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Over 200 Swedish Ostrobothnian Immigrants Lived in Telluride of the Gold Rush

Karl G. Olin

The first vein of silver in the San Miguel District of Colorado was discovered in 1875. The deposits quickly lured mining companies and miners, and a little tent city grew up in the shallow valley where Telluride lies today. But only when the mines began to yield gold instead of silver in the 1890's did the real rush set in. Telluride also received a strong push forward in 1890 when the city was reached by the railroad for the first time. The mining town grew up very quickly, along with everything that comes with easy money and hard living. Telluride experienced its era of greatness around the turn of the century when the population rose to about 5,000 people. Surprisingly enough, many of them were Swedish Finns and nearly all of them came from Swedish Ostrobothnia.

How it happened that so many Ostrobothnian immigrants found their way to this remote mining area is not known. Anders Myhrman suggested in his standard work, Finland Swedes in America, that John Frank Kamb from Korsnäs together with five other Ostrobothnians came traveling to Telluride in 1888. Kamb went into partnership with two other newcomers, Andrew Berg and John Franzén from Närpes. Together, the three pioneers began to work a small mine a good distance from the city. A directory which is exhibited in the museum in Telluride relates, however, that there was one Finn among the very first residents in the area. In the directory, which is from 1885, he is listed as John Nicholson, white male, 31 years of age, and unmarried. Nicholson was accompanied by two Swedes of the same age, according to the directory. At the maximum, according to Myhrman, 250 Swede Finns lived in Telluride. Most of them appeared to have come from the area between Kronoby and Vörå. The number of Finnish Finns in Telluride grew to around 200.

In Telluride, 40 different language groups lived in their own neighborhoods. The Swede Finns were mainly located on Oak Street. Only a little bit away, Finn Town was located, where the Finnish-speaking people lived. The relations between the two groups from the same country were relatively good, even if they generally didn't mix socially. The children, on the other hand, often played together, and it was common that they knew both languages. But, of course, there occurred a number of tensions and even fights between children and young people from different ethnic groups.

Elvira Wunderlich, one of Telluride's oldest residents, tells about when she was little and the children stole donkeys from each other. In Telluride there were, of course, a number of more or less ownerless donkeys which the children competed to catch and ride. When the Italian, Irish and German children had caught the donkeys, the Finnish children would steal one. But then the other children stole the donkeys back and so it went... It was, when all is said and done, a pretty innocent game.

The Order of Runeberg

The Swedish Finns in Telluride organized themselves in 1898 into a temperance organization which was called "Forward". Under the association's management a social hall was constructed called "Swede-Finn Hall". The hall was incorporated some years later by a group which went by the name of "Österbotten Brothers". The interest in temperance was not especially big among the miners, and the association died out. However, it soon revived under the name "Aurora". At the most, the association had up to 50 members and, in addition, a special youth group.

In 1917, a medical aid association was established which included the Swede Finns in Telluride. Later it was combined with the temperance group into the Swedish-speaking Finnish American immigrants' organization, "The Order of Runeberg".

Even if the temperance association had a certain success, alcohol was commonly found among the Ostrobothnian bachelors. According to emigrant August Kock from Pedersöre at the time, most of the men who married became well-behaved. But there were also Ostrobothnians who ran saloons, for example Ed Beck and C. N. Nylund.

The Finns in Telluride founded a cooperative store too, which went by the name "Finn Store". It was managed by John Simons from Oravais. There were also four steam baths located in the Finnish neighborhood which were open to the public.

A number of the Ostrobothnians earned a living as construction workers, as well as miners. Widows of the mine workers usually made their living as laundry women. There were also many who boarded miners. That meant in practice that the miner had a room during the weekend when he came into town. During the week the workers lived in barracks in connection with the mines.

The Wild West

During the weekend Telluride swarmed with life. The nearly two thousand miners who came into town lived a fast life which was just as rough as their work. The money was spent in any of the city's 36 saloons, was lost at the gaming tables, or ended up with some of the city's many prostitutes. Fistfights and shootouts were more the rule than the exception during these happy gold rush weekends.

Telluride can also boast about being the town where the legendary bank robber Butch Cassidy made his debut. It happened in June 1899, when Cassidy together with two companions robbed the San Miguel National Bank and got away with over $30,000. The bank never recovered its money.

