Horse-drawn vehicles require skilled drivers

The late Boulder historian Forest Crossen was well known for his writings on the Boulder County Narrow Gauge Railroad, but the trains did not reach all of the mountain communities.

His interest in transportation, however, led to interviews with retired truck drivers and stagecoach drivers, preserving a knowledge of the skills needed to handle horse-drawn vehicles.

One of his interviewees was Boulder hardware dealer John Valentine, who remembered the big, heavy freight wagons, pulled by teams of six horses (or mules), loaded with supplies for the gold mines of western Boulder County. In the 1890s and early 1900s, many wagons headed for Boulder Canyon, then a one-lane dirt road.

“They usually had a dog with them,” Valentine said. “You’d see the dog before the freight outfit appeared, so you’d look for a turnout and walk in to let them pass.” The driver uphill had the right of way.

Crossen also interviewed mountain park ranger Mart Parsons who recalled that truckers driving these freight cars left Boulder very early in the morning. “They would be lined up solidly,” he said, “one behind the other (on Pearl Street), several blocks long, heading for the hills.”

Jess Chambers, one of the Boulder County truckers, had the freight route between Boulder and Jamestown. His 13 mile climb through Left Hand and James canyons took him all day. When he reached his destination, he unloaded his supplies, then filled his empty wagon with gold ore, delivering it to a mill in Boulder the next day.

The old-timers agreed that the real challenge was operating a loaded rig downhill. The driver pressed his foot on a lever that controlled a heavy block of aspen, used as a brake on the large wheels of his cart. To maintain control on a very steep road, he sometimes had to chain the rear wheels together, a process known as “hard locking”.

People and mail were also transported on four- or six-passenger stagecoaches between Boulder and mountain towns that were not on the rail line. When the railroad was first built and only reached the town of Sunset, the stagecoaches met the trains, allowing passengers to continue to Ward.

Stage and freight drivers held a set of reins for each pair of horses or mules in their teams. In a six-horse team, the first set was for the “leading” pair. Then came the “swing” pair who needed to be guided around a curve or away from protruding rocks. The pair closest to the coach or wagon were the pair of “wheels” which did the heavy pulling and braking.

An 1896 article in the Camera informed Boulder readers that every effort was made on the stagecoaches “to make the journey pleasant for the customers.” The Boulder-Jamestown stage was driven by Walter Wright who not only pleased his patrons, but amazed them as well. Nobody seemed to know what happened to his right hand, but he ended up with a stump under his right elbow.

Wright, already in his 50s in 1900, simply wrapped one or two of the reins around what was left of his arm and was known to maneuver his six-horse teams better than most other riders. It’s a shame Wright wasn’t alive during Crossen’s time, because he would have done a good interview.

Silvia Pettem writes about Boulder County history. She can be contacted at silviapettem@gmail.com. She and Carol Taylor alternate the “In Retrospect” story column.

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