Approaching timberline, attendees of the first McComber Mentoring Program field trip hike up to the Blue Bird mining claim.

Land mountainous.
Good pine.
Deep snow bank at head of creek.
Impossible to run line further.

These field notes, reported by Deputy U.S. Surveyor Benjamin M. Whittemore in 1873, describe the terrain above the Buckskin Joe mining camp near the present-day town of Alma, Colorado.1The Buckskin Joe camp was at the forefront of the first Colorado gold rush in 1859, although the land at that time was still part of the Kansas Territory. In 1859, Buckskin Joe miners were the first to adopt mining district rules for the region that now encompasses the state of Colorado. The placer gold in the region, which was mined from alluvial deposits, was quickly snatched up and Buckskin Joe was abandoned by 1866. But the rush was not over.

Miners once again swarmed into the area with the discovery of silver near the summit of Mt. Bross at the Moose Mine in 1871. By 1873, the survey of the public lands was well under way in the Colorado Territory and had finally reached the Alma area. The General Land Office (GLO) contracted Benjamin M. Whittemore to survey the north township line of Township 9 South, Range 78 West, of the Sixth Principal Meridian. Whittemore's work became part of the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) in Colorado. His original survey of the township line provided a group of modern Colorado surveyors led by Gene Kooper, PLS, with the opportunity to follow in his footsteps more than a hundred years later.

The quartzite stone in the center of this mound marks the north quarter section corner of Section 4, Township 8 South, Range 78 West of the 6th P.M. and was set by Deputy U.S. Surveyor Benjamin Whittemore on June 10, 1873.

Colorado Mining Camps

In 1873, the mining camps located in Colorado’s Park County provided many challenges to those who ventured forth in search of silver and gold. The ultimate challenge for the miners working in the area was the elevation. Located as high as 14,000 feet, these “aerial mines,” as newspapers described them at the time, presented unique physical and psychological challenges.

Few miners in North America worked at higher altitudes than those on Mt. Bross. For example, the Moose Mine was at an elevation of 13,860 ft. In the early days of its operation, the miners hiked up the mountainside each morning from camps below the timberline. The weather at this height was extreme and unpredictable, with blizzards in the winter and severe thunderstorms in the summer. One visitor to similar mining camps in Park County in 1873 described the camps of this region as:
“…curious cabins, perched on the steep and crumbling mountainside, like swallow’s nests against the rocks. Their roofs, like those of Swiss chalets, were kept in place by heavy stones. If I were a miner I should prefer to lodge in my tunnel--I would rather creep into the bosom of mother earth--than hang on to her ragged skirts when the winds were rising and avalanches falling.”2

Working as a miner was not an easy lifestyle, but the call of silver and gold was strong. By 1872, the rush was intensifying in Park County, as scores of prospectors, merchants, speculators and drifters entered during the summer. As mining became the state’s bread and butter industry, new challenges beyond inclement weather and rough living conditions emerged.

Looking out on the alpine valley, field trip attendees reflect on the beautiful surroundings and severe conditions the miners faced in the mid- to late-19th century in Colorado.

Competing Claims

As mining boomed throughout the Park County region, miners were faced with issues surrounding the legality of their claims. As more people poured into the camps, the miners quickly realized that the existing mining laws did not adequately address a situation where the mineral deposit occurred in horizontal beds. Other issues arose when mineral veins extended randomly below the earth’s surface. Miners were permitted under the 1866 and 1872 mining laws to follow the vein at depth. For cases where the vein was not vertical, miners could find themselves legally underneath the claim of another. Although the mining laws allowed these extralateral rights, mining under another miner’s claim could easily lead to havoc.

A Rocky Mountain News correspondent reacted to the highly charged atmosphere, where other new business ventures such as saloons were also prospering, with a quip that read:

“The boundary disputes will be exciting enough, without increasing the flame by alcoholic stimulants.”

In a similar report, The Denver Daily Times reported:

“Everybody over in [Park County’s] South Park is crazy, but there is a profitable method to their madness.”
The only hope to maintain order in this raucous frontier environment was to rely on official surveys conducted by U.S. deputy surveyors and U.S. deputy mineral surveyors under the supervision of the GLO. In many mountain mining towns at the time, when it came to settling land and property disputes, surveyors’ plats and the monuments they set were the ultimately authority.

Gene Kooper (center) discusses the official field notes of the Blue Bird Lode with the group.

Extending the PLSS

The first PLSS survey conducted in present-day Colorado was completed in 1859 by two U.S. deputy surveyors, Jarret Todd and James Withrow. They were contracted to extend the base line along the 40th parallel west to the summit of the Rocky Mountains. In June of 1873, Whittemore and his field crew spent 10 days laying out the north township line of Township 9 South, Range 78 West of the Sixth Principal Meridian. His crew included chainmen Erasmus Thompson and J.F. Morgan, flagman Chauncey Gile and axman Frederick Marlott. On June 10, the team crossed an icy-cold mountain stream and set a stone to mark the position of the north quarter corner of Section 4. The stone set by Whittemore and his crew, about two miles west of Buckskin Joe, was part of the rectangular survey system commonly referred to as the PLSS.

