Updated: August 7, 2013 at 7:42 am
Samuel Deihl was one of thousands, but still a bit unusual. More than a century ago, he failed utterly as a gold prospector, but became a legend in family folklore.
When veins of gold were discovered running through Colorado's mountains in the 1800s, midwesterners and southerners like Deihl flocked to the Rocky Mountains, hoping to strike it rich.
Like the others, Deihl invested in his trip west, gambling on a life of bad luck, happenstance and gold fever. He took out a loan against his rural Illinois farm to finance his way to Colorado Springs, where in 1891 a carpenter named Winfield Scott Stratton, as legend has it, angrily kicked a mine-tunnel wall, causing a small shower of gold rocks to fall at his feet.
Unlike thousands of men who abandoned their families and died in the rocky depths or spent their lives working for the man, Deihl brought his seven children and wife with him for a summer trip. With his farm money, he bought a Pullman railroad car for them to live in while he prospected. In Colorado Springs, the family saw the sights - Deihl took his wife and 18-year-old daughter Caroline to the Garden of the Gods for a burro ride.
More than a century later, little remains of Deihl's ill-begotten gold fever. He never struck it rich, and returned to McLean County, Ill., where his descendants lived and were buried for generations to come.
Little remains of Deihl's ambitions, that is, but two tintypes taken at the Garden of the Gods, and a family folktale, passed down by his daughter Caroline to her 12 grandchildren. On Tuesday, five of the grandchildren circled Balanced Rock in the park looking for the exact spot where their grandmother and her parents likely stood 110 years ago.
But like the details of Deihl's adventures, the spot was hard to pin down.
"The story in the family is that our great-grandfather had come from Illinois, borrowed money on his farm," said Rick Kaufman, the family's amateur genealogist. "He borrowed money against the farm to pay for gold. He had a son who was pretty wild, and I think he's the one that might have got him invested."
Gold prospecting was a wild but commonly encouraged dream around the turn of the century, said Casey Pearce, a historian at the Western Museum of Mining and Industry in Colorado Springs.
"There were hundreds of books and pamphlets," on mining, some of them written by men who had never left the East Coast, Pearce said. They spun fantastically false tales that made mining in Colorado seem like a summer camping trip, she added. Once in the Rockies, ambitious prospectors were quickly plunged into the dirty, dangerous reality of mining.
"It's very, very dangerous," she added. "Most of our gold is underground," which required expensive and often lethal equipment.
The Cripple Creek gold rush spanned nearly 50 years - from 1851 until around 1900 - and the promise of instant riches wooed many a toiling Midwestern farmer west.
"They did very often sell or mortgage everything they had to get out here, and get a shotgun and pan," Pearce said. "His (Deihl's) story was actually pretty common."
The uncommon man was Stratton, who worked as a carpenter in Colorado to pay his way through the Colorado School of Mines. On July 4, 1891, he discovered the Independence Mine west of Colorado Springs. It was one of the richest veins in the world and Stratton started "making obscene amounts of money," Pearce said.
Unlike Stratton, a farmer like Deihl, who arrived at the rush's tail end and likely knew little to nothing about geology, had little chance of success, Pearce said. Most prospectors had no idea where to look for gold veins. While would-be miners might have had big dreams of staking a claim and selling it, "they usually ended up underground working for somebody else," giving up, or dying in the mines, Pearce said.
Much of the detail of Deihl's life and goals have faded over the years - the exact location of the Illinois farm, how many trips he made to Colorado or how much money he lost. What little Kaufman and his cousins know about their great-grandfather comes from Caroline's memories, and basic genealogy. The gold dreams did ultimately cost Deihl some of the farm, Kaufman thinks.
Some of Deihl's great-grandchildren still live in McLean County, others have scattered to Missouri and Kentucky, but all have copies of the Garden of the Gods photos.
When five of them came to Colorado for a wedding this month, they decided to recreate the tintypes of their grandmother and great-grandfather. But time and man have clearly transformed the contours of Balanced Rock - it was hard to find the point where Grandma perched behind her parents. The cousins - Rick, Randy Strubhar, Jody Johnson, Janet Estes, and Valerie Allison - walked around the rock, and took photos from the north and south just to be safe.
The cousins have travelled around the world tracking down their roots, from France to Germany and to El Paso County. By the time they left Colorado Springs on Wednesday morning, little more of Deihl's prospecting ambitions had been revealed - Kaufman did learn that the original photos were likely taken in 1904 - but Kaufman's ambitions to discover more of his great-grandfather's past were renewed. He planned to return home to Illinois and do more research on Deihl's farm.
"It's sort of an interesting tale in a way," he said. "And being two generations out of it, it's something that becomes interesting and it moves your life into somebody else's life. It has kept us coming back."
Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0261