Department

The Accidental Activist

How 19th century Colorado gold miner Edwin Carter helped expose the environmental consequences of his trade.

By
April 2009

It was a rationalization that would have little place in contemporary environmentalism—particularly in Colorado, a state so ecologically conscientious that even the roadside sheep feel safe. Edwin Carter realized that to preserve animals, he would have to kill them. And so he did. He shot thousands from a wide range of species, everything from grizzlies to grouse. Then he showed them off.

In the 1870s, there was no Sierra Club or Audubon Society to guide (or protest) his unconventional thinking. So as the tall, white-bearded Breckenridge gold miner considered the wildlife he saw vanishing from the state's ecosystem—casualties of the mineral riches he and his fellow miners were reaping—the only tool he had was his intuition.

Instead of a villain, however, Carter became a hero. Among the few who remember his work today, he is known as the log cabin naturalist, a master of taxidermy who earned the nickname "Professor Carter" and became internationally famous for the vast collection of Rocky Mountain fauna he amassed over a 30-year span, a collection that helped launch what's now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. As we commemorate another Earth Day, we're reminded that Carter's true legacy—initiating a new way of viewing mining's effect on the environment—still applies today.

In the late 19th century, the era of Manifest Destiny, nobody believed Colorado's land or animals to be any more important than the new settlers' survival. Whatever minerals and wealth existed, particularly gold, were to be taken at any cost. Carter started out as one of these aspirants, leaