Judge Dyer in the Lake County War
by Brennan Ruegg, Leadville Today Contributor
Lake County was once much bigger than it is today. Now one of Colorado’s smallest counties, Lake at one time included everything in the Upper Arkansas Valley including Buena Vista, and then county seat, Granite, where Father Dyer’s son Elias served as a probate judge. Dyer once said of Lake County “I had reason to respect many of the citizens. Few professed anything but to take the world as it came, and that generally proved to be a very rough way.” The minister would find today, though the county has changed in size, it has lost nothing in the way of its style.
But while Father Dyer continued to spread the gospel in Monument, a war was about to begin in Lake County, fueled by the very alcohol Dyer began his life denouncing, and that would eventually result in the death of his son in 1875.
Known as “the foulest blot upon the early history of the county,” the Lake County War claimed the lives of at least ten, if not one hundred men between 1874 and 1881. It began with the death of a farmsteader named George Harrington. Harrington, attempting to extinguish a fire at his home set by a gang of arsonists, was shot and killed by one of the mob members before the eyes of his own wife, infant daughter, and visiting younger sister. Harrington’s death would be the first of many, as justice would be sought for the murder and never found.
Elijah Gibbs, who was known to have a dispute with Harrington over land and water rights, was the first suspect. But after Gibbs was tried and acquitted in a court of law, some were still determined to see him hang. A drunken mob formed to demand Gibbs’ surrender and hanging at his home, resulting in the death of three men, and Gibbs’ escape. The surviving members of the mob formed what they called a “Committee of Safety,” who in the subsequent years successfully corrupted the highest levels of county authority, and in an early display of McCarthyism, persecuted, tortured, killed, and harassed all those who believed Gibbs to be innocent of Harrington’s murder.
Father Dyer learned just how far the committee’s influence reached when he tried to levy a bill with his friends in government and saw them each fail weakly. After his son, the Probate Judge Elias Dyer made it publicly known that he believed in Gibbs’ innocence, he stayed with his father in Monument, until the spring of 1875 when he returned to Granite to preside over the trials of Committee members accused in the latest crimes. And it was here that Judge Elias Dyer was assassinated, after issuing a warrant for 28 men suspect in the non-fatal hanging of one of the Committee’s enemies.
The deaths didn’t stop with Judge Dyer, and it would be six more years until the conflict saw its end. For a more detailed account of the Lake County War and its unanswered questions, click here to read a comprehensive article from Colorado Central Magazine’s Charles F. Price.
John Dyer sold his son’s half of the failing Dyer mine to friend H.A.W. Tabor for $3,000, who sold it two years later for $60,000. The news of his son’s death came late in Dyer’s life, and not altogether by surprise. He has already buried two of his children. No man was ever charged with the murder, and though it clearly pained him, it would be his faith once again that would keep him preaching, building, and fighting in the name of God. Incidentally, the Lake County war would lead to the inception of Chaffee County, as Dyer relates:
“It may seem strange that I have never taken active steps to bring my son’s murderers to justice”…”To have successfully combated it would have required more money than I could command. Besides, the county was comparatively poor, and the trials would have entailed large costs so that the tax-payers dreaded and discouraged the prosecution. But after the Leadville boom, when the county had grown rich and strong, encouraged by Mr. —- Hayden, one of my son’s best friends, and who was the last with him before the murder, I fully purposed to make the attempt. The mob, however, never ceased to fear; and so influenced the division of the county, and had Chaffee set off, in which once more they were in the majority.”
Father Dyer continued to preach on circuits to Alma and Fairplay, to attend conferences on the Western Slope and in Leadville, and to build a church in Breckenridge and a Christian base in Denver. He set foot in nearly every town and corner of Colorado in the name of God, never slowing down until his death in 1901. He died with his heart in the Rocky Mountains, as in the final words of his autobiography written days before his death, he reaffirms what so many holy men have found at the base of their faith: evidence of awesome creation in the landscape of the world.
“…what would Denver be with her many railroads, if it were not for the towering mountains close in her front, stored with the richest treasures that the great Creator ever bestowed on any part of our nation? And all that the towns and cities, from Greeley to Trinidad, have to do, when they get hard up, is to look to the mountains, for there the treasures are abundant and unfailing. Colorado, from north to south, from east to west, has seen her darkest days, and the Barren Plains are beginning to rejoice and blossom as the rose.”
Brennan Ruegg is also an Ohioan, staking claims in the state of Colorado. He is a regular Contributor to Leadville Today.
Father Dyer Postal Route Race Held on April 7
Today, Father Dyer is remembered by North America’s highest ski race which roughly follows his weekly postal route from Leadville to what was Buckskin Joe. The 2018 Father Dyer Postal Route race will begin April 7 at 5 a.m., but various events are planned all weekend.
The present-day Father Dyer Postal Route takes racers up 3 peaks over 12,000′ including Centennial 13er Dyer Mountain (13,855’) and involves three demanding backcountry ski lines. And if spring snowstorms continue to roll through, the same snow-laden high altitude basins once traveled by the one-and-only Father Dyer could present similar conditions for modern-day challenges.
This event is a fundraiser for the Leadville High Riders Snow Trails Association (501c3) in conjunction with the Lake County Winter Trails Committee. Profits from the race go to supporting winter trails maintenance and development in the Leadville area.
The Father Dyer Postal Route includes a weekend of activities, however, the 5 a.m. start time on Saturday, Apr. 7 will have mountaineering fanatics up and at it before the sunrise! Race organizers are also looking for volunteers to assist with course marshaling, check stations, timing and “morale” stations. Check their site for all the details.
Remember, this is an unsupported team race. There is a mandatory gear list. Registration is already closed, but spectators may feel free to show up the day of the race and cheer on the competitors!