IMOGENE PASS – Colorado tourism promoters extol our scenery, our fall colors, and our snow-capped peaks, but nobody mentions our historic machine gun nest above 13,000 feet. At the top of Imogene Pass between Telluride and Ouray, a machine gun emplacement and a small wooden fort survive as silent testimony to workers’ struggles and as a legacy to labor.
A century ago millions were made in the San Juan Mountains in gold and silver mines, but not by miners. The early days of pick and pan prospecting had given way to deep shaft industrial mining, and miners traded their lungs and brawn for a few dollars a day to work under increasingly dangerous conditions. As more miners and mill workers died from cave-ins, explosions from dangerous gases, and silicosis in their lungs, they demanded better working conditions and something we take for granted – the eight-hour workday.
Fierce competition between capitalist mine owners and immigrant mine workers resulted in increasing tension and calls for unionization. In Telluride in 1903 the mine workers went on strike and Gov. James Peabody, in collusion with the wealthy mine owners, called out the Colorado National Guard.
Montrose resident MaryJoy Martin has chronicled the rise of the Western Federation of Miners and its hero Vincent St. John in her book The Corpse on Boomerang Road, which may become a major motion picture (now under option). She writes vividly of Bulkeley Wells, a captain in the Colorado National Guard who took command of Troop A, First Squadron Cavalry, comprising cowboys, Wells’ employees at the Smuggler-Union Mining Co., and a few union-hating locals.
Martin insists that in our tourist-based economy of today we not forget the labor struggles of the past. So I hiked with her to the top of Imogene Pass to see physical proof of labor strife from 115 years ago.
In her book, Martin writes that Wells declared martial law in Telluride with “mass deportations on special trains, false criminal charges, beatings, threats, and arrests without due process. No one could leave the county without official permission.” As illegally deported miners trickled back into Telluride over Imogene Pass, National Guardsmen under Wells’ command built a wooden sentry post or redoubt complete with a small stove, flagpole, and a stone sniper or machine gun nest with a Colt rapid-fire machine gun. He named it Fort Peabody after the governor. It’s still there today.
The wood has weathered considerably in the high altitude winds and shifting stone walls have shrunk the sentry post, but probably 60 percent of the original historic material exists. When Martin and I climbed into the tiny sleeping quarters we could see remnants of the metal heating stove, and names of National Guard troopers carved with 1904 dates on the back wall. She wrote the nomination to have Fort Peabody listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Approved by the National Park Service, the site represents labor history in the West, and next summer the U.S. Forest Service and San Miguel and Ouray Counties will cooperate on stabilizing Fort Peabody and interpreting its vivid history.
Started in November 1903, workers completed the post in the freezing weather of February 1904. Historical archaeologist Jon Horn explains, “Even after the Telluride strike was finished in 1904, Wells continued to station his own men at the post as late as 1908 to deter the flow of union sympathizers into the region. Fort Peabody has been ravaged by the elements for over 100 years, but remains as the only post in Colorado built specifically to control union activists.”
Linda Luther-Broderick, Open Space and Recreation Coordinator for San Miguel County, notes that “the repair-in-place would use as much existing material as possible. Work will be done to Secretary of Interior Standards and the project will include some re-building of the walls of the gun battery and replicating dry laid methods on existing stone walls.” The project excites Harry Bruell of the Southwest Conservation Corps in Durango, which runs young crews that do conservation work on public lands. Bruell states, “Fort Peabody is an amazing slice of Southwest Colorado’s unique and fascinating history. The Southwest Conservation Corps is interested in participating in the project both for the exciting historic preservation work as well as the intriguing educational opportunities that it would offer the crew.” Bruell adds, “This is a piece of history that most people do not know about, but it tells an important story about the history of the region and fabric of our mountain communities.” Though bent, even the old metal flag post may still be there.
I’ve stood in the sentry post and looked out across the San Juan Mountains and thought about the National Guardsmen and the long, star-filled nights at 13,365 feet. In the cold wind I added a cap and gloves and walked down to the sniper post or machine-gun nest, which is just a hole really, surrounded by stacked stones carved out of a north-facing loose scree slope. The sentry post commands a 180-degree view of Imogene Pass and the dirt road going east to Ouray or west to Telluride. As I stood in the hole, Jeeps full of tourists traveled both ways below me providing a perfect angle of fire for an automatic weapon.
Martin believes, “Labor history has been totally ignored in the United States and it’s a dramatic history in Colorado. People should know that a governor had the gall to permit a border patrol station to prevent workers from entering a Colorado county.” I agree. It’s time to stabilize the site and install interpretive signage so that future visitors may know what sacrifices workers endured a century ago. Next summer I want to help. I want to carry some of the framing lumber and pound a nail or two.
Perhaps signs will explain that bully Bulkeley Wells, a coward like most bullies, committed suicide during the Great Depression. As for union organizer Vincent St. John, who dedicated his life to better working conditions for the laboring man, he went to federal prison under false charges.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and History at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at email@example.com.