It’s always winter and deep snow when I think about a hidden cabin a friend showed me in the San Juans.
Up a steep, narrow gorge, on a short ridge below a major mountain, shaded by dark timber on three sides, this miner’s cabin is impossible to see unless you are 20 yards from it. The cabin’s location is secret. So is its roof design. Winter snows should have crushed it decades ago.
Accessed from the north by a narrow burro trail, the cabin has no door lock or padlock, just a stick in the hasp to keep the door shut. Bunks and handmade furniture are intact as is the cast-iron four-burner Handy cook and heating stove, model 818C.
Steve found the cabin, actually a small miners’ bunkhouse, after he had summited a 12,000-plus-foot peak. He had dropped off the backside en route to his truck when he stumbled onto the short, lower ridge, almost completely obscured by thick, ancient pines. Deep snows collect on north- and west-facing slopes and trees can grow tall in the shade.
Colorado mountain lore describes a wampus kitty or a sidehill gouger that can run quickly around a mountain peak because one set of legs is lower than the other so the animal never loses balance. Steve has those qualities. He’s also half mountain goat.
He delights in dropping off steep peaks and slip-sliding away through sharp, loose scree. I desperately teeter on my hiking poles, while he is already a small dot downslope headed toward fields of columbines. Steve found the cabin from the top. We hiked to it from the bottom. We climbed in the fall with the last of the leaves and before the first snows.
I’ll never forget the hike up the creek. No trail. Just scrambling over rocks, boulders and downed, dead timber. We came out on the cabin’s ridge above 11,000 feet, and I saw sunlit stumps. It was clear where the logs came from to build the structure, but I did not yet know we had discovered the work of an unknown master craftsman.
Colorado’s prospectors and miners built cabins throughout the San Juan Mountains. At first, they used axes and then saws. Most cabins have fallen because sill logs rot and roofs collapse, but this high country cabin is different in important ways.
When I first viewed it, I knew it was a unique example of mining vernacular architecture. The cabin was built by a skilled carpenter who understood how to use local materials to prevent snow loads from weakening the roof. He pounded out metal tin boxes for flashing to winterize the cabin and he wrapped tin around the eaves. But I didn’t yet understand how the one-room cabin worked.
The site location is on a slight saddle with a well-drained slope. Care went into the stone foundation, and the round logs were saddle-notched and never peeled. The entrance door opens into an antechamber, a small second room addition to take off wet, snowy clothes and to keep heat in the cabin itself. The anteroom includes a loft/bunk as sleeping space for miners with two tall windows for south-facing light and ventilation. Though the logs for the cabin were laid horizontally, the sawmilled lumber for the addition was nailed vertically.
The outside of the cabin uses recycled tin flashing. The builder’s goal was to keep the structure tight and critters out. Perhaps he was also a tinner, a tin man, who knew how to hand bend tin over a form to make perfect 90 degree angles.
Key to holding up a mountain roof is a large ridge log. This miner’s cabin has a sturdy ridge log and purlins or lower horizontal log beams, which reduce the unsupported span. Unbelievably for the snow load, this San Juan cabin has a shallow gabled roof pitch of only 2 in 12 – or for every foot in width, it drops only 2 inches.
The date of construction on the 30-foot-long by 15-foot-wide cabin is hard to determine but late for local mining – perhaps the 1920s or 1930s based on the galvanized tin roof and bucksaw cuts on the logs. The floor is wooden, windows let light in from all four sides and a wooden-batten ceiling 6 feet 4 inches high reduces dirt on the inside. Built-in shelves, a table, two benches and a wooden bed frame make up the interior. Marmots have chewed the table legs.
Perhaps a clue to the ethnicity of the carpenter is the adobe mud troweled around logs both inside and out as a form of chinking. But the structure’s second secret, beside its hidden location, is collar ties running perpendicular to the side walls at ceiling height. As snow depth increases in winter, nailed wooden wedges on the ends of the collar ties outside of the cabin prevent the upper walls from splaying out. At that elevation near timberline, snow can reach 7 feet on the level or deeper.
The cabin is above 11,000 feet in elevation. La Plata County’s building code requires structures at that elevation to have roofs designed for about 200 pounds per square foot of snow load. Imagine! This anonymous master craftsman designed a low-pitched cabin roof still erect after 80-plus years of San Juan winters. He cut down trees whose stumps still stand, and he built the cabin with hand tools.
In all my years of exploring Colorado’s high country, I’ve never seen anything like it. Here is a unique vernacular system designed so that under heavy snows the roof tightened up. The collar ties became tension members and remained protected under the eaves so they couldn’t rot. What an adaptive, effective solution! Architects and structural engineers still use collar ties today, but they’re usually made of steel, not wood.
Oddly, we found no adjacent mining tunnel, though several adits and prospecting holes are close. No outhouse. No trash pile. Only a few cans, a mouse trap and an Arm & Hammer Baking Soda box. Someone went to a great deal of work to build this small cabin/boarding house with an addition to the sunny southeast side.
There are no private property signs. The cabin sits on public land. That’s another mystery given all the work that went into creating it. Why build such a careful cabin and not patent the land underneath it?
Biologists yearn to discover new species. Birders love to find an unknown type of bird no one has previously recorded. For an historian and historic preservationist, it is the same thrill to identify a unique vernacular cabin. I’m amazed that the structure still stands. The wampus kitty and sidehill gouger are fictitious Colorado characters, but that carpenter was a real hero.
It’s January now. Snow piles up. I want to return to that secret miner’s cabin high in the San Juans. Maybe next summer or early fall. I want to see again what that master craftsman created. I don’t need a key. The door is never locked.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.