Tom Ross: Last of the stagecoach drivers
November 21, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The hardy people who came to Steamboat Springs in the early 20th century — many of them farmers and ranchers and the last of the stagecoach drivers — didn't think twice about working on Thanksgiving Day.
That includes Fred Foster, who was still driving a horse-drawn stage a decade after the railroad first began delivering mail and passengers to Steamboat in 1909.
Every day, rain or snow, Foster set out for the North Routt mining camp of Columbine, some 30 miles to the north of the railroad depot in Steamboat. The round trip took him all day.
Remarkably, you can still hear Foster tell the story in his own voice in an interview recorded 41 years ago and stored in a database created in collaboration by the Bud Werner Memorial Library and Tread of Pioneers Museum.
"I bid on a stage line in 1918," Foster told Steamboat Springs High School student Sharon Kelley, who interviewed Foster in 1977, when he was 94. "I hauled mail, passengers, freight and other supplies up to Columbine. Since the mail had to be taken every day, I never got a day off, not even Thanksgiving or Christmas."
Kelley was one of many local high school students in the 1970s and early ’80s who participated in the production of a history magazine known as "Three Wire Winter." In recent years, collaboration between the Tread of Pioneers Museum and Bud Werner Memorial Library has allowed the audiotapes from scores of those interviews, along with typed transcriptions to be posted online.
You might imagine that the snowy Yampa Valley winters would have presented the greatest hardships for Foster and his willing team of horses. But you would be mistaken.
"In the winter, when the snow was deep, we'd take the sled (instead of the stagecoach)," Foster said. "As the snow got deeper, the horses would keep it packed down. The good ones could walk a trail as wide as your hand.
At a glance
Three Wire Winter project
“Three Wire Winter” magazine was launched by two high school teachers, Bill McKelvie and Tanna Brock, both now long retired, who inspired their students at Steamboat Springs High School to interview and photograph local pioneers.
The interviews, which began in 1976 and continued for a 12-year run, were recorded on cassette tapes to avoid hours of note taking. The tapes were stored and cared for by the staff of Tread of Pioneers Museum for decades. In 2015, the staffs of the museum and the Bud Werner Memorial Library collaborated to bring the interviews back to life.
They secured grants and arranged to have written transcripts of the oral interviews made. At the same time, the oral interviews were digitized to allow historians, both academics and amateur researchers, to hear the pioneer stories told by early ranchers and ski pioneers in their own voices.
New transcripts are being posted on a weekly basis. The Three Wire Winter database is at SteamboatLibrary.marmot.org/
"The worst time was the spring, when the snow started melting. You had to go slow, because if one of the horses fell through the crust, they would go lame trying to get out. The line was about 32 miles long. It took all day to get to Columbine and back."
The stage driver didn't have micro-fleece and down-filled garments to protect him from the elements.
"I had an old coat, it was made of dog hide," Foster recalled. "I used to wear it in the spring. And it would get so heavy when it was wet that I could hardly stand up under it.
"When it was wet, it didn't smell so good, but it sure did shed the water."
Foster was well qualified for his work as a stagecoach driver.
"In the early part of 1906 I drove a (four-horse) freight team," he told Three Wire Winter. "It took five days round trip. I was hauling black powder to blast out the railroad."
Foster grew weary of Leadville after one winter.
"I started driving stage from Steamboat to Yampa," he said. "I brought the last mail from Yampa into Steamboat. The train went to Yampa, but it was a couple more years until it got to Steamboat."
Foster ran successfully for Routt County sheriff in 1929 and served until 1942. The pay was $191 a month.
During his tenure as a lawman, Foster recalled busting up an illegal 30-gallon alcohol still in the now long-gone West Routt mining town of Mount Harris.
"The only thing that happened of any excitement was when a guy robbed the bank (right across form the drugstore). "He only got about $1,500.
"The guy wasn't a bad guy. He just gambled a little too much," Foster said. "The boys caught him right out of Steamboat. He got seven years in the pen (where he lived out his life)."
I wished I had space to share the time Foster helped to quell a bloody inmate riot at the state penitentiary in Canon City, but you'll have to find it at the Three Wire Winter site. The reference librarians are happy to show you the reins.
Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in June after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.