East Portal Camp Cabins—Gilpin County Historic Landmark
Historian and Vice Chair of the Gilpin County Historic Preservation Commission, B. Travis Wright, MPS, nominated the East Portal Camp Cabins at the Moffat Tunnel as a Gilpin County Historic Landmark. This landmark application can be tracked as LM-23-1.
What’s next for LM-23-1?
Nomination Filed (April 26, 2023) > Scheduled for May 2023 Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) Meeting > Review by HPC (May 18, 2023 at 6pm) > HPC Decided on Favorable Recommendation to the Board of County Commissioners (May 18, 2023) > Designation decision by the Gilpin County Board of County Commissioners (June 13, 2023 after 9:30am) > Local Landmark
NOMINATION LETTER FILED APRIL 26, 2023
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The nomination letter is below:
TRAVIS’ PUBLIC STATEMENT AS APPLICANT AT THE GILPIN COUNTY HISTORIC PRESERVATION COMMISSION MEETING
At the GIlpin County Historic Preservation Commission meeting held on Thursday, May 18, 2023, B. Travis Wright, MPS read the following statement, as applicant, to accompany the nomination of the East Portal Camp Cabins:
Ladies and Gentlemen—
Thank you all so much for coming—I’m both honored and really, really excited to be here.
My name is Travis, and I am the Vice Chair of the Gilpin County Historic Preservation Commission.
What follows are my prepared remarks, as the applicant, to support the nomination of the East Portal Camp Cabins at the Moffat Tunnel as a local landmark under Gilpin County Ordinance 19-01.
“History is not the story of strangers… it is the story of us, had we been born a little earlier.”
This quote from Stephen Fry is how I’ve started many, many presentations on Rollins Pass and the Moffat Tunnel over the years and tonight, I feel it really captures the importance of the human story behind what life was like at these cabins perched on the edge of wilderness, at the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel.
Place is really important to all of us.
When we move from one home to another, there’s something sentimental about quite literally closing the door on a chapter of our life’s story. It tugs at your heartstrings because on some level, you are leaving a piece of yourself behind. Homes, apartments, cabins—these dwellings are more than four walls, a floor, and a roof: they bear witness to our lived experiences. In some way I can’t fully articulate, our memories adhere to those places and seep into the bones of a structure.
And so, this evening I wanted to share with the commission, staff, and public four brief articles that I feel encapsulates what life was like for those who constructed the Moffat Tunnel—these are stories of birthdays, heartbreak, special guests, and courage—in other words, daily life.
Remember: these are our stories… if we’d have only been born a little bit earlier.
The first story was published in The Steamboat Pilot. The headline on February 23, 1927, read:
DRILLER AT MOFFAT TUNNEL GETS UNIQUE “TUNNEL” CAKE
‘Sandy’ Aitken, who has been boss of ten of the hard rock drillers at East Portal, went to Denver after the holing thru of the pioneer Moffat Tunnel, to celebrate his 24th birthday anniversary with his mother. Mrs. Aitken had made for him one of the most original and beautifully designed birthday cakes ever made. The cake which was almost three feet square and six inches high, and weighed 20 pounds, was in the form of three mountains, James peak, Mount Eva, and Parry’s peak, under which the tunnel passes. The three peaks were covered with snow frosting, and showed a growth of pine on the sides. The east and west portal openings of the tunnel were made with tiny candles, showing the tracks running into the tunnel.
The wonderful confection was baked by a chef at the Cosmopolitan hotel. Sandy took it back to East Portal, where it was carefully divided in two pieces, one-half cut in pieces for the men at East Portal and the other half given to the men at West Portal. It was Aitken who persuaded tunnel officials to allow him to drill thru the last 30 feet of rock Saturday morning, February 12. He started working at the tunnel in October, 1923.
As a quick side note, I really like that story. The first use of the Moffat Tunnel was to deliver birthday cake! Other stories one year into the construction relate that prior to the start of a shift, workers would go to the cafeteria and fill their lunchboxes—some with sandwiches, but many others would take “fix or six pieces of pie and nothing else or perhaps as many pieces of cake.”
From sweet… to bitter and heartbreaking. The second story I’d like to share was published in The Daily Journal on January 4, 1926:
TWO KILLED, ONE HURT IN MOFFAT TUNNEL BLAST
EAST PORTAL, Colo., Jan. 4- —Two men are dead here, and a third man is in a serious condition as the result of a powder blast set off in the east bore of the Moffat tunnel shortly after midnight last night. The two dead men are Pete Giaconelli and Dan Mertroff, while Frank Christian is in a dangerous condition. The three men were working far back in the Moffat tunnel bore when they saw lights and the flash of a blast coming. Because they were partitioned off from the blast by a canvas wall, the three men continued working. The blast in some unknown manner tore away the canvas and the men were overcome before they could escape. They were found a short time later by fellow workmen, who, smelling gas, started to investigate and found the three men lying in the tunnel.
