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MURDER & MAYHEM ON
THE OLD STAGECOACH ROAD
 
MONDAY, JULY 31
 
 
"With a history as rich as Leadville's, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the truth and tall tales. Maybe that's because some of the things that
actually happened here are so unbelievable. Or it could be that events recounted
at the local saloon acquire more artistic details with each longneck."
 
- Kathy Bedell, Leadville Summer Tracks,  a 2006 visitor's guide
published by the Leadville Chronicle
 

 

There is so much interesting history around here. "Here" right now is the Clear Creek Canyon/Reservoir camping area where we've been boon-docking for about ten days now. I've already told you some of the mining history back this canyon. Now let's move up the main road (that would be busy Hwy. 24) just a bit and talk about the old stage road and the little town of Granite, Colorado.

The old stage road packed a lot of history in its rather short existence from the 1860s to about 1880. It extends north-south from Leadville to Buena Vista (and beyond) on the east side of the Arkansas River. You can still see many places between Clear Creek Canyon Road and Leadville where it was cut over a century ago.

There was another stage coach route, the South Park Stage Line, that ran east to west from Denver over Mosquito Pass, but it's the Leadville-to-Buena Vista route that I'll talk most about here.

The stage coach days around Leadville were memorable but short-lived. Both roads were made pretty much obsolete by the coming of the transcontinental railroad and the railroad that was built on the other side of the Arkansas River. What had been a grueling, bumpy 26-hour ride from Leadville to Buena Vista turned into a much more comfortable, quick trip by train.

End of the more-hazardous stage coach trips!

There is a sign on Hwy. 24 near the intersection with Clear Creek Canyon Road that points to the old stage road:

It's a bit hard to pick out the road in this photo. Look for the faint pathway above the railroad tracks on the bluff. Part of a retaining wall is still visible.

You can still see the old road for several miles on the drive up to Leadville. In some places, enough rocks have fallen from the bluffs in the canyon to obliterate it entirely.

Here are two more views a little farther north on Hwy. 24. The stage road is a few feet above the railroad tracks in each photo:

 

While the railroad pretty much made the stage road obscure, even the railroad is no longer in use. Now goods arrive in Leadville via speeding semis on Hwy. 24 - and perhaps by plane to the little airport south of town.

Although the old stage lines carried passengers, their main source of revenue came from hauling mail and freight, often the gold and silver that was being mined around Leadville. You can imagine all the variables with rain, snow, floods (the road is very close to the river in some places), rock slides along the bluffs and canyon walls, lame horses, competition among stage lines, and other potential impediments and dangers the drivers faced.

And with valuable goods like gold and silver on board sometimes, there were the inevitable robberies. Some folks just didn't want to share in the wealth by legal  means.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT

That's where I'm going with this journal entry. There are several interesting tales about greed and treachery along this old stage road in the many newspaper accounts and books available about the region. I'll relate the story that most captivated my imagination, and let you decide if it's fact or fiction.

According to local legend, there was a rash of robberies along the old stage road between Leadville and Buena Vista back in 1879. It appeared to be the same crook who held up the stage coach each time, but only when it was carrying its most precious cargo, gold. Otherwise, no problemo.

Sheriff Kirkham came up with a secret plan to outwit the bandit. He didn't tell his deputies, family, or anyone in town. He apparently wanted to catch the bad guy himself and be a hero.

On March 7, the Sheriff dressed up as a female passenger on a coach carrying gold from a mine in Leadville. About ten miles south, near the Twin Lakes junction, sure enough, the robber stepped out in front of the coach. He brandished his weapon, told the driver to stop, and ordered the gold be handed over.

Sheriff Kirkham quicly tore off his disguise, drew his weapon, and ordered the bandit to stop and throw down his gun.

Surprised, the robber fled (with weapon). The Sheriff fired and killed the bandit with one shot in the back.

That wasn't the end of the surprises, though. When the Sheriff reached the body and turned it over, he discovered it was his wife, dressed as a man!

Reportedly, Sheriff Kirkham was too ashamed to bury his wife in town so he laid her to rest along the old stage coach road where the crime occurred. [Like everyone wouldn't find out??]

(Photo by Kathy Bedell, Leadville Chronicle)

The granite tombstone, which is still on the other side of the Arkansas River at the Twin Lakes junction, reads:

My wife - Jane Kirkham

 Died March 7, 1879

Aged 38 years, 3 months, 7 days

Believe it or not!

BREAKFAST IN GRANITE

Granite is a little town on Hwy. 24 a couple miles north of Clear Creek Canyon Road. This town began as a stage stop on the old stage road mentioned above in the 1860s. In the 1880s it was a railroad station. At one time it was the county seat for Lake County. When Chaffee County split off from Lake County, Granite became the Chaffee County seat (then Buena Vista, and now Salida). It looks like only a "wide spot in the road," but it has an interesting history.

Granite's importance to Jim and me centers around its one little restaurant, The Country Peddler.

We have volunteered at the Leadville Trail 100-mile bike race at least four times. The bike race is the Saturday in August before the 100-mile foot race. Lots of runners are already in the area training and acclimating, and a bunch of them volunteer at the bike race for the heck of it. Three of those four times we've enjoyed the day with our group of friends at the Columbine Mine aid station, location of the turn-around point in the bike race.

It's been the tradition for this group of about a dozen volunteers to watch the start of the bike race at 6 AM in downtown Leadville, then make a bee-line for the little restaurant in Granite for breakfast. The restaurant opens up an hour early for us - except in 2004, when someone forgot to tell the cook to be there early!! We eat a hearty breakfast, chat with our friends, sign volunteer waivers (similar to race waivers), get our nice volunteer shirts, and high-tail it out of there in time to drive up Lost Canyon Road several miles to the mine to set up our aid station before the cyclists get there.

That's how it's supposed to work, anyway. Stuff happens every year, but we're always ready for the cyclists when they come huffing and puffing up that little dirt road to our aid station at a lofty 12,600 feet. Note that this is the same elevation as the high point in the foot race, and you'll understand a big reason why LT100 runners like to work up there all day! (Can you say acclimation?)

So anyway, one recent day when neither Jim nor I was doing a long run, we decided it'd be mighty nice to have breakfast out for once. We rarely do that. In fact, we rarely eat any meal out. We try to be thrifty, and we prefer fixing our own meals most of the time.

Since we've enjoyed breakfast at the Country Peddler before the bike race for several years, and since Granite is only about three miles from our campsite, we decided to give it a try on a weekday morning.

Bottom line: good price, good food, and lots of it. We'll have to do that again!

While we were waiting for our order, Jim spotted a shelf above the L-shaped counter holding the register and started to laugh. I looked up and saw this little arrangement of fake food containers:

While Jim was reading the "Roadkill Helper" box, I went out to the truck to get the camera. You know me! (By the way, the box has been well-read - lots of fingerprints on it.)

Anyway, hope you got a good laugh, too.

Next up: Colorado Trail Segment 14 from Chalk Creek to the Angel of Shavano trailhead.

Happy tales,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil