She packed a punch and vital goods

Friday, Feb. 17, 2012 11:39 PM
Courtesy Ernie Schaaf family and center of southwest Studies
A resident and legend in La Plata Canyon, Olga Schaaf Little exemplified the grit and grace of pioneer women in Colorado, and she may have been the only woman burro packer in the Rocky Mountains.
Courtesy Ernie Schaaf Family and Center of Southwest Studies
Sandy the lead burro stops the pack train for a photograph on a narrow trail in the La Plata Mountains. Burro packer Olga Little stands leaning against one of her burros in the center of the photo.
Courtesy Ernie Schaaf Family and Center of Southwest Studies
Olga Little hauled supplies into the Gold King Mine in La Plata Canyon during its boom years. Now all that remains of the mine is the stone chimney on the right side of the road as visitors drive, or ski, up La Plata Canyon.
Courtesy Ernie Schaaf Family and Center of Southwest Studies
Beloved by the working men in La Plata Canyon, Olga Little stands next to one of her burros and poses with miners. A century ago this winter, she saved the lives of 18 miners at the Neglected Mine up Junction Creek by bringing them safely to food and shelter amid a raging blizzard.

LA PLATA CANYON — The early winter of 1912 wasn’t a winter like this one. It was a typical San Juan winter with freezing temperatures, packed ice, deep snowdrifts and nightly cold. Up Junction Creek, the men who mined had run out of food. Only a woman could save them.

It’s been 100 years since burro-packer Olga Little rescued 18 starving miners from the Neglected Mine high in the La Plata Mountains. In the entire Rocky Mountains she was the only woman packer who used a burro string to haul in supplies and haul out ore. Most of the trails she used rose above 10,000 feet, and many of the mines were above 11,000 feet. Named in her honor, Olga Little Mountain rises to 11,426 feet in the La Platas, east of Kennebec Pass.

She packed from 1909 into the 1940s, taking supplies into all the La Plata mines including the Mayday, Incas, Jumbo, Lucky Moon, Gold King, Idaho, Tomahawk and the Bessie G., which was the farthest up Kennebec Pass above Junction Creek. The Rio Grande Southern railroad had a line to Mayday and freighted in coal, which railroaders offloaded. Little charged $5 a ton to bring coal up to the mines with her two strings of 20 burros, and she’d load each burro with three 70-pound sacks, one on each side and one on top. Little lifted and loaded those heavy sacks without any help.

She may have been a petite 5 feet 4, but she was whipcord strong and cut from pioneer cloth. Once three of her burros loaded with dynamite fell several hundred feet off Kennebec Pass. They died, but the dynamite never exploded. Nothing fazed her, and she did a “man’s” job without hesitation. She’d travel in any weather and take any risk. Over the years, she packed out injured men and even corpses.

Yet Little had her sensitive side, too. A favorite story passed down by her family happened when she was packing heavy mine timbers to the Neglected Mine. Every burro carried a timber on each side, and on one trip the next-to-last burro sent a hoof flying. The last burro reared and snapped his guideline, falling backward into heavy snow. The two timbers acted like a large toboggan and down the burro sped to the bottom of a gulch with snow 4 1/2 feet deep. Undaunted, Olga dropped into the gulch and shoveled snow out around a big spruce tree next to the burro. For the rest of the winter she brought a half-bale of hay to her burro every couple of days until spring when he could climb out.

Little also packed in heavy cables for tram systems. The 25-foot coils of 2-inch-thick cables had lead splices. She’d load one coil per burro and then play out the cable to the next burro until with her entire pack string she could haul hundreds of feet of taut steel line. She kept burros at her place in Mayday, and each animal had a custom-fitted saddle with its name etched on the leather. She’d pack in food, whiskey, newspapers and dynamite. She’d pack out gold and silver ore down to the smelter at the site of the current Durango dog park.

Born in Germany in 1883, Olga and her family soon immigrated to Phillips County, near Holyoke in northeastern Colorado, to take up a homestead and live in a sod house. Meager returns from dry-land farming forced her family to look elsewhere, and by covered wagon they moved their stock 400 miles to Chama, N.M., where Olga attended classes in Spanish. That was all the formal education she ever received.

At age 12 or 13, she and her brother rode burros 150 miles to Durango, and her family later settled in Animas City. Olga Little began breaking horses for local ranchers for $5 a week. She learned to catch and break wild horses and to shoe her own stock. She could tie the packer’s diamond hitch knot in record time. She became a Lady Jackpacker because it was a job she could do and the mines desperately needed the supplies she provided.

Little packed on a regular schedule, and when miners knew she was coming, they’d shave and put on clean overalls. They had enormous respect for Little, and if anyone caused her trouble or inconvenience, they’d have had hell to pay. After breaking a leg when her horse fell on an icy trail, she got back in the saddle and made it to the Neglected Mine. A physician set her leg, and though it was painful, she met the man of her life, a Scottish miner named William Little who worked at the Neglected. They married and moved to the mouth of La Plata Canyon.

That deep snowy winter of 1912, Little was used to the cold and sleet, but miners working in tunnels and adits grew accustomed to a standard interior mine temperature of 40-50 degrees. They hadn’t been out in the weather. Little knew that without food, the men had to leave; so she spaced the miners in between her trusty burros and tied them all together in a desperate attempt to walk to Transfer seven miles away. The miners clung to her burros’ tails. In snow, sleet and zero visibility it took from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. to make the trip. Though some men suffered frostbite, all agreed they would have died if not for Olga.

Over the years, the mining industry honored her. She became a member of Denver’s Sour-Dough Club, and in 1958 at the Denver Coliseum in front of 10,000 people, she was the subject of “This Is Your Life,” a TV program filmed in the state’s Capitol on the 100th anniversary of gold’s discovery in Colorado. Television host Ralph Edwards smiled and gave her a lady’s Bulova watch and a new salmon-colored Ford Edsel station wagon. Not bad for a lady Jackpacker who used to load coal on burros by hand!

What did she do to become famous? She was a muscular, resourceful woman who excelled in a man’s vocation. Undaunted by deep snow or cold, she kept to her schedule as a burro packer and she could always be relied upon.

March is not only time for spring blizzards, but also Women’s History Month. So let’s honor Olga Little for being a no-nonsense female entrepreneur. It wasn’t only men who won the West.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at