NEXT morning we were in Colorado. The sleepers were white with frost, but the sun was half a furnace at six in the morning, and the sky was all blue. We were rolling, rolling now across the raw prairie. Wave after wave of it spread out boundlessly on every side, a pale, silvery-grey under the frost and the dazzling sunshine. No room for agriculture here. Seen in the bulk the prairie is much like a smooth, undulating sea; but if you look closer it is more like a glacier—a glacier of caked sand, wrinkled with a thousand crevasses in which streams should run, but which only rarely contain so much as a little ooze. The surface is dappled with tufts of sage-scrub--small bushes that at a distance resemble bleached heather. Occasionally appeared sparse blades of coarse grass, but the rare steers and horses had a right to be thin. Nothing flourishes in this arid wilderness except prairie-dogs. Hundred of the brown-furred little devils, a mixture of rabbit and guinea-pig, were scampering up and down in the sun, or perking themselves bolt upright at the edge of their holes, comically, like a dog begging, to look at the train as it rolled past them. Presently in the distance the ground began to rise into hills, and then the hills into mountains. We did not climb them but turned northward and ran through country where the grey of the prairie began to be relieved with yellow of deciduous trees, and a green field or so of clover. So we ran into Denver, the mining capital of the West, the Queen City of the Plains.
The Queen City of the Plains, if I may presume to criticise on a very brief acquaintance, is more plain than queenly. A very well-made, well-arranged city beyond doubt, but undistinguished. Solid brick-built houses, neither too large nor too small, she has in the central part, and agreeable residences. Her tram-car system and electric lighting system are not to be impeached. In one respect I noticed Denver has risen superior to American carelessness. Many cities are apt in places to leave the names or numbers of their streets to be remembered by the inhabitant, or constructed out of the inner consciousness. Denver puts a couple of boards at each street corner with not only the names but also some of the more important or necessary businesses between that corner and the next. But, alas! even Denver is human, for many of the corners have indeed the brackets for such boards, but no trace of boards for the brackets. The inhabitants appear, at first sight, to gain a precarious livelihood by selling each other railway tickets at reduced rates. Outward from the business centre Denver is much the same as other American cities. Perhaps a little more beautiful than Chicago, in that the suburban roads are oftener planted with trees; perhaps a little less so, in that the acres of railroad tracks and factory in smaller Denver are less diluted by dwelling houses. Much the same in that the outskirts of both are dingy and dusty and sooty, and largely over-populated with Germans.
But if Chicago has her lake to redeem her, Denver has her mountains. No city can be wholly unpleasing where you can look up from a street of railway ticket-offices and mining agencies to see a great mountain filling the end of the vista. It has been remarked by some profound observer that the spectacle of high mountains suggests majestic calm. It does. But how majestically calm mountains can look I never knew till I saw the Rockies from the Argo Smelting Works. On one side a maze of railway lines and row on row of freight-trucks formed the foreground. Behind them was a large, low parallelogram of dingy brick and unpainted wood and dull slate; out of it rose more than a dozen fat chimneys, vomiting clouds of impenetrable blackness. The sun was smeared with the dirtiness of it; the air was poisoned with the reek of it, and throbbed with the pulse of machinery. On the other side rose the Rocky Mountains. In front were the naked brown sides of the lower elevations—harsh in colour and savage in outline. Behind them towered summits fading from brown to a more kindly grey, and beginning to blend the wildness of their shape with the clouds. And yet further rose the white peaks above the clouds, basking serene and unperturbed in the glory of their neighbour, the sun. " In the world there is nothing great but man," I repeated with my face to the factory, and then looked at the mountains. They did not trouble to rebuke me. What is the smelter to them? They looked down on that table-land without interest when the smelter was born, and they will look down without condescending to triumph when it dies.
Why did I plough through sand and Germans to the Argo Smelter? I haven't an idea, unless it was the weird of the conscientious journalist, which never lets him get away from what he cannot understand. There was next to no work going, and nearly all the plant was still and cold. It was even pathetic to see the sparse workmen strolling about the great sheds built to keep twenty times their number busy. But I saw them crushing silver ore, and it was about the grimmest industrial operation there could be. No delicacy of contrivance or sheen of racing steel, but heavy, grimy machinery, crushing the blocks of metallic rock by sheer brute force. Then. I saw the powder being raked to and fro in a square furnace, and being raked round and round in a circular furnace. Finally it comes out, as I understood, in a form in which it can be dissolved in hot water and thence precipitated as pure metal. At this point I saw some rubble in a wooden box, and turned to ask a work-man whether any use could be made of it. He said it could; that was the silver. That the silver—that dirty-white crumbling mess; half dust, half coagulated like frozen snow! That was it: there was about 200 ounces of it, he said, strewn about the box, and that was the crushings of over ten tons of ore. And was that the stuff that all this herculean and vulcanic machinery had been tearing its heart out and burning its ribs through to force from the rock? That the stuff that is shaking this whole country as it has hardly been shaken before? Away, vile dross!
But that is not the view of Denver. Denver is the centre to which comes for smelting the gold and the silver, the copper and lead, and the other metals which are woven into all the mountains of Colorado.
Colorado calls herself the Silver State, and of right, for she puts out more than one-seventh of the whole production of the world. But silver is not what it was. In the last three years it has gone down nearly fifty per cent. What was paying ore then is now only fit for the dump-heap. " Talk of silver barons," said a mining engineer; " you could count them nowadays on the fingers of your two hands. I don't suppose there are half-a-dozen silver-mines now running, bar those that produce gold as well. It was a beautiful business once. But now you can't be surprised if people that are in want cry out for some change, even if it is not quite sound economically." I told him I was not surprised—the less so since I perceived that he meant to vote for free coinage at 16 to I himself. So will they all in Colorado. Who can blame them?
( Originally Published 1907 )