by Ethan Seavey
The Welcome Center museum isn’t exceptionally well-known. I often hear variations of the same phrase: “Oh, I’ve been coming to Breckenridge for years and never knew there was a museum back here!” It does get a lot of foot traffic, though, because (as its name implies) it is in the back of the Welcome Center building.
As a docent, most of my job entails telling confused tourists to grab a map at the tourism office at the front of the building, or to find the toilets near the tourism office at the front of the building, or to find hiking guides in the stands in the tourism office at the front of the building. If they’re still confused, I’ll add, “This back here is our Welcome Center Museum! Lots of local history in this building. If you have any questions, I’m happy to help!”
Many (if not most) of our visitors stumble across the museum by accident, but they’re tourists, which means they have time to kill and don’t mind wandering around a place which they had no intention of visiting a few moments earlier. One such woman walked in last week. At the time, I was explaining to another guest the concept of dredge mining. Over the guest’s shoulder, a peripheral smile indicated to me that she was waiting for me to finish speaking.
“Dredge ‘boats’ — I put that word in quotes, because they’re not true boats — would sit on the river and dig up the rocks from the bottom. Then, they would separate the gold, and dump all the waste rock on the side of the river. Much, much quicker than panning it out by hand, though absolutely devastating for the environment.”
The woman who had just stepped in took this gap in conversation to look me right in the eye. Her walk as she approached me was one of wonder and awe; her arms swung slowly; her eyes were sharp and bright.
I’m not sure how she looked at the face I was making and took it as permission interrupt our conversation. That lone audience of myself, who judges my external reactions by imagining how I must look, saw my scrunched brow and slightly raised eyelid, tight lips and sucked-in cheeks, all of which said, “Do you really have the nerve to cut off my conversation with this guest?” which is still much nicer than what I was actually thinking.
“What is this place?” Her voice was bright and her hands animated, as if she had just discovered an entrance into a realm as dumbfounding as the heavenly spheres.
I smiled at the other guest as an apology before I said, “The Welcome Center museum! Lots of local history in this building. If you have any questions, let me know!” I then turned to continue my other conversation. But that last line, slipped in thoughtlessly, was my downfall. She took it as permission to step closer to me, and ask, “Oh you would know! What type of mining did we see over by Copper Mountain?”
“And they still do it to this day?”
“Well, no. Oh wait, are you talking about active mining in that area?”
She was silent.
“I mean, like, if you saw old, rusted equipment, it was copper mining, but anything newer is probably just construction.”
“So it was old?”
“Oh, it was real old. So it was copper then. Wow! And how was that mined? Veins of copper, just like gold?”
It was around this point that the other guest caught my eye, smiled at me, said thank you, and walked away—leaving me without any defense against this woman’s barrage of questions.
“Yes. They were looking for gold and wound up finding veins of copper instead.”
“Wow! And the mining done on the Blue River, right by town?”
“Yep, that was gold mining. Dredge boats. I was just mentioning it before, if you were listening…” by the look on her face, she wasn’t. She must have been so focused on her questions that she couldn’t hear me speaking. So, I repeated: “Basically, enormous boats called dredges sat on the rivers in town and dug up the riverbed, accessing the same gold you find while panning, but much more effectively. Unfortunately, that meant that dredges were used extensively, destroying the local environment.”
“Wow! And they trying to find veins of gold under the river?”
“No…they were finding the loose gold, the nuggets, the free gold. Gold that wound up in the river about a hundred thousand years ago, when glaciers carved into the land and then melted. It exposed those veins to water and brought down nuggets to the lowest point in the valley, which is the river. That’s why our mountain rivers are known to be rich in gold, that’s the reason gold panning began. Now dredging was arguably the most effective way to mine gold, but the damage as a result of the dredge mining in town is still felt by the wildlife in the area to this day.”
And for a moment here I misjudged her “Wow!” as an appalled exclamation, considering the destruction of the earth at the hands of humans. But it must have been an awestruck “Wow!” because she then said:
“Isn’t that just a wonderful gift from God? That He would hide these beautiful things under the earth, for us to go through so much work to find. Thank you for the information. Have a nice day.”
That conversation sits on my mind. The first day, remembering the shock from the woman suddenly bringing her god into the dialogue had me laughing, but now it’s the sixth day and I’m still thinking about it.
