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Olga Little: A mining-era legend of the La Platas

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Monday, July 16, 2018 7:38 PM
Olga Little lived in May Day at the mouth of La Plata Canyon where the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad built a spur line. Routinely, she took 70-pound bags of coal off railroad cars and packed her burro string with a bag on top of each burro and one on each side.
Olga Little’s hardy burros hauled hay for other burros, which worked at high elevations in the La Plata Mountains deep inside gold and silver mines. Under Colorado law, burros that worked in mines received a month off each year to return to lower-elevation pastures to recover their eyesight.
A favorite among miners who shaved and dressed up when they knew she was coming, Olga Little visited almost all of the mines and miners in the La Plata Mountains. Once, she broke her leg when her horse took a tumble. The miner who made a toboggan for her and took her safely into Durango became her husband.
Olga Little and her pack train cross the La Plata River, probably at the ford near the Snowslide Campground in the San Juan National Forest. From there, she could have accessed many mines on the east side of the range.
Beginning her packing career in 1909, Olga Little burro-packed into the age of the first cars and trucks, which drove La Plata Canyon. Here, she poses with a local family. World War II and its restrictions closed many non-essential mines and ended her burro-packing into remote mines, but she continued to offer packing demonstrations for public ceremonies across the state into the 1960s.
At 11,426 feet, Olga Little Mountain is not the tallest in the La Plata Range, but it sits strategically between the top of Kennebec Pass and Junction Creek where Olga Little spent her career as Colorado’s only female burro-packer.
Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford

On a map, Olga Little Mountain is just east of Kennebec Pass and just south of the Colorado Trail, a segment of which she probably used for more 40 years to bring supplies to miners including food, medicine and dynamite.

Olga Little, Durango’s own famous female burro-packer, has many stories connected to her historic work delivering supplies to remote mines and miners.

She also has a mountain named for her in the La Platas. Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names bestowed the title “Olga Little Mountain” on an 11,426-foot-tall peak east of Kennebec Pass. So as a historian who respects Olga’s legend, I thought I should climb it.

The trouble is – there’s no trail. The knob juts up below Lewis Peak and above Junction Creek. It sticks out in the middle of the mountains where she brought supplies into numerous mines. But it’s not easy to get up that ridge, with acres of 4-foot-tall alder and willows to wade through on the approach. There’s loose rock and depths of slippery pine-needle duff as you try to walk the spine of the saddle without catapulting headfirst and falling.

Olga Little was a hardworking Western woman doing a man’s job as a burro-packer and requiring her to wear men’s clothing, including tall boots, jodhpurs and a cowboy hat.
Courtesy of the Animas Museum of the La Plata County Historical Society

A hiking pole that had seen me up and out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon did not survive my trek to Olga Little Mountain. The lowest segment bent as I braced against it to avoid toppling off the ridge. With scratches on both forearms and blood caked on one wrist, and if my hiking partner, Steve, and my dog had not been so far ahead of me, I might have called off the hike. We could have headed back to Kennebec Pass for my parked truck, cheese, crackers and beer. But with my hiking buddy and my black pup out of hearing, I had to keep going. I quit complaining to myself when I thought of Olga’s stamina and her pluck.

HHHBefore she turned 20, Olga Schaaf began as a burro-packer. Frank Rivers of the Ruby Mine knew her as an expert horsewoman. He asked her to take a string of loaded burros into his mine. “I can’t. I don’t know a thing about packing,” she told him.

“I’ll pack the animals,” Rivers said. “Surely, you can lead them to the mine.” Olga’s family were hardworking pioneers and quick cash from a short job was not to be turned down. She led the burros, got to the mine at dark and discovered no sleeping accommodations for women. She was not bunking with male miners. She stayed up all night and left at dawn.

Then, John Ball, superintendent of the Neglected Mine high up Junction Creek, asked her to take a load of ore to the American Smelting and Refining Plant in Durango, now the site of the Dog Park by the Animas River. Olga Schaaf agreed, and her career began. She married miner Bill Little in 1913.

Olga Little trusted her string of pack burros and they trusted her. Here, her burros travel on one of the many La Plata Mountain trails they knew so well.
Courtesy of Center of Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College

Olga became a legend in the La Platas. She took her string of 20 burros into every mine on every bench, most at 11,000 feet. She packed into the Mountain Meadow, Texas Chief, Non-Pariel, Small Hopes, Cumberland, Lewis Mt. Mining & Milling, Gold King, Lucky Four, Tomahawk, Durango Girl, Lucky Moon, Monarch, May Day, Ten Broeck and the Oro Fino. At only 5-foot-4 and 138 pounds, she loaded burros by hand-lifting three 70-pound packs – one on each side and one on top, delicately balanced and tightly tied with a double diamond hitch. On her return trips, she carried between 80- and 125-pound sacks of ore.

