While todays St. Patricks Day is likely to be marked with green beer and carefree frivolity, 106 years ago, the town of Silverton was shrouded in tragedy. Major avalanches killed 20 miners in what was the highest single-day death toll from such incidents in the towns history.
The deaths resulted from a series of slides, all on St. Patricks Day, but the worst was at the Shenandoah-Dives Mine in Arrastra Gulch. Twelve men died there. Conditions for the avalanches were set up by heavy snowfall followed by several days of sun and warm temperatures.
Survivor accounts told an amazing story of devastation at the hand of nature and camaraderie among men.
W.N. Hall, a man known to his associates as Bill, was a survivor of the Shenandoah-Dives slide. In a Silverton Standard article, published April 7, 1906, Hall recounted the ordeal.
The slide struck us with the swiftness of a thunderbolt. There was no forewarning nothing, Hall said. We were out in the snow, struggling like drowning men swept along, sometimes on top, sometimes underneath, helpless as a feather in a whirlwind.
By a toss of fate, Hall was able to get his head free to breathe and was then pulled out of the snow and rescued by another survivor, according to the Standard.
Without men like S.F. Nelson, Hall may not have fared so well.
Looking around I saw a hand projecting through the snow and I commenced digging its owner out. It was Kid Teague.
In many cases, men were buried on top of one another.
I began digging again and soon found Joe Bradshaw, Nelson said in 1906.
Ed Fiance who, like myself came out of top, found Bill Hall, Nelson said.
Hall said, After a few minutes, I found I was good as ever and assisted in rescuing others.
Similarly, Nelson said, It only took a minute to extricate myself. As soon as I was free I stood up and shouted glory to God!
Eight men from the Shenandoah-Dives Mine were spared, but in avalanches elsewhere, many werent so lucky.
Green Mountain Mill in Cunningham Gulch had six fatalities.
The gulch, almost four miles long, experienced an unbroken series of slides that left a pile of snow 150 feet deep, the Standard reported.
Another snow slide came down on the Silver Wing Property in Burns Gulch. A log cabin lay in its path.
Beverly Rich, with the San Juan County Historical Society, said in an interview this week that the gulch was located above Eureka, which at the time was a sizable town. It now rests as a ghost town.
George Marcott and Robert McIntyre, sitting next to a red-hot stove in a cabin at the time of the slide, also died, according to a March 27, 1906, article in the Durango Democrat.
The slide shoved Marcott against the stove and besides being crushed, his body was burned in a horrible manner, the Democrat reported. McIntyre also died.
In addition to the human toll, much mining equipment was lost in the slides.
The Iowa mill was knocked to pieces, according to a Standard article.
The Highland Mary boarding house and engine room and the bunk house of the Anglo-Saxon in Cement Creek both were swept away.
Recovering the dead was a grim and grueling task.
It was hours before they could be gotten out. One or two were known to be drowned and several were killed outright, the Democrat reported.
The slides of March 17, 1906, still mark the worst one-day disaster death total in the towns history, said Rich, from the historical society. The conditions must have been exactly aligned for this to have happened.
The sheer magnitude of the slides was something the town, founded in the mid-1870s, had not experienced.
The oldest residents of Silverton say this is the first time a slide has ever run as far as Mineral Creek, the Democrat reported.
A photo of the miners funeral procession shows a long line of darkly-clad residents filing bleakly through the towns snow-lined streets.
As bad as that day was, it was not the end of hardships for the rugged outpost. In June 1908, six people were killed in a fire at the Gold King Mine. During the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, 161 people died 10 percent of the towns population.
A plaque to be installed in May at the Silverton Standard & the Miner describes a town that has at times prospered and at times struggled to survive in a very hostile and isolated part of the world.