Gunman Jim Clarke was appointed on another occasion as deputy sheriff by the Telluride townsfolk. Clarke, who had made his name as a member of the Jesse James gang, was given the job of driving out a gang of gunmen who were terrorizing the city. Clarke did a good job, but outside of Telluride's borders he continued his career on the wrong side of the law.

Fighting Gunfire in the Mine

Down in the mines it could also get hot. In September 1919, three Ostrobothnians were killed by Italians down in Tomboy Shaft. The three who were murdered were Alfred Sund from Munsala, Gus Danielson from Jeppo, and Eric Smith from Malax. The reason for the shootout was never determined. They suspected that the Ostrobothnians had found gold, which led to the Italians' envy. The perpetrators were sentenced to life in the penitentiary.

The miner's life was rough. Accidents in the mines were not unusual. Pneumonia and blacklung took many casualties. In the beginning of the 1940's they estimated that about 100 Swede Finns had died either in or after being in Telluride. Of those, 70 were buried in the Lone Tree Cemetery. The rest had moved away and died in other areas.

Temperance Hall

Much of the Swede Finns' social life revolved around the Swede-Finn Hall. It functioned as the gathering place for all of life's events. Baptisms, weddings, meetings, dances, masquerades, Christmas parties, yes even funerals were held in the hall. Dancing parties were arranged in both Swede-Finn Hall and Finn Hall Fridays and Saturdays, and it was natural, therefore, that they competed as to who had drawn the largest crowd.

For natural reasons there was a big surplus of bachelors in the Swede Finn colony. Unmarried women who arrived in the city had no difficulty finding a mate. The lack of women meant there was also a big market in prostitution. The southern part of the city where the whorehouses were located were forbidden territory for children and proper ladies. At one time there were 175 prostitutes in Telluride. The last bordello was closed as late as the 1950's.

In the old days it was also forbidden for respectable women to go into the saloons. The Finnish halls and associations thereby came to have a very great importance for the social intercourse between men and women. One time all the bachelors over 27 years of age invited all the Swede Finns to an elegant dinner with a dance following in the hall. They had provided themselves with white membership tags where their ages were printed together with the question, "How old are you?".

During Christmas, the Swede Finns gathered for a community-wide Christmas party in the hall. They seated themselves along the long table, ate lutefisk, drank glög, and were visited by the Jultomte (Christmas Elf). Then there was a tremendous dance to the sounds of an Italian accordionist. It was said that the whole hall rocked noticeably when the miners picked up speed in their heavy shoes during a schottische or polka.

Another important event in the Swede Finn society was the Midsummer picnic. Usually they went to Bear Creek, where the Swede Finns had their picnic on one side of the hill and the Finns on the other. After the picnic, they returned to Telluride for a dance at the hall. The Midsummer was celebrated the whole day long. In fact, community festivals could last for several days.

Musta Karhu

The mines in Telluride belonged as a rule to the big mining companies, but there were immigrants from Finland who attempted their own mining operations. One group formed a partnership around the mine Musta Karhu or, in English, "Black Bear". It took three years of laborious toil before the mine began to pay off. The Finns had stumbled upon a rich vein, but the problems were many. The mine was flooded and was plagued by avalanches. Besides that, the gold vein was also being worked in another mine from the other side of the mountain. Finally, the Finns lost their mine as a result of a swindle.

Others lost their savings and even their land in the Crash of 1929. There were many immigrants from Finland who left Telluride during the 1930's Depression. It struck Telluride heavily, and the mining operations were nearly defunct. The savings which were left in the city's bank were saved in an unusual way. The bank director was successful through a swindle in duping the banks in the East, and the residents of Telluride got to keep their money. With the lack of work in the mines, there were many who threw themselves into the moonshine business. The city's location, with only one road leading to it, made it easy for the Telluride residents to warn one another when the authorities were approaching.

The Last Mine in the Seventies

After the depression the mining operations went through a new boom, but with the years one mine after another was closed. Still, as late as the 1970's a certain amount of mining for copper and zinc went on, but the few workers who were needed for the operations then came into the community by bus or lived in a special trailer park. Telluride was already at that time in the process of being changed into a tourist resort.

Today, it is experiencing a new economic boom, being one of the truly "hot spots" for jet-setters in the USA and attracting film stars and other millionaires. The old Finnish miners have gradually passed away or moved to other areas, but fortunately the old Telluride itself has been declared a National Historic District so that the old buildings and memories of the past can be preserved.

Published by SFHS Newsletter 1995, Vol. 4, No.2

© K-G Olin

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