Check out Bayard Taylor's Amazing 1860's Summer Trip through Colorado
“This landscape is unlike anything I have ever seen. How inadequate are my words….” July 2, 1866 – Bayard Taylor.
Colorado’s reputation as a perfect summertime adventure destination didn’t seem to start with John Denver’s serenade’s to the state’s starry night skies, cathedral mountains or friendly campfires after-all. The state seems to have garnered an early cadre of outdoor seeking enthusiasts as far back as the mid 1800’s.
Fueled by a nation recovering from the challenges and tragedies of the U.S. Civil War, the latter half of the 1860’s were an age of adventurous explorations of the West’s abundant frontiers. Bayard Taylor, one of the era’s more worldly travel writers, took off for Colorado’s wild & untempered mountains in 1866, penning the letters that would later become his iconic “Colorado: A Summer Trip” book.
His route started west through Kansas and eventually into Colorado through the widely used Smokey Hill Trail. From Denver, he arranged for the rest of his travels and set out for the area’s other Front Range metropolises starting with Golden, then tracing the Clear Creek canyon up to the early gold mining towns of Blackhawk, Central City, Nevadaville and Russleville. From there he made his way to Idaho Springs and Empire where he met with his new guide, William Byers, the original editor of the Rocky Mountain News. Byers would take their team up and through Middle Park by way of Berthoud Pass.
I wish we had a word in English corresponding to the German “resislust” – because that word, and none other, expresses the feeling with which one sets out on a journey, in the pure upper air of a mountain region. The blood circulates with nimble alacrity; the lungs expand with a tingling sense of delight; all sights and sounds of Nature have a character of cheer and encouragement… and one’s fellow-men are good fellows, every one of them.
For those that are familiar with Colorado’s many mountain ranges, wide grassy parks, raging river valleys and steep canyons, there is much about what Bayard writes about that is immediately recognizable to the reader. Reading through his travels, I can easily recall similar views, places, creeks, peaks and more that I’ve seen myself. It’s interesting to read about a place you know much about, but now must rebuild it in your mind’s eye without today’s paved highways or other modern conveniences. Crossing the Blue River for instance, is quite a bit more difficult in 1866 then it is today. What takes minutes today, takes hours if not days spent sledging through chest high bushlands and fording multiple swampy braided streams. Better than that however, is how much that Bayard describes that is not immediately familiar. There are place names that have faded from history that, for Bayard and his guides, were commonly known stops for any adventurer.
…for on a ridge, two miles away, we saw our first buffalo, – a dozen dark specks on the boundless green… They set off on a slow, lumbering gallop at our approach, their humps tossing up and down behind each other, with the regular movement of waves. On the Smokey Hill bottoms, toward evening, we saw the largest herd, numbering some four or five hundred animals.
From Middle Park, they made their way up and around into the Blue River Valley and into Silverthorn, where they continued into the high mountain town of Leadville. From there they made their way to Breckenridge for a quick out and back, before moving onto Buena Vista and down the Arkansas River Valley seemingly most of the way to Canyon City before weather forced them to turn north into South Park (probably by way of Guffey and Hartsel), and then scaling Kenosha Pass before descending the South Platte and on back to Denver. His journey through the state concluded by tracing the Platte River back through Nebraska.
Bayard’s, “Colorado: A Summer Trip,” when viewed via the highways of today, would cover 465 miles and would take you almost 11 hours to drive. For Bayard, we will probably never know his true mileage, but their trip seems to have taken them the better part of two months to complete.
Who is Bayard Taylor?
Bayard Taylor, was a poet, literary critic, translator and travel author. In 1846, he published Views Afoot, or Europe seen with Knapsack and Staff. This book’s success brought Taylor recognition as an author and was asked to serve as an editorial assistant for Graham’s Magazine for a few months in 1848. That same year, Horace Greeley, then editor of the Tribune, placed Taylor on his staff, securing Taylor a moderate income. His next journey, made when California’s Gold Rush was at its height, was as correspondent for the Tribune. From this expedition he returned by way of Mexico, and, seeing his opportunity, published a highly successful book of travels, entitled El Dorado; or, Adventures in the Path of Empire (1850). Within two weeks of release, the book sold 10,000 copies in the US and 30,000 in Great Britain.
In between this early work and “Colorado: A Summer Trip,” Bayard traveled far and wide, making it to Egypt where he ascended the Nile River, Palestine, Calcutta, China, Japan, Sicily, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and India. So, for Bayard to proclaim that Colorado’s landscape is unlike anything he had ever seen speaks much towards the West’s enduring and stunning beauty.