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My Little Rocky Mountain Canary (thank you, W.C.)

In addition to being a term of endearment used by W. C. Fields, Rocky Mountain Canary refers to that glorious beast of burden, the burro, used by early prospectors in the American West.  In the West the word “burro,” coming from the Spanish, is interchangeable with “donkey.”  There is now recognized a connotation of size, a burro being a smaller donkey, but whatever the size, the braying characteristic of the animal can be heard for over three kilometers.  This vocalization  (“eeyore”) named Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend as well as earning the animal the title of Rocky Mountain Canary.

ca.1900 Pack train (donkeys) at Carbonate Mine

The burro was the animal of choice to accompany miners.  It carried supplies, equipment and ore and was a particularly sociable partner.  It adapted so well to human contact that frequently miners could lead without ropes, the burro following its owner.  Burros had an emotional value for their owners, becoming the subjects of tales and songs.  As mining became less an individual pursuit and more of an underground operation, donkeys and burros were often simply turned loose.  Their descendants are protected by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, as interpreted by the Bureau of Land Management. Burros found their place in Eagle County during those early mining years, working with miners but also being employed in the timber industry.  As mentioned in a previous post, lumber was needed for buildings and also for the stoping used in local mines.  “In 1880 [Red Cliff] got its first sawmill running on Turkey Creek. … The first slab was sawed in Melvin Edwards’ mill on March 17, 1880.  It ‘was bound to the back of a burro decorated with evergreens in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.’  Quite a crowd followed it through town, celebrating in the traditional miner method.  Even the burro was given a few drinks.” –Early Days on the Eagle, quoting William Thom, p. 17.

Earl Beck and Rochester ready for a parade in Red Cliff 1970s

After the need for burros in the mining industry diminished, they were still found in the sport of burro racing which began in the 1930s, honoring those first miners [Alan J. Kania, Equus Magazine, May, 1980].  The First Annual Burro Race in Eagle occurred as part of the 1980 Flight Days celebration.  There was a 16.5 mile course up Bellyache Ridge and back into town.  The course was patrolled with no bikes, motorcycles or un-muffled vehicles permitted, and no pets along the course.  In a strange occurrence, Jim Gregg, from Dillon, was run over by his burro, Richard Nixon. Jim completed the race but needed stitches in his hand later on.  The political implications were not addressed. [Robin Ranger in the Eagle Valley Enterprise July 3, 1980]

Burro and friend at the Lloyd cabin, Lake Charles, 1930s

The Western Pack Burro Ass-ociation [ ] celebrates the burro by holding five races in five Colorado towns with mining histories during the summer season.  The World Championship Pack Burro Race for Burro Days in Fairplay, Colorado, is a 29-mile course beginning at 9,953 ft. in elevation, continuing over rough terrain to the summit of Mosquito Pass (13,000 ft.) and back.  This race has a 55-year history so far and has race rules.  Each animal must carry a pack with a pick, shovel and mining pan for a minimum load of 35 pounds.  The lead rope can be no longer than 15 ft. and the runner must have control of the animal at all times. Documentation of our mining history in Eagle County would not be complete without mentioning this amazing animal.  Attending one of the great burro races in Colorado is experiencing part of the past.

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