IMOGENE PASS - Colorado tourism promoters extol our scenery, our fall colors and our snow-capped peaks, but nobody
mentions our historic machine-gun nest above 13,000 feet.
At the top of Imogene Pass, between Telluride and Ouray, a machine- gun emplacement and a small wooden fort survive
as silent testimony to workers' struggles and as a legacy to labor.
A century ago, millions were made in the San Juan Mountains in gold and silver mines, but not by miners. The early
days of pick and pan prospecting had given way to deep-shaft industrial mining, and miners traded their lungs and
brawn for a few dollars a day to work under increasingly dangerous conditions. As more miners and mill workers died
from cave-ins, explosions from dangerous gases and dust in their lungs, they demanded better working conditions and
something we take for granted - the eight-hour workday.
Fierce competition between capitalist mine owners and immigrant mine workers resulted in increasing tension and calls
for unionization. In Telluride in 1903, the mine workers went on strike, and Gov. James Peabody, in collusion with
the wealthy mine owners, called out the Colorado National Guard.
Montrose resident MaryJoy Martin has chronicled the rise of the Western Federation of Miners and its hero, Vincent
St. John, in her book The Corpse on Boomerang Road, which may become a major motion picture (now under option). She
writes vividly of Bulkeley Wells, a captain in the Colorado National Guard who took command of Troop A, First
Squadron Cavalry, comprising cowboys, Wells' employees at the Smuggler-Union Mining Co., and a few union-hating
locals. Martin insists that in our tourist-based economy of today we should not forget the labor struggles of the
past. So I hiked with her to the top of Imogene Pass to see physical proof of labor strife from 115 years ago.
She writes that Wells declared martial law in Telluride with "mass deportations on special trains, false criminal
charges, beatings, threats and arrests without due process. No one could leave the county without official
permission." As illegally deported miners trickled back into Telluride over Imogene Pass, National Guardsmen under
Wells' command built a wooden sentry post or redoubt complete with small stove, a flagpole and a stone sniper or
machine-gun nest with a Colt rapid-fire machine gun. He named it Fort Peabody after the governor. It's still there.
The wood has weathered considerably in the high altitude winds, and shifting stone walls have shrunk the sentry post, but probably 60 percent of the original historic material exists. When Martin and I climbed into the tiny sleeping
quarters, we could see remnants of the metal heating stove, and names of National Guard troopers carved with 1904
dates on the back wall. She wrote the nomination to have Fort Peabody listed on the National Register of Historic
Places. Approved by the National Park Service, the site represents labor history in the West, and next summer the
U.S. Forest Service and San Miguel and Ouray counties will cooperate on stabilizing Fort Peabody and interpreting its
Workers started in November 1903 and completed the post in the freezing weather of February 1904. Historical
archaeologist Jon Horn explains, "Even after the Telluride strike was finished in 1904, Wells continued to station
his own men at the post as late as 1908 to deter the flow of union sympathizers into the region. Fort Peabody has
been ravaged by the elements for over 100 years, but remains as the only post in Colorado built specifically to
control union activists." Linda Luther-Broderick, Open Space & Recreation Coordinator for San Miguel County, says
"the repair-in-place would use as much existing material as possible. Work will be done to Secretary of Interior
standards and the project will include some rebuilding of the walls of the gun battery and replicating dry-laid
methods on existing stone walls." The project excites Harry Bruell of the Southwest Conservation Corps in Durango, which runs young crews that do conservation work on public lands. Bruell says, "Fort Peabody is an amazing slice of
Southwest Colorado's unique and fascinating history. The Southwest Conservation Corps is interested in participating
in the project both for the exciting historic preservation work as well as the intriguing educational opportunities
that it would offer the crew." Bruell adds, "This is a piece of history that most people do not know about, but it
tells an important story about the history of the region and fabric of our mountain communities." Though bent, even
the old metal flag post may still be there.
I've stood in the sentry post and looked out across the San Juan Mountains and thought about the National Guardsmen
and the long, star-filled nights at 13,365 feet. In the cold wind, I added a cap and gloves and walked down to the
sniper post, or machine-gun nest, which is just a hole really, surrounded by stacked stones carved out of a
north-facing loose scree slope. The sentry post commands a 180-degree view of Imogene Pass and the dirt road going
east to Ouray or west to Telluride. As I stood in the hole, Jeeps full of tourists traveled both ways below me, providing a perfect angle of fire for an automatic weapon.
MaryJoy Martin said, "Labor history has been totally ignored in the United States, and it's a dramatic history in
Colorado. People should know a governor had the gall to permit a border patrol station to prevent workers from
entering a Colorado county." I agree. It's time to stabilize the site and install interpretive signage so future
visitors may know what sacrifices workers endured a century ago. Next summer, I want to help. I want to carry some of
the framing lumber and pound a nail or two.
Perhaps signs will explain that bully Bulkeley Wells, a coward like most bullies, committed suicide during the Great
Depression. As for union organizer Vincent St. John, who dedicated his life to better working conditions for the
laboring man, he went to federal prison under false charges.
email@example.com Andrew Gulliford is a professor of
Southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College.