The third story should touch your heart as well, but in a warm and humanizing way—for it was published in Christmas Eve edition of The Steamboat Pilot in 1924:
AT THE TUNNEL CAMPS: Santa Claus Will be at East Portal Tomorrow with Big Feed
Moffat tunnel workmen and their families at the East Portal camp will enjoy a big Christmas dinner, with roast turkey and all the fixin’s [sic], as well as a community Christmas tree party Thursday.
Forty or more children who attend the East Portal school will be given presents from the big tree. A program of community singing, special musical selections, distribution of presents and refreshments, has been planned.
Plans are being made to have Santa Claus himself pay East Portal a visit and distribute the gifts. The men, women and children at the West Portal Moffat tunnel camp held their Christmas party several days ago.
Finally, a story that transitions us from a holiday hero to everyday heroism to save exactly what has been nominated as a local landmark and what will be voted on this evening. This incredible story courtesy of the February 14, 1927, Daily Times:
MACHINE SHOPS AT EAST PORTAL BURN
EAST PORTAL, Feb. 13.—The machine and blacksmith shops of the East Portal Moffat tunnel mining camp, housed in a building 110 by 58 feet, were completely destroyed late this afternoon by a fire which started in the blacksmith shop.
The fire, which started at 5:05 o’clock, was brought under control forty minutes later, after 300 men joined in combatting the flames, which for a time, threatened to destroy the entire camp.
No estimate of the loss was made.
It was officially announced the fire would not delay the work of holing thru the tunnel, and that the monster demonstration set for Feb. 18 would be carried out.
Only the quick work of the 300 men saved the camp from total loss. Ed Hollifield quickly summoned a crew of men and rushed to the powder house. The door was locked and the workmen were delayed several minutes.
One hundred cases of nitro-glycerine dynamite, grading 60 and 80 per cent, together with 30,000 blasting caps, containing fulminate of mercury, the most sensitive and powerful explosion made, were stored in the building. The workmen carried the dynamite and caps to a safe distance 200 yards away thru dense clouds of smoke. Had the fire touched off the explosives everything in the camp would have been destroyed and probably would have cost scores of lives.
For me after reading these four stories, I have a deeper, more personal connection to those who called East Portal home. When I first read these articles, I was more than reading a newspaper—I was a time traveler—a silent witness watching birthdays unfold and cake shared through the Continental Divide, I saw through someone else’s panicked eyes the three men lying on the floor of the tunnel and of others rushing to get help. I warmly smiled at the excitement of holiday festivities and the anticipation that comes in knowing that even Santa Claus once found, with ease, these small gingerbread cabins tucked away in northwestern Gilpin County. Finally, the story of the threatened existence of East Portal. I observed hundreds scramble to extinguish an inferno and noted some who made a desperate dash to the locked powder house containing latent explosives. They battled—and won—to preserve what was their home.
Thankfully, we don’t need to rely on newspapers alone to understand what life was like at the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel. These five remaining structures stand today and certainly meet the criteria to become designated as Gilpin County’s next local landmark.
Tonight, let us honor those lived experiences, those homes, those repositories of memories of the families of who lived, labored, gathered, perished, persevered, and ultimately triumphed at East Portal.
At the beginning of my remarks, I shared that, “History is not the story of strangers… it is the story of us, had we been born a little earlier.”
The other part of that quote is: “How can we understand our present or glimpse our future if we cannot understand our past? How can we know who we are if we don’t know who we were?” That question—that quest—is the foundation behind what we do here as a commission and is the gift that we bequeath to future generations in Gilpin County.
REVIEW BY HISTORIC PRESERVATION COMMISSION AT THE MAY 18, 2023 MEETING
The Historic Preservation Commission is advisory to the Board of County Commissioners, and our unanimous favorable recommendation goes before the Gilpin County Board of County Commissioners on June 13th for what we hope will result in a resolution approving a historic landmark designation for the East Portal Camp Cabins. The motion by the preservation commissioners was unanimous for a favorable recommendation, 4-0.
TRAVIS’ PUBLIC STATEMENT AS APPLICANT AT THE GILPIN COUNTY BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS MEETING
To be shared on or after June 13, 2023.
BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS DESIGNATION DECISION ON JUNE 13, 2023
To be determined.
NEXT STEPS FOR THE EAST PORTAL CAMP CABINS AT THE MOFFAT TUNNEL
To be determined.
The primary purpose of our work is to inform the public.