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The unsolved case of the Dead Iron Mule

Locations: News Published

By Justin Patrick
Special to The Sopris Sun

Near Marble, up rock-and-mud County Road 3 just past the Outward Bound facility, lies the North Lost Trailhead. It is one of the less-travelled entrances into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, and for good cause. It is hard to spot, for starters. But it is also steep and overgrown and requires at least two substantial creek crossings and does not offer any immediately gratifying views, the kind prized by typical day hikers. Further detracting from its appeal, this winter a particularly forceful avalanche swept through the narrow gully along North Lost Creek and obliterated a section of the trail. There is now a tangle of large downed trees and burgeoning vegetation that one must dutifully wrangle to link up with the established trail.

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Those tenacious enough to trudge through the debris and continue along the steep, winding trail will eventually come to a small, slanted meadow at about 10,000 feet of elevation. Many hikers with their “gotta keep truckin’” blinders on will zip past it (I missed it the first time), but astute observers will notice that about twenty or so yards west off the trail, partially obscured by brush and tall grass, sits the remains of a rather large, rather old iron behemoth that looks a lot like a steam locomotive, at first glance, but clearly is not, on second glance.

This rust-bitten machine is about ten or fifteen feet long and must weigh several tons. It appears that it was abandoned while heading down the meadow towards town. At least that is how it is oriented. The front of the apparatus has a large compartment — a boiler — with a spout protruding from the top. Peering into this cavernous compartment, one can see a smattering of coaster-sized holes cut out of a barrier between this and the longer back side. Next to and detached from the main body is a pair of humongous iron wheels connected by an axle, and they appear to have been dragging a plow, though it looks like it was hammered on haphazardly and perhaps was not included with the original manufacture. The only clue about this machine’s origins is an engraving that reads “Frick & Co” and “Waynesboro, PA.”

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Seeing as this author is an amateur historian — and I do mean amateur — I began searching for an explanation as to why this heavy, unwieldy machine was left to rot in this precarious, isolated spot, and what it might have been doing there in the first place, and when. I regret to inform readers that despite my research and consultation with local historians, I do not have a definitive explanation about what this beast of a contraption and its master(s) were doing exactly, but I have contemplated some plausible theories.

What is clear is that this little piece of history abandoned in a meadow is yet another example of how almost unfathomably difficult life was in this area just a hundred years ago, and to what great pains the rugged settlers here suffered to tame the land, with both impressive successes and colossal failures. Indeed, despite the knowledge and technological advantages afforded by the modern age, we continue to wrestle with our mountains, which makes our forefathers’ plights all the more relatable.

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Frick & Company was a manufacturing powerhouse incepted before the Civil War and became the economic driver of Waynesboro. Its colorful founder, George Frick, grew his business from a small shop to a humming factory so notable that it was profiled by Scientific American in 1883.

Indeed, in its heyday in the mid-1870s, Frick & Co. was manufacturing, among other machines, over 4,000 steam engines per year that were being sold in markets as far away as Australia and racking up awards at state fairs across the U.S. The bigger units were sold at roughly $100,000 in today’s dollars, and were employed for a variety of essential industrial and agricultural purposes. They could be used as portable saw mills, plows, engines — essentially a power station on wheels. In one old black-and-white photo a steam engine is depicted pulling an entire house between locations, much like a modern Mack truck might. In a Frick catalogue from the late 1800s the Eclipse Steam Engine, which appears to be the most likely match for the machine on the North Lost Trail, is referred to as the “Iron Mule.”

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Unfortunately for my purposes as a historical detective, the potential multiple uses of the steam engine only adds to the mystery of its presence outside Marble, which was once a hub for silver mining, a bustling marble extraction industry, and one population center in a more or less lawless territory where any number of ambitious characters may have been trying their hands at any gamut of thoroughly logical or absolutely hare-brained schemes, funded perhaps by speculative investors out east.

It seems unlikely that a steam engine could have appeared on the scene without the assistance of locomotive transport. A paper delivered to me by Pitkin County official and local historian Dale Will, authored by Darrell Munsell, documents that the Crystal River Railroad was running to Redstone and then Placita by the turn of the century, at the behest of wealthy coal magnate and industrialist John Osgood, who built the Redstone Castle. Perhaps the Iron Mule was delivered by rail to the area in the very early 1900s, and was then set loose to perform whatever mission or missions it was commissioned to do.

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By whom, and to what end, I could not devise. It seems a stretch to posit that such a powerful, expensive machine was chugged out to its current grave site simply to plow a tiny high-altitude meadow with a short growing season (to grow what, exactly? Potatoes, which could not have been particularly lucrative?). My friend and colleague Peter Hart, whose family boasts a rich generational history in the state and is a rather astute observer of the human condition, offered perhaps the best explanation.

“Some weasel,” and I’m paraphrasing here, “probably swindled a big city money man to hire him to build a road through that valley — maybe to a mining claim. He got as far as he could, clearing rocks and trees and forging a shoddy road with the plow, crashed the thing or broke an axle or most likely just looked around the isolated, rugged valley and said ‘to hell with this,’ walked on out of there, blew the contract purse on whiskey and loose women, and was never heard from again.” In an era when outlaws were robbing banks and disappearing into canyons across state lines, a coal magnate was building a utopian mining village and castle in Redstone, and dentist-turned-gunslinger Doc Holliday was wasting away peacefully after a morally ambiguous life in a sanatorium in Glenwood, then why not?

The case of the Dead Iron Mule may never be solved, but hopefully it will continue to spark the imaginations of today’s relatively carefree hikers recreating in valleys that once claimed souls by the hundreds. Whoever was at the helm of that steam engine, were they to learn that one day Slow-Groovin’-BBQ devouring tourists would be admiring the beauty of the damnable Lost Trail on a pleasant Saturday jaunt, and returning to a centrally-heated hotel room, would probably have taken to drink long before risking their lives for a nugget of silver.

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