the bar
who, he said, could supply my needs. This man, the
very type of a western pioneer, bowed, threw himself
into a rocking-chair, drew a spittoon beside him, cut
a fresh quid of tobacco, began to chew energetically,
and put his feet, cased in miry high boots, into which
his trousers were tucked, on the top of the stove.
He said he had horses which would both " lope "
and trot, that some ladies preferred the Mexican
saddle, that I could ride alone in perfect safety ; and
after a route had been devised, I hired a horse for
two days. This man wore a pioneer's badge as one
of the earliest settlers of California, but he had
moved on as one place after another had become
too civilised for him, " but nothing," he added, " was
likely to change much in Truckee." I was after-
wards told that the usual regular hours of sleep are
not observed there. The accommodation is too limited
for the population of 2000, 1 which is masculine mainly,
and is liable to frequent temporary additions, and
beds are occupied continuously, though by different
1 Nelson's Guide to the Central Pacific Railroad.


occupants, throughout the greater part of the twenty-
four hours. Consequently I found the bed and room
allotted to me quite tumbled-looking. Men's coats
and sticks were hanging up, miry boots were littered
about, and a rifle was in one corner. There was no
window to the outer air, but I slept soundly, being
only once awoke by an increase of the same din in
which I had fallen asleep, varied by three pistol-
shots fired in rapid succession.

This morning Truckee wgre a totally different
aspect. The crowds of the night before had dis-
appeared. There were heaps of ashes where the fires
had been. A sleepy German waiter seemed the only
person about the premises, the open drinking-saloons
were nearly empty, and only a few sleepy-looking
loafers hung about in what is called the street. It
might have been Sunday; but they say that it
brings a great accession of throng and jollity. Pub-
lic worship has died out at present ; work is discon-
tinued on Sunday, but the day is given up to pleasure.
Putting a minimum of indispensables into a bag, and
slipping on my Hawaiian riding-dress over a silk
skirt, and a dust-cloak over all, I stealthily crossed
the plaza to the livery-stable, the largest building in
Truckee, where twelve fine horses were stabled in
stalls on each side of a broad drive. My friend of
the evening before showed me his " rig," three velvet-
covered side-saddles almost without horns. Some


ladies, lie said, used the horn of the Mexican saddle,
but none " in this part " rode cavalier fashion. I felt
abashed. I could not ride any distance in the con-
ventional mode, and was just going to give up this
splendid " ravage," when the man said, " Eide your
own fashion; here, at Truckee, if anywhere in the
world, people can do as they like." Blissful Truckee !
In no time a large grey horse was " rigged out " in a
handsome silver-bossed Mexican saddle, with orna-
mental leather tassels hanging from the stirrup-
guards, and a housing of black bear's-skin. I
strapped my silk skirt on the saddle, deposited my
cloak in the corn-bin, and was safely on the horse's
back before his owner had time to devise any way
of mounting me. Neither he nor any of the loafers
who had assembled showed the slightest sign of
astonishment, but all were as respectful as possible.

Once on horseback my embarrassment disap-
peared, and I rode through Truckee, whose irregular,
steep-roofed houses and shanties, set down in a
clearing, and surrounded closely by mountain and
forest, looked like a temporary encampment, passed
under the Pacific Eailroad, and then for twelve miles
followed the windings of the Truckee river, a clear,
rushing, mountain stream, in which immense pine
logs had gone aground not to be floated off till the
next freshet, a loud-tongued, rollicking stream of Ice-
cold water, on whose banks no ferns or trailers hang,


and which leaves no greenness along its turbulent
progress. All was bright with that brilliancy of sky
and atmosphere, that blaze of sunshine and universal
glitter, which I never saw till I came to California,
combined with an elasticity in the air which removes
all lassitude, and gives one spirit enough for any-
thing. On either side of the Truckee great sierras
rose like walls, castellated, embattled, rifted, skirted
and crowned with pines of enormous size, the walls
now and then breaking apart to show some snow-
slashed peak rising into a heaven of intense, un-
clouded, sunny blue. At this altitude of 6000 feet
one must learn to be content with varieties of coni-
ferce, for, except for aspens, which spring up in some
places where the pines have been cleared away, and
for cotton-woods, which at a lower level fringe the
streams, there is nothing but the bear cherry, the
raspberry, the gooseberry, the wild grape, and the
wild currant. None of these grew near the Truckee,
but I feasted my eyes on pines l which, though not so
large as the Wellingtonia of the Yosemite, are really
gigantic, attaining a height of 250 feet, their huge
stems, the warm red of cedar wood, rising straight
and branchless for a third of their height, their
diameter from seven to fifteen feet, their shape
that of a larch, but with the needles long and dark,
and cones a foot long. Pines cleft the sky; they

1 Pinus Lawibertiana.


were massed wherever level ground occurred ; they
stood over the Truckee at right angles, or lay across
it in prostrate grandeur. Their stumps and carcasses
were everywhere ; and smooth " shoots " on the
sierras marked where they were shot down as " felled
timber," to be floated off by the river. To them this
wild region owes its scattered population, and the
sharp ring of the lumberer's axe mingles with the
cries of wild beasts and the roar of mountain torrents.
The track is a soft, natural, waggon road, very
pleasant to ride on. The horse was much too big for
me, and had plans of his own ; but now and then,
where the ground admitted of it, I tried his heavy
" lope " with much amusement. I met nobody, and
passed nothing on the road but a freight waggon,
drawn by twenty-two oxen, guided by three fine-
looking young men, who had some difficulty in
making room for me to pass their awkward convoy.
After I had ridden about ten miles the road went up
a steep hill in the forest, turned abruptly, and through
the blue gloom of the great pines which rose from
the ravine in which the river was then hid, came
glimpses of two mountains, about 11,000 feet in
height, whose bald grey summits were crowned with
pure snow. It was one of those glorious surprises in
scenery which make one feel as if one must bow
down and worship. The forest was thick, and had
an undergrowth of dwarf spruce and brambles, but


as the horse had become fidgety and " scary " on the
track, I turned off in the idea of taking a short cut,
and was sitting carelessly, shortening my stirrup,
when a great, dark, hairy beast rose, crashing and
snorting, out of the tangle just in front of me. I had
only a glimpse of him, and thought that my imagina-
tion had magnified a wild boar, but it was a bear.
The horse snorted and plunged violently, as if he
would go down to the river, and then turned, still
plunging, up a steep bank, when, finding that I must
come off, I threw myself off on the right side, where
the ground rose considerably, so that I had not far
to fall. I got up covered with dust, but neither
shaken nor bruised. It was truly grotesque and
humiliating. The bear ran in one direction, and the
horse in another. I hurried after the latter, and
twice he stopped till I was close to him, then turned
round and cantered away. After walking about
a mile in deep dust, I picked up first the saddle-
blanket and next my bag, and soon came upon the
horse, standing facing me, and shaking all over. I
thought I should catch him then, but when I went
up to him he turned round, threw up his heels seve-
ral times, rushed off the track, galloped in circles,
bucking, kicking, and plunging for some time, and
then throwing up his heels as an act of final defiance,
went off at full speed in the direction of Truckee,
with the saddle over his shoulders and the great

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Online LibraryIsabella L. (Isabella Lucy) BirdA lady's life in the Rocky Mountains → online text (page 1 of 21)