Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Who knew there was another newspaper in Colorado called The Pilot? And that in 1939, a rare species of trout that was adapted to grow fur flourished in the frigid headwaters of the Arkansas River?
The Elk Mountain Pilot put out its first issue June 16, 1880, about five years before James Hoyle founded the Steamboat Pilot in 1885. But the Elk Mountain Pilot should not be confused with the Elk Mountain that is the most recognizable landmark in the lower Elk River Valley of Routt County (if you live in Steamboat, you probably refer to Elk Mountain as Sleeping Giant).
The Elk Mountain Pilot first was published out of a little false front building in Ruby Camp, a silver mine in the mountains of Gunnison County. Decades after it was first founded, the frontier newspaper would startle the world with reports of fur-bearing trout in the Arkansas River. More about that in a moment.
The Ruby and Irwin mining camps were about a half-mile apart from each other on Kebler Pass about 10 miles west of Crested Butte. They were founded by Richard Irwin in 1879 after he found rich deposits of “ruby” silver in the area. At one time, 5,000 miners from as far away as Scotland occupied the area.
The community struggled after a snow slide destroyed portions of Ruby Camp in 1883. And things really began to go downhill on Kebler Pass when silver was demonetized in 1884, according to an historical marker near the old Irwin Cemetery. The mining camps were abandoned in 1885.
However, the Elk Mountain Pilot just moved on down the hill into Crested Butte and persisted through the great Depression and into the late 1940s
It was in the 1930s that the old Elk Mountain Pilot managed to publish a pretty tall tale. It was an account of how fur-bearing trout first appeared in the Arkansas River, just downstream from Leadville. The story was picked up from clippings on file in the Denver Public Library and reproduced in a hardcover book, “A Treasury of Western Folklore” compiled by B.A. Botkin with a foreword by noted Western historian Bernard DeVoto and published by Crown Publishers in 1951.
You can find more recent copies of the book published by Bonanza Press in the 1980s, or you can order a copy from the Marmot library system through the Bud Werner Memorial Library. It’s almost 800 pages long, but most entries are no longer than a page in length, making the book ideal for the nightstand.
The Elk Mountain Pilot (not the Steamboat Pilot) reported in 1939 that the fur-bearing trout, or beazel, was known to inhabit waters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maine as well as Colorado. But the appearance of the unusual fish in the Arkansas arose from unique and peculiar circumstances having to do with a traveling salesman.
Leadville was incorporated as a mining town in 1878 and during those days the miners depended heavily on a diet of venison and potatoes fried in deer fat to make it through the winter. As the story goes, they ate so much venison that the tallow became caked to the roof of their mouths.
There must not have been a frontier doctor in town, for the preferred method of removing the waxy buildup, according to the Elk Mountain Pilot, was stoking a little campfire on top of the head of the individual with the complaint. This technique was effective in melting the tallow buildup but led to other medical conditions, hair loss being not the least of them.
Reportedly, more than 90 percent of the male populace soon were bald or on the way there.
It was in the spring, when an entrepreneur from east of the Mississippi arrived in the upper Arkansas Valley to meet the burgeoning demand for hair tonic. One fine spring day on his way to town with his arms loaded with jugs of home-brewed hair tonic, the fellow paused to cross a fast-flowing creek on a slippery log.
Unfortunately, he spilled a couple of jugs of hair tonic into the creek. And it wasn’t long before anglers began reporting catching trout with full beards.
The newspaper took it a step further and reported that area anglers had abandoned traditional fishing poles and instead were planting striped barber poles on the banks of the river. The explanation was that the trout were so eager to rid themselves of their whiskers that they willingly leapt onto the bank at the promise of a hot shave.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com
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