Many years after Whittemore surveyed the area, Gene Kooper, a professional land surveyor and geologist in Colorado, was tasked with retracing 19 lode mining claims above the former Buckskin Joe camp. Kooper’s work was for the Sweet Home Mine, which is renowned worldwide for its cherry red rhodochrosite (manganese carbonate) mineral specimens. As part of his retracement for the Sweet Home Mine, it was essential for Kooper to find the work Whittemore and his crew had completed 128 years before.

In this glacier-carved alpine valley, field trip participants use a Leica Geosystems SmartRover with GNSS to retrace the original surveys.

The Recovery

In September 2001, Kooper set out to recover the original monument for the north quarter section corner of Section 4 set by Whittenmore. He researched the GLO records and used Leica Geosystems (Norcross, Ga.) SR530 RTK GPS receivers to locate several mineral survey corners near the Sweet Home Mine. Once he had accurately determined the positions of the mineral survey corners, Kooper used the platted ties from them to the quarter corner to calculate a 10- to 20-foot search radius. On a picturesque fall day, he invited his wife Clara to join him in the search for the stone. They drove up Buckskin Gulch to where the Whittemore crew had laid out the township line.

Facing the same rough terrain as the original crew, the Koopers pushed their way into the tangled scrub oak adjacent to Buckskin Gulch. Gene knew the monument he hoped to find was likely buried by alluvium, but he was determined to find it. Armed with a shovel, a hand pick and an aerial photograph that he had plotted the ties from the mineral surveys on, Kooper spent an hour carefully combing the search area for the limestone monument set by Whittemore's team. Eventually, his search brought him to a small nondescript stone with only its top visible. After clearing away the nearby brush and digging alongside the north side of the stone, Kooper uncovered a prominent "1/4" chiseled on its north face. For the first time in decades, the surrounding mountains echoed with a howl of excitement not likely heard since Buckskin Joe miners first yelped at their own good fortune.

Although perplexed by her husband's exuberance in finding a rather plain rock buried in the mud, Clara was pleased that the hunt was successful. After rehabilitating the corner by clearing nearby brush and building a five-foot diameter ring of stones, the Koopers celebrated the find with a picnic lunch under a deep azure sky.

Mentoring Colorado's Young Surveyors

Five years after he recovered the corner, Kooper organized a field trip to the Buckskin Joe area for young survey technicians. The Professional Land Surveyors of Colorado (PLSC) and the Central Colorado Professional Surveyors (CCPS) sponsored the field trip was part of the Bill McComber Mentoring Program, which is an infomal educational program established in memory of longtime Colorado surveyor and mentor Bill McComber. The program, started in 2005, is an attempt to mentor young surveyors and expose them to a wide range of topics in an informal learning setting. The McComber Mentoring Program currently has PLSC chapter-sponsored programs in Denver, Colorado Springs, Delta, and Greeley with a fifth program underway in the Grand Junction area. The purpose of the field trip was to provide a setting where young surveyors could discover and evaluate field evidence leading to the recovery of an original GLO monument and where they could see several examples of original corners and their accessories.

The trip to the site of the monument began in Alma, and was made with four-wheel-drive vehicles up a dirt road laced with sharp rocks and boulders. Kooper, J.B. Guyton (current president of the PLSC), two PLS mentors and five students attended the field trip. Each attendee was provided with a copy of Whittemore’s original field notes and a copy of the township plat. With a newfound respect for their fellow professionals--who made the same trip on foot more than 130 years ago--the modern team hiked back to the point where Kooper recovered Whittemore’s monument. Kooper described his recovery efforts to the team and how he rehabilitated the monument to preserve its location for future surveyors.

Despite the beauty and grandeur of their immediate surroundings, the group’s full attention was on the small, but very visible inscription that marked the stone. “Seeing that sparkle in the students’ eyes as they first gazed upon a stone set more than 130 years ago was the true reward for organizing the field trip,” Kooper said. “Land surveying has deep roots and taking the time to show some of its history to the next generation of professional land surveyors is important.”

The team’s next stop was to examine a mineral survey corner and a bearing tree accessory scribed in 1932 by a mineral surveyor named Gerald Galloway to preserve the corner’s location. The team climbed a rocky slope, reaching a point just below timberline. At this elevation, bristle cone pines are the only trees hardy enough to survive in the harsh alpine climate. A few feet from an upright stone stood a young tree with a girth of only 22 inches. The west side of the pine still showed the scars from the scribing done by Galloway, marking it as Corner No. 1 of the Bluebird Lode.

Following Past Footsteps

"It's important for professionals in the industry to walk in the footsteps of long past surveyors and locate these old monuments," Guyton said. "The diligent recovery of evidence is the duty of [today's] surveyors, and if this evidence isn't found, future surveys will be wrong. Gene had the patience and diligence to find this monument and he should be commended for his efforts."

Without an understanding of the history and significance of mining and surveying to the growth of Colorado, it is possible that those who find the monuments set by surveyors like Benjamin Whittemore and Gerald Galloway would view them merely as old corner recoveries. However, these monuments became the points from which mining in the west could continue to grow and prosper in a manageable manner. Now, more than a hundred years later, they continue to stand and hold their positions, waiting for the future surveyors who will rediscover them.