Celebrating Christmas in a North Routt gold camp in 1877
Steamboat Springs — Editor’s note: This column, partially reliant on Sureva Towler’s 1987 book, “The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs,” first published in 2008, describes 19th Century Christmas celebrations in Routt County, including a North Routt party attended by gold miners in 1877 and what was purported to be the valley’s “first Christmas dinner” in 1874. The latter, transcribed by Towler, describes a holiday dinner at which porcupine stew was the entree.
There was a time in Routt County when the amount of gold dust in a fellow’s poke determined how merry his Christmas might be.
North Routt County had a pretty good gold rush going in 1877, and a prospector named William “Uncle Bill” Leahy left an account of snowshoeing through a snowy night to reach a holiday shindig in a remote part of Routt County. I found the detailed description in some yellowing newspaper clippings in the files of the Steamboat Pilot & Today, and I’ll let Uncle Bill deliver my Christmas gift to you.
“There was going to be a big time at Alfred McCargar’s place on Snake River, at the mouth of Slater Creek, and all of us from Hahn’s Peak were invited. I was one of the party of six who accepted,” Leahy recalled. “There was four or five feet of snow, and we started on snowshoes on the night of Dec. 23, making the distance during the night and arriving early for Christmas Eve, when the celebration was to occur.”
Leahy appears to have been preoccupied with the scarcity of feminine companionship in North Routt during those days. But it’s not clear whether he possessed the social skills necessary to attract a young lady.
“There were about 30 at McCargar’s for Christmas, and there was a fine time with a big dinner and a dance, but I never went in for dancing much,” Leahy related. “Two of the McCargar girls were there, and I can truthfully say they were the most beautiful girls in Routt County at that time, so far as I knew.
“At that time, I hadn’t seen any other women in the county,” he added.
Leahy went on to recount how the celebration at McCargar’s came to a halt when the liquid refreshments were depleted. A good number of the group migrated downstream to Dixon, Wyoming, to resume the party.
“All of us had plenty of gold dust, and it surely was a good time we had,” he said.
Three years earlier, in 1874, the members of a fur trapping party living in a shack along the Yampa River between present day Hayden and Steamboat had to forage for a prickly Christmas dinner.
Author Sureva Towler recorded the story as described by Thomas H. Iles: “Dec. 23 — Two trappers camped last night near our shanty. I traded my watch to them for a Navajo pony, packsaddle and rope. Today, I packed my new pony and started with Jim Pollock and George Schlosser on a trapping expedition up the river. We made about four miles, camping for the night at the present (now former) location of the Mount Harris Coal Mine.”
On Christmas Eve, the group shot grouse from the cottonwoods near camp and pushed on to the mouth of the Elk River, arriving about noon, and then camped a mile upstream.
After setting out traps for foxes and coyotes, Iles recounted how he killed and dressed two fat porcupines. The men built a large campfire and stayed up late sharing stories of past Christmases.
“The next morning after a breakfast of fried grouse and gravy, hot biscuits baked in a Dutch oven and black coffee, the others started out to set their traps, leaving me to prepare Christmas dinner,” he wrote.
“I got busy preparing and cutting up the porcupine, put it to boil in the camp kettle and keeping it boiling for four hours. In the meantime, I made a pudding of one part flour, one part suet, one part raisins, a pinch of salt and a little baking powder with water enough to make a stiff batter.”
Iles put his pudding mixture into a sack and boiled it for two hours. At noon, he made dumplings and added them to the porcupine stew when he spied his companions on their way back to camp.
Dessert was a thin syrup made of brown sugar thickened with flour.
“As I was the cook, I refrain from saying our Christmas dinner was delicious, but that is what the boys said,” Iles concluded.
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