Autumn is upon us, and so today we turn to the colourful forests of North America for our story of cetacean folklore. Land-locked Colorado is not the first place you think of when it comes to marine mammals. But in the early 20th century, American lumberjacks told all sorts of stories about “fearsome critters”, and one of them was the Slide-Rock Bolter, a terrifying mountain whale.
The tale of the Slide-Rock Bolter comes to us from William Thomas Cox, the State Forester of Minnesota who in 1910 published Fearsome Critters of the Lumberwoods, with a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. In this collection of lumberjack tales from all over the United States, Cox detailed the various creatures that workers in the logging industry imagined late at night in their shanties. The Slide-Rock Bolter’s story is set in southwestern Colorado. Cox worked with forester Coert du Bois, who drew the illustrations, and botanist George Bishop Sudworth, whose Latin taxonomical names for the creatures added to the work’s tongue-in-cheek imitation of a field guide. Of the Slide-Rock Bolter, Cox writes:
In the mountains of Colorado, where in summer the woods are becoming infested with tourists, much uneasiness has been caused by the presence of the slide-rock bolter. This frightful animal lives only in the steepest mountain country where the slopes are greater than 45 degrees. It has an immense head, with small eyes, and a mouth somewhat on the order of a sculpin, running back beyond its ears. The tail consists of a divided flipper, with enormous grab-hooks, which it fastens over the crest of the mountain or ridge, often remaining there motionless for days at a time, watching the gulch for tourists or any other hapless creature that may enter it. At the right moment, after sighting a tourist, it will lift its tail, thus loosening its hold on the mountain, and with its small eyes riveted on the poor unfortunate, and drooling thin skid grease from the corners of its mouth, which greatly accelerates its speed, the bolter comes down like a toboggan, scooping in its victim as it goes, its own impetus carrying it up the next slope, where it again slaps its tail over the ridge and waits. Whole parties of tourists are reported to have been gulped at one scoop by taking parties far back into the hills. The animal is a menace not only to tourist but to the woods as well. Many a draw through spruce-covered slopes has been laid low, the trees being knocked out by the roots or mowed off as by a scythe where the bolter has crashed down through from the peaks above.
Like most creatures that lumberjacks told stories about, the Slide-Rock Bolter was probably conjured up late one night as part of a storytelling contest, when seasoned campers competed to convince newcomers that “fearsome critters” lurked in the woods. Far away from the ocean where any real cetacean would swim, the form of a whale was likely chosen because of its great size and distinctive tail, which suits the peculiar behaviour of this particular cryptid. Cox’s account goes on to describe how one forest ranger tricked the Slide-Rock Bolter into attacking a dummy dressed as a tourist. The bait? A Colorado guidebook and a Norfolk jacket, common to the upper class men who could afford to seek adventure in the exotic west. The dummy was stuffed with dynamite, however, and when the Bolter slid down Lizard Head for the kill, “the resulting explosion flattened half the buildings in Rico, which were never rebuilt”. It is this story’s unusually precise geographic location in Rico, Colorado, that enables us to situate the Bolter in a wider context. An investigation into the economic history of Rico reveals the Slide-Rock Bolter to be a snapshot of the tensions that came with a time of great change in southwestern Colorado.
The buildings of Rico were not flattened in an explosive attempt to thwart a monstrous whale, but fell into disrepair following a dramatic economic shift that happened in the town shortly before the story of the Bolter was recorded. After gold was discovered in the region, American miners started moving in illegally to what had been confirmed as Ute territory by the Treaty of 1868. The Ute peoples spent several years trying to protect their land from invasion by gold-hungry prospectors, but their representative Ouray and his wife Chipeta were manipulated into ceding 3.7 million acres of land by Felix Brunot, chairman of the Board of Indian Commissioners, who never followed through on his promise to return Ouray’s captive son in exchange for the American right to mine the San Juan Mountains. Once the Brunot Agreement was signed, American mining operations began in earnest. Rico was one of the towns that popped up and boomed in the 1880s, reaching a population of 5,000 in 1892. The very next year, however, Rico’s fortunes turned when a silver panic hit the town. As the price of silver plummeted, most businesses closed, and by the end of the century the population had dropped to 811. Rito’s prosperity was gone as quickly as it had come.
Where the mining declined, another industry immediately eclipsed it: lumber. American violation of the Brunot Agreement provoked violent retaliation, which led to the expulsion of the Ute peoples to Utah in 1881. This left their heavily forested homeland open for exploitation. The forests of southwestern Colorado were felled at first to support the mining industry, but by the time the mines were abandoned the demand for timber for railroads was high enough that logging remained profitable. The New Mexico Logging Company acquired the cutting rights for the prized western yellow pine that grew near Rico and proceeded to raze the land. The lumberjacks who worked here must have seen the strips of rubble on the mountainside that marked the spots of abandoned mines and connected them to Rico’s delapidated buildings, coming up with the story of the Slide-Rock Bolter to explain the ruination of both landscape and town.But like the mining before it, logging in southwestern Colorado suffered a bust as big as its boom. Deforestation was the main culprit. In 1914, the New Mexico Logging Company relocated further south because in one decade they had exhausted the timber supply that had supported the Utes for hundreds of years. In light of the shocking rate of deforestation, the nascent American conservation movement sought to restrict logging in Colorado, so it is perhaps no surprise that the lumberjacks’ Slide-Rock Bolter targeted well-to-do East Coast tourists. The lumberjacks of 1910 must have seen eco-tourists and their conservationist agenda as the real threat to their livelihood, rather than the environmental havoc they themselves were wreaking. Although the story of the Slide-Rock Bolter was playful, it hints at the tensions between the lumberjacks and conservationists. Caught between the death of mining and the rise of national parks, the story recorded in Fearsome Critters of the Lumberwoods captures the fleeting moment of logging’s supremacy in the history of southwestern Colorado. In fact, it was their transience that prompted Cox to record the stories:
The lumber regions are contracting. Stretches of forest that once seemed boundless are all but gone, and many a stream is quiet that once ran full of logs and echoed to the song of the river driver. Some say that the old type of logger himself is becoming extinct. It is my purpose in this little book to preserve at least a description and sketch some of the interesting animals which he has originated.
Lumberjacks invented the Slide-Rock Bolter in response to the visible evidence of environmental damage left by the mining industry while unknowingly contributing to that devastation with their own activities. In a few decades following the treaty-breaking expulsion of the Ute, who had lived sustainably in southwestern Colorado for hundreds of years, the mining and lumber industries managed to bleed the land dry. The man-eating mountain whale of Lizard Head was born of Colorado’s complicated settlement history and serves as a reminder of how quickly human greed can transform a landscape.