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Artifacts Tell a Story, Breckenridge CO

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

Tent site views from then and now can be identified

Artifacts from the historic mining days litter the backcountry surrounding Breckenridge. While out mountain biking, hiking, Jeeping, or exploring it is exciting to come across an old mill or mine site and find the crushers or an ore cart still in place.

These artifacts on public lands belong to all the people of the United States and it is illegal to remove them. However, removal of artifacts happens all the time around Breckenridge. Whether it is a square nail or an intact bottle or a complete ore cart, temptation can lead to theft.

When these artifacts are removed from an old mining area, we lose the ability to interpret and learn from that site. For an organization like the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, it is a great loss to the community when artifacts are taken.

I am one of the docents and guides for the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. I recently had the opportunity to visit several remote mining sites with historian Bill Fountain, author of many books on the history of the Breckenridge area. One of the locations we toured was the ghost town site of Swandyke in the Middle Fork of the Swan River, where the loss of artifacts is particularly notable.

Swandyke cabin then and now

Swandyke was a short-lived city in a location considered remote even then. It sprang up in the late 1890’s and was largely abandoned by 1910. Despite high hopes and a town plat of hundreds of lots, Swandyke in its heyday consisted of about 24 buildings and a population under 100 hearty souls. For more information on Swandyke, see the blog "In The Footsteps of History.

Before heading out into the field with Bill, I read his book Chasing the Dream: Swandyke, Colorado – Boom to Bust to Dust.” In it, he quotes from an assessment written in 2003 by Eric Twitty of Mountain States Historical. Twitty combines extensive historical knowledge with the keen observation of a detective. From the remains of an old building - maybe just a pile of logs and a few rusty cans to you and me - Twitty can tell you when it was built, how tall it was, the function of the building, and if a residence, how many people lived there and what they ate, drank and wore.

In his historical assessment of Swandyke, Twitty found the parts of a woman’s corset at one of the building sites. What does a corset part look like? I wondered. As I explored Swandyke with Bill, I poked around the collapsed cabins, foundations, and junk piles. I didn’t see anything that looked like the remnants of a woman’s undergarment.

We also looked for signs of a telegraph key and six-volt batteries at the Assay Office location that Twitty mentions. At the site of the blacksmith shop, still obvious from forge clinker debris, we didn’t see clock parts or pick tine points that Twitty saw just 17 years ago. These artifacts had been removed by private collectors. While there is still much on the ground to indicate the various uses of many of the buildings in Swandyke, the richness of detail that indicated every day life is now gone. We all felt a sense of loss.

China at Swandyke Hotel site

Bill showed us other sites he had discovered, places not covered in Eric Twitty’s assessment. Near the collection of mines that brought Swandyke its 15 minutes of fame, we found a former tent cabin location. A flat platform, stacked rocks, and the debris of a rustic household were all that was left.

If Swandyke is remote, this place may as well have been Timbuktu. Up the steep hillside the miners climbed to access the gold. Timberline was a stone’s throw away. Even in the warmth of summer, cold winds swept down on us as we explored their old workings. Towering mountains across the valley were so close you might try to reach out and touch them.

And there, I found a curious hook closure, clearly some kind of metal garment part. Almost simultaneously, one of our cohorts reached down and picked up a tiny metal button. We thought they might be parts that connected the straps of a coverall, though we weren’t even sure they went together.

Suspender part (initially believed to be a corset part)

It couldn’t be a corset part, I thought. What would a woman be doing way the heck up here?

We took the artifacts for research. Back to civilization, a computer and internet connection, I started to learn more. The first place I researched was corset parts. It appeared to be the hook and button closure from the front of a woman’s corset. However, I’m no expert on Victorian clothing, so my research continued.

Note to reader: I don’t know if the garment closure belonged to a woman or not. Nonetheless, I wanted to return the artifacts to the location I found them. Not only is it the right thing to do, leaving the artifacts in situ honors the history and contributions of the men and women who toiled at the mining camps. And it allows a future sleuth such as myself to make an exciting discovery at a far-out place. A week after I removed the garment parts from their mountain aerie, I put them back.

The artifact begged a question: Did a woman live at this site? If so, not only was she working hard at extreme high altitude, she was wearing a corset and long skirts while doing it. Even if a woman didn’t venture to this mining site, we know that women lived nearby in Swandyke.

Royal Ironstone Alfred M England at Swandyke

Women’s history is seldom told in the mining camps, but it fills out nuanced details of life in Colorado in the 19th Century. Women were rare in the remote camps and mine sites that dot the mountains around Breckenridge. We assume their presence means they were prostitutes (see BHA Gift Shop for "They Weren't All Prostitutes and Gamblers" by Sandra F. Mather). But most often they were wives and daughters accompanying and encouraging their men as they chased the dream of riches.

Purple glass in Swandyke

Signs of women are there in the refuse piles when we see luxury goods such as broken china or cut glass. Corset parts are another obvious indication.

To learn more about Breckenridge’s history, visit the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, read one or all of Bill Fountain’s books, and take a tour or visit a museum.

Epilogue: I reached out to several experts on Victorian era mining and clothing. Alas, I learned that the garment parts were from men’s suspenders, not a woman’s corset. However, women did occupy and work in the town of Swandyke. There were even two marriages recorded in the town. If women weren’t actually at the high altitude mining camp, they were nearby and their influence was relevant to the life of Swandyke.

Written by Leigh Girvin

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