Marcellus Merrill in 1978.

Marcellus Merrill in 1978.

Tom Ross: Coming of age in frontier Steamboat


— The late Marcellus Merrill is best known in Steamboat Springs as the sponsor of a unique ski jumping competition during the annual Winter Carnival in February.

What most residents don't know about Merrill is that he is the closest Steamboat has come to producing its own Leonardo da Vinci.

During the Merrill Trophy jump, the style points that are awarded to ski jumpers in most competitions are tossed out the window. Instead, whoever lands the longest standing jump gets his or her name engraved on the silver cup.

The ski jumping competition that bears his name reveals the logical personality of the ingenious inventor whose formative years were spent in the pioneer town of Steamboat Springs.

Later in life, as an independent engineer, Merrill patented the design for a wheel balancing and alignment machine that greatly improved automobile assembly lines in the late 1950s and '60s. He might have parlayed the hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits from his patents on the Merrill Dynamic Aligner into vast personal wealth. But he was an inventor by nature, and he plowed much of his earnings into other inventions.

Merrill was in possession of an exceptionally inquisitive mind. As a boy, he grew up ski jumping under the tutelage of none other than the renowned Carl Howelsen. As a grown engineer with a degree from the University of Colorado, he balanced the life of a mildly eccentric inventor with his passion for Colorado's mountain towns such as Steamboat.

Now, thanks to the grandson of Marcellus "Celly" Merrill, David Merrill Primus, we have new insights into life in Steamboat Springs in the early part of the 20th century. Primus has just compiled and edited a volume of his grandfather's memoirs and stories, "Steamboat Springs: Memories of a Young Colorado Pioneer," released by Western Reflections Publishing Co. in Lake City. The book is packed with previously unheard anecdotes about Steamboat. It should prove fascinating to anyone with a keen interest in what Steamboat was like in the first decade of the 20th century.

For example, Merrill shares firsthand knowledge of the Steamboat Spring and its previous existence as a small geyser.

One of the great mysteries of modern life in Steamboat is the truth about the Steamboat Spring. There is the legend that Steamboat got its name from the bubbling spring that made a sound like a Missouri River steamboat. There also are the vague stories about the spring erupting like a geyser - not on the scale of Yellowstone's Old Faithful, but a geyser nonetheless. What an attraction that would be today!

I have always assumed the geyser was sacrificed in the name of progress. Perhaps I have unfairly blamed its demise on the railroad crews who were striving in December 1908 to push the tracks to the new depot just west of the spring.

Celly Merrill's writings shed some light on this matter.

"When I was a young boy, I remember this spring sounding like a steamboat whistle and spouting like a geyser," he recalled. "We would often drop rocks in to see how high they would go. Maury Leckenby (future publisher of the Steamboat Pilot) always said I was the boy who put too large a rock in the famous Steamboat Spring and stopped it from sounding like a steamboat and spouting. While I did drop a few rocks in the spring to see how high they would go, so did Maury and Buster."

Celly (pronounced Sell-ee), as he was known to acquaintances, moved here from Nebraska at age 4 in 1905. He and his family finished the trip in a stagecoach. Merrill's grandfather was a prosperous banker in Nebraska and opened a bank in Steamboat Springs, only to see it fail.

Celly and his brother Hollis grew up as typical Steamboat rascals, fishing in Soda Creek, playing marbles for keeps in the middle of the unpaved streets and scrounging for pocket money that had fallen through the loose floorboards of the saloon.

Celly first went to school in a log cabin next to Butcherknife Creek. He quickly learned how to use his fists.

"In those early days, it seemed to me that education and fights went hand in hand," Celly wrote. "We had fights over marble games, baseball games, and there was usually a fight every time the teacher left the room."

Celly tells about how he and his gang would swipe chickens from neighbors along Soda Creek and cook their own Saturday dinners. They ran the risk that Old Man Goodfellow would get his rifle and wing a couple of shots in their direction.

As an older boy, with his family's finances in disarray, Merrill worked on a ranch and milked cows.

Primus confirmed that his grandfather was a rascal even into his old age.

"I can remember him taking me four-wheeling and driving his Jeep right up to the edge of a cliff before stomping on the brakes, just to see my reaction," Primus said.

I was particularly intrigued with Merrill's firsthand account of watching the old Steamboat Pilot building burn down in 1909.

You might be more interested in his description of watching the famed Howelsen give the first ski jumping exhibition on Woodchuck Hill. The whole town turned out in wagons, with fur robes draped over their laps, to watch Howelsen and Peter Prestrud launch off the jump simultaneously.

"Everybody yelled and hollered at that," Merrill recalled. "I suppose they jumped about 70 feet down the hill. It was quite a sight."

In addition to many photographs from Merrill's own collection, the book includes many of his sketches. Merrill's mechanical drawings for the Carver Electric Plant, which brought Steamboat its first dependable household electricity, are evocative of da Vinci.

Merrill died in 1986 after living as full a life as any of us could aspire to.

Fortunately for us, Celly Merrill was a prolific storyteller, and dictated many stories about Steamboat to the stenographers who worked for his engineering firm. It's equally fortunate that Celly's grandson took the care to preserve his grandfather's legacy in Northwest Colorado.

"Steamboat Springs: Memories of a Young Colorado Pioneer," is available in local bookstores.


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