Mollie Kathleen Gortner: Sitting on a Gold Mine
I hear tell that some people don’t like history—not even Western history. Whaa? For the life of me, I don’t understand that. Nope. Now, if you want to tell me you don’t like algebra, I can get behind you on that. Letters have no place in math, in my humble opinion. But history? What’s not to like? There’s adventure and intrigue that’s ours for the digging through dates and facts and we don’t even have to solve for x. Today, I’m digging out the story of Mollie Kathleen Gortner, both the woman and the gold mine that bears her name.
Yours, Mine and Ours
When Mollie Kathleen Gortner’s son, Perry left their home in Colorado Springs to work as a surveyor in Cripple Creek, Colorado, he was quite impressed by the amount of gold in the area. He talked about it so much that his dear ol’ Ma wanted to see for herself.
Some people say she went because she was concerned about her son’s safety. Or maybe she had an adventurous spirit. Whatever her motivation was, she convinced her husband, Henry, that they needed to gather up supplies and drive the family wagon to Cripple Creek. They moved into the log and canvas tent Perry had constructed. Today, she might be accused of helicopter parenting, but it was the 1890s. At most, you could accuse her of being a covered wagon parent.
Sitting on a Gold Mine
It was September of 1891 when Perry came home from work telling tales of a huge herd of elk he had spotted. Mollie Kathleen did what any good covered wagon parent with an ounce of curiosity would do. She set off to see the elk for herself. While she was looking for elk, she eyed an interesting rock formation that turned out to be gold in quartz. Ironically, Mollie had been searching for elk in a spot known as Poverty Gulch. That was well before Jed Clampett went shooting at some food and up from the ground came a bubblin’ crude. (Oh, admit it, there do seem to be some eerie similarities between these stories!)
Unlike Jed Clampett, Mollie did not go running back to the home place screaming at the top of her lungs. Mollie Gortner had the good sense to hide some of the ore in her clothing and skedaddle quietly on home. Having a surveyor for a son was a real advantage. He surveyed the site and then sat on it while Mollie Kathleen took care of business. Armed with the survey description Perry had provided for her, Mollie set off for town, where she filed a gold claim in (get this!) her own name. When the clerk balked, Mollie informed him that her husband Henry was a lawyer and the clerk could argue with Henry when he got home from Colorado City. The clerk wasn’t happy about it, but Mollie Kathleen Gortner became the first woman in Colorado (and, quite possibly anywhere) to stake her claim, as it were.
It’s interesting to note that, even after the mine was in full swing, the National Geological Survey visited it. Their written report stated that “Mr. M.C. Gortner” had discovered the mine. Where did the “Mr. M.C.” come from? Mollie Kathleen’s given name was Mary Catherine and the “Mr.” came from the author’s imagination!
Mine Over Matter
The mine was in Mollie’s name, but it was Perry who had the responsibility of overseeing the mine. It wasn’t because Mollie Kathleen couldn’t have done the job, however. It was because the miners had some far-fetched notion that a woman at the site of a mine was bad luck. They sure as heck didn’t want to take their chances! So, Mollie pretty well steered clear. When she did visit, the men promptly came to the surface and waited for her to leave before getting back to work. You might say that she drove the workers out of their mine. Well, you probably wouldn’t say that, but I couldn’t resist.
Keep an Open Mine
Mollie died in 1917 and her husband, Henry, died a short time after that. Perry was left with a one-third interest in the Mollie Kathleen mine. Perry ran the mine until his death in 1949. Aside from the time when there was a forced government shutdown of the mine, during WWII, the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine was in continuous operation from the time it opened in 1891, until 1961. In terms of U.S. Presidents, that takes us all the way from Benjamin Harrison to Dwight D. Eisenhower, narrowly missing out on the Kennedy administration.
If you ever visit Cripple Creek, Colorado, you’ll probably hear about Mollie Kathleen—both the gold mine and the woman. The Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine is a vertical shaft that descends 1050 feet into a mountain. To put some perspective on that, the Eiffel Tower is 1063 feet tall. Ooh-la-la! The mine is still a tourist attraction, and is visited by an around 40,000 people each year. (To put some perspective on that, I estimate that’s about the number of people shopping at my local Costco on the Sunday before Christmas. But maybe I’m wrong in my estimation of that.) The Mollie Kathleen is the only vertical gold mine offering tours, today.
The tour of the mine takes groups down in the original cases used by the miners. You might be surprised to learn that the trip down only takes about two minutes. Whoa! That is lickety-split, people! I’ve been in modern elevators that don’t work that quickly! Visitors also get to witness the workings of mining equipment, from the equipment used in the 1890s all the way up to modern equipment.
A Mine of Information
If you like Historical Fiction, you might want to check out the novel, Twice a Bride, by Mona Hodgson. In it, Mollie Kathleen Gortner’s life plays out in a fictionalized story. Twice a Bride is one of four books in a series based on the women of Cripple Creek, Colorado.
I hope you’ve enjoyed digging through these dates and facts as much as I have. More than 122 years have passed since Mollie Kathleen Gortner first set foot in Cripple Creek and finding her story is still like striking it rich!
Take the mine tour in this great video!
Happy Trails y’all!