Olga packed in lumber, cement, coal, rails for mine tracks, cook stoves, heating stoves, ammunition, tobacco, mail, medicine and food. She packed out valuable ore concentrates worth as much as $5,000 a load. She charged $20 a ton for hauling freight and could pack a ton on 10 burros. Olga’s secret was simple – she trusted her burros and they trusted her. Unlike other packers, she never whipped or cussed her critters. A writer for True West Magazine said, “Dressed in men’s clothing to withstand the rigors of mountain life, full of good humor, unlike her fellow pack-train drivers, (she) never spoke a cuss word in her life.”

HHHClambering up Olga Little Mountain, I wasn’t cussing either, but I came damn close. At least Olga kept to trails. Here I was, scrambling over loose rock, fallen trees and low branches that whacked me in the head more than once. But I wasn’t carrying dynamite. Often, she was.

Imagine the difficulty of packing into remote mines in winter with vitally needed food, supplies and wooden boxes of dynamite. Once, over a cliff, she lost three burros, each loaded with TNT. The burros died, but luckily when she checked on them, the dynamite did not explode.

“Lots of people thought my job was awful, but I never gave it a thought. There’s nothing dangerous about it,” she told the Rocky Mountain News on July 4, 1947.

We made it to the summit of Olga Little Mountain. The blue lines of other ridges stretched below us, obscured by smoke from the 416 Fire to the east, which had just begun. I took off my pack to feel the breeze and walk atop the small grassy knoll named in her honor. Not many people had been there. No cairn. Just a small glass jar with a rusted lid and a tiny spiral notebook. We summited on June 2, 2018. The last entry in the notebook had been two years before when elk hunters had topped the ridge on Sept. 18, 2016. Few folks make that hard climb. Hunters, mostly.

As Colorado’s only female jackpacker, Olga Little provided a lifeline to mines and miners, especially in deep winter. Here, she leaves the Gold King Mine probably with a few tons of gold concentrates headed for the Durango Smelter.
Courtesy of the Animas Museum of the La Plata County Historical Society

As we turned to go, I thought of Olga’s most famous story, the tale of this small, whipcord strong woman, 29 years old, saving 17 men at the Neglected Mine in winter 1912. There was 10 feet of snow on the ground, and men and burros had only oatmeal to eat. She needed to get them to safety at Transfer Camp, seven miles away. Olga tied everyone together, and she and her eight burros packed the trail as the freezing miners, not used to the winter weather Olga endured daily, trudged along in a snowstorm. They left at 7:30 a.m. and arrived at 11 p.m. Some with frostbite. All alive.

For that long, brutal 30-degrees-below-zero day, she went back and forth, encouraging the men, keeping them on their feet, moving them forward to safety. Olga Little saved their lives in dangerous terrain. Here I was descending Olga Little Mountain, caught again in the alders and willows so thick I let my little pup fend for herself.

From the top of Olga Little Mountain, Lewis Peak rises to the southwest. The executive secretary for the U.S. Board on Geographic Names encouraged the application to name the peak by saying in a letter, “I may be wrong, but I don’t think there is a feature in the country named for a woman muleskinner.” The name became official 25 years ago in 1983.
Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford

Finally, I made it to the edge and looked down on the Colorado Trail, an old segment Olga might have used. I’d lost my dog. I blew two sharp calls on a plastic whistle. I saw little Josie across the canyon, a 23-pound black streak wearing a green harness and tearing after fat, lazy marmots that easily eluded her. Taking her own sweet time, she came back and we rendezvoused with Steve and his Lab.

We hiked back to Kennebec Pass. We left in the morning, but by noon on a summer’s day, it looked like a used car lot. Trucks everywhere. Hikers, climbers, trail runners, plenty of tourists, but not a single miner. The mining legacy of La Plata Canyon and the role of Olga Little is all but forgotten in the 21st century. The landscape of a working West is now just scenery.

HHHIt’s a tough climb to the top of Olga Little Mountain, but maybe I’ll go back. There needs to be a small ammo can or a sealed container placed on the summit with information about Olga, her career and her role in La Plata County and Colorado history.

In 1981, Donald J. Orth, executive secretary for the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, wrote, “I may be wrong, but I don’t think there is a feature in the country named for a woman muleskinner. If proposed, I hope the name will be an interesting one.” Two years later, an unnamed La Plata peak became Olga Little Mountain. That was 25 years ago. Now, it’s time to put information about Olga Little up on the peak that bears her name. Who wants to help when the smoke clears and the rains return?

Andrew Gulliford is an historian and an award-winning author and editor. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.

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