Colorado’s Reel History: The Elk Mountain Pilot

Our Colorado’s Reel History blog series showcases some of the many newspapers in our collection.


newspaper clipping with title "beer foam causes tragedy"
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Author Sandra Dallas describes Irwin, Gunnison County, Colorado, as a “lusty” mining town that between its 1880–1882 boom boasted twenty-three saloons, the only brass band in Gunnison County, and every manner of gambling device. A “seething mass” of five thousand populated Irwin during the summer, and still twenty-five hundred wintered there despite the deep snow, as much as twenty feet. Some accounts have it that prospectors felled trees in the snow for their cabins and once the spring thaw came there remained fifteen-foot stumps. In other places, Irwin’s inhabitants added segments to their stovepipes as the snow piled on the roofs only to find, in the spring, they had twenty-foot chimneys. But the harsh winters and treacherous terrain did not dissuade those who were drawn to Irwin and its highly productive silver ore mines that turned out $2 million.

Jonathan E. Phillips and Jonathan L. Lacey saw opportunity in Irwin and made their way to start the camp’s first—and only—newspaper. Leaving their posts on the Rosita Index and bringing some of the equipment with them, as well as ordering a printing outfit from Chicago, Phillips and Lacey hauled their equipment by ox team from Alamosa, Colorado, in the direction of Irwin. Six days and forty miles later, they found themselves stranded at the snow line three miles from Irwin. They decided that once snowshoes could be made, the equipment would be carried across the range, through the deep snow, to Irwin. With typeblocks in their pockets, paper strapped to their backs, and pieces of the hand press tucked under their arms, Phillips and Lacey snowshoed their way up the forty-five-degree ascent and down into Irwin, in a style, it was observed in their paper in 1881, “peculiarly western, evincing pluck, energy and perseverance, American to the extreme.”

Phillips and Lacey set up the press in a log cabin and printed the first issue of The Elk Mountain Pilot on June 17, 1880. The Gunnison Review  reported:

The Elk Mountain Pilot . . . made its first appearance Wednesday evening. The boys had a severe experience in getting into that camp, and encountered many difficulties in getting out their first issue, but despite all, they have issued a handsome and spicy paper, which was duly appreciated by the wide-awake people of the camp. The first six copies were sold at auction, bringing $158, the first $55, and the others smaller sums, making a handsome purse for the enterprising, plucky publishers.

Elk Mountain Pilot newspaper office

Elk Mountain Pilot Office, 1883

Initially, the Pilot reported regional mining news, tales of profitable strikes of coal, and mineral market prices. During the boom years, as Irwin thrived and grew in population, the Pilot published local news and social events, sporting news, and ran a town-gossip column called “What Baldy Sours Would Like to Know.” However, by 1884, the boom had ended and the population of Irwin had dwindled to “a whisper,” as Dallas explains. Lacey, who had bought out Phillips in 1881, packed up his press and moved the paper down the hill to Crested Butte. The last Irwin Pilot was published on May 10, 1884, and without missing a single issue, Lacey printed the next Pilot in Crested Butte on May 17, 1884.

The staunchly Republican Pilot served as the main paper in Crested Butte during its run and had a number of editors and publishers, including J. W. Rockefeller, who, besides bringing electricity to Crested Butte in 1889, was the president of the bank, mayor of nearby Gunnison, and was elected to the state Senate. The paper changed ownership eight times before Josephine L. Wise, formerly of Crystal Silver Lance, became editor of the paper from 1914 to 1916, and twice more until a Gunnison newspaperman, Charles T. Rawalt, purchased the paper in 1918 and published it until 1933. Rawalt sold the paper to another Gunnison publisher, Henry F. Lake, whose son, Rial Lake, took over in 1948 upon his father’s death. Lake sold the paper in the same year and the Pilot ended publication suddenly in July 1949.

For further reading on Irwin and the Pilot, see Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps by Sandra Dallas (University of Oklahoma Press, 1985) and Colorado Newspapers: A History & Inventory, 1859–2000 by Jane C. Harper, Craig W. Leavitt, and Thomas J. Noel (Colorado Press Association Foundation and Center for Colorado & the West at Auraria Library, 2014).

These newspapers have been digitized thanks to an NEH National Digital Newspaper Program grant. You can also read issues of the newspaper online at the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America and the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection.