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PBS program explores role women played at Colorado mining camps

Colorado’s mining camps during the state’s Gold Rush in the late 1800s were no place for a lady. And yet, numerous women and girls lived in the rowdy, rough camps with husbands and fathers who were hoping to strike it rich.

The hardships of living in a mining camp from the female point of view is the subject of a Rocky Mountain PBS Colorado Experience episode, “Ladies of the Mines,” which will be screened Jan. 12 in Durango.

The topic was suggested by Rudy and Andie Davison, who have homes in Durango and Telluride, in the station’s Viewers’ Choice contest in spring 2015.

“The overarching theme is life during the Colorado Gold Rush, when mining towns and camps were popping up all over the place,” the episode’s writer-director Mariel Rodriguez-McGill said. “Then we look at what it was like overall for women.”

Among those interviewed for the story were Rudy Davison, a historian and author who sits on the boards of the Telluride Historical Museum and Mining History Association, and Fort Lewis College Professor Emeritus Duane Smith.

“Duane told us there are tons of books by men about mining, and most of them are pretty technical,” Rodriguez-McGill said. “He said the visual, colorful stories come from women writing letters, journals and memoirs.”

The episode illustrates the difficulty for everyone living in the camps as well as focusing on the female experience.

“They were living in Victorian times and still had to cover their ankles, wrists and necks even though they were living in muddy, muddy towns,” Rodriguez-McGill said. “And there were so many risks: the weather; illness, like the Spanish flu pandemic; childbirth, when so many died, leaving children alone. For the children, even if they survived, so many died before they had a chance to grow up.”

The short documentary focuses on three women – Harriet Fish Bacus, of Tomboy Bride fame, who lived near Telluride; Mabel Barbee Lee and Anne Ellis. Ellis grew up in poverty near the Bonanza Mine in Saguache County before ending up in Cripple Creek; Lee grew up in Cripple Creek.

“Harriet grew up in Oakland, California, and she hadn’t even cooked before,” Rodriguez-McGill said. “And here she was having to order groceries by mule train and cook two miles above sea level.”

The project used resources from History Colorado, the Denver Public Library’s Western and Genealogical Collection, the University of Colorado-Boulder, Telluride Historical Museum and the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. The Animas Museum, Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College and the San Juan Basin Archaeological Society are co-sponsoring the screenings, which will include a reception at the start of the evening and a panel discussion with Rudy Davison and the producers afterward.

Colorado Experience, in its third season, received more than 100 submissions for the Viewers’ Choice contest. Rodriguez-McGill and Executive Producer Julie Speer winnowed them down to six finalists, which was a tough task, they said. Viewers were asked to vote for their favorite of the six.

“More than 300 voted, many on social media, but we allowed them to vote by email, too,” Rodriguez-McGill said. “A lot of them voted for multiple ideas because they couldn’t pick just one.”

The other finalists were Caribou Ranch, the studio near Nederland where scores of famous musicians and bands such as Michael Jackson, Elton John, Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire recorded; the first sheriff in El Paso County, Rankin Scott Kelly, who captured Big Tooth Jim, also known as “The Terror of the Rockies” after he killed 35 people; the Big Thompson Flood; the KKK in Colorado; and George Gallious Ross, Colorado’s first African-American lawyer who challenged the state’s Jim Crow laws.

Speer and Rodriguez-McGill were so taken by Kelly’s story that they made an episode about him even though the topic didn’t win. And they may return to Durango in a future season to work on the KKK involvement around the state.

But for now, the focus is on the women who braved the harsh conditions of Colorado’s mining communities.

“Mabel’s father saw how hard it was and didn’t want her to marry a miner,” Rodriguez-Miguel said. “He wanted her to have a great education. So he sent her to a finishing school in Colorado Springs.”

Lee eventually graduated from Colorado College and became its dean of women before she went on to be the admissions director at Radcliffe and Bennington colleges.

But when she retired, Lee returned to her roots in Cripple Creek, perhaps because no matter how tough life was there, it was still home.


If you go

Rocky Mountain PBS will screen “Ladies of the Mines” twice in Southwest Colorado:

Jan. 12: 6 p.m. reception, 6:30 p.m. at the Vallecito Room in the Student Union at Fort Lewis College in Durango.

Jan. 13: 6 p.m. reception, 6:30 p.m. at the Sheridan Opera House, 110 N. Oak St., in Telluride.

Both screenings will feature a panel discussion afterward including Colorado Experience series Executive Producer Julie Speer, the episode’s director and writer Mariel Rodriguez-McGill and Rudy Davison, who suggested the subject in the Viewers’ Choice contest.

The episode will air on Rocky Mountain PBS at 7 p.m. Jan. 14.

To learn more about the episode and Colorado Experience, visit www.rmpbs.org/coloradoexperience.

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