I like to try to understand most people I meet, but I can’t understand how someone could believe that any Good God would want us to destroy the earth around us in order to find a worthless metal. The Nuuchi-u had known about the gold in the valley for thousands of years, and the fur trappers had known about it for decades. Both had come to the understanding that the fertile Blue River valley had more food and resources than they could use, which is a good reason to keep an area secret. They knew what had happened in Georgia in the early 1800s; later on, they heard about what was happening in California in 1849; but once Ruben J. Spaulding brought his men up from Denver and found gold in 1859, the land would never recover. Within a year 5,000 white men had flooded into the valley and they began tearing the mountains apart for gold.
When I talk mining during tours or in the museum, I always assume the other person agrees that the destructive nature of mining was never worth the gold it extracts. Every so often, I am surprised to learn that I am wrong. They love Breckenridge—it is the most beautiful place in the world—and somehow also see the history as a gilded one, of determined men putting their lives at risk for gold. And they swell with pride for this Victorian town built by the very people who worked the miners to death in order to make their money.
Raised in the Catholic Church, I was always taught that humans had been given dominion over every living thing on the Earth. It is a source of pride, to be part of this dominant species on the planet. But when we use our dominion to hoard the Earth we stand upon, the morals get a little messy.
One of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods (or house).” When using these rules as a basis for a religious society, the decision that the sin is “coveting” is far too broad. Jealousy can only be a sin in a community in which everyone has an equal quality of life; and in that case, it only points out the pettiness of your jealousy. When used to a large scale—like. say, when used to rule an empire—it becomes a very dangerous lie, to tell people that the jealousy welling up inside must be stopped. To the people who don’t have food to eat and see their neighbors hoarding wheat, you demand they not covet? It tells the struggling to shut up and pray for things to get better, which, coincidentally, is an effective way of keeping the rich in power.
It’s a strong model, but not very forward-thinking. It only works as long as there is an abundance of food and water available to everyone, and an abundance of land to build your own house. Whoever is on Earth at the present moment can hoard as many resources as he would like. He has no responsibility to put some aside for his neighbors or the town’s children.
When everyone has full authority to tear the mountain apart, looting wood and animals and rocks, the land will die. It works just fine for a few generations, but then there’s no more gold and no more land. So, the fourth generation has to find some new frontier where they can start all over. The new frontier is mined for food and resources, and they sell their bountiful harvests to the original generations. The fourth and fifth generations build a town and get rich, but by the time the sixth generation rolls around, a new frontier must be found.
Only, humans are running out of frontiers to steal. In the meantime, they have conquered the land, and continue to do so. Chicago started as plains and now it’s concrete next to English lawns and trees from all over the world. The meadows have been tilled and plowed into farmland or paved over to build homes. Near Chicago I have never seen the wind move over the top of tall grassy fields which lie dormant.
If this God were a good one he wouldn’t have given humans dominion, because dominion does not coexist with life. Life relies on balance and hierarchies with checks and balances. Yes, the wolf always kills the deer, but when the wolf kill too many, their food starts to dwindle, and so too do their populations. So the deer, in turn, have no natural predator and an abundance of food, an explode in number.
On the other hand, when human kill too many deer, they switch to bison and run their numbers down, too. And when all the animals are dead, they find a way to ship food from elsewhere.
It cannot be the case that you believe God’s creation is a masterpiece and that you think that humanity has the unique freedom to both enjoy and destroy it. But, Gods creation also can’t be a masterpiece if it also dies at the hands of something as weak and disorganized as the human species.
Which leads me to believe that God’s creation is not a masterpiece at all, nor a creation, because it shows no clear vision, no single artist. It is the beauty of an incalculable number of different life forces warping the natural world in order to survive.
Humans have decided that they are individuals with no real connection to one another and it will be our downfall. In the last few hundred years, we have decided that the individual has more rights than the society they live in. And, when you ignore your neighbors, it’s much easier for your usage of free will and dominion to become destructive, and it is easier to leave nothing for the next generation.
Communities used to plan for the future, hundreds and thousands of years in advance. They developed healthy patterns of living on the land nearby. The peoples indigenous to America lived here for thousands of years and never had to worry about the total devastation of the land. Now, people are thinking in decades—as in, if it’s “decades” away, it can’t be that pressing today.
The Earth has dominion over us, and our attempts to gain control will result in our complete loss of it. Humans have the most control over the Earth today, as compared the entirety of human history. But our efforts have led to the Earth being further unable to be tame; like a horse which becomes more stubborn as you become stronger and better able to handle its reigns; so while you can hold on longer, when it is able to buck you, it bucks you far, but before it does, it calculates the throw so that your head dashes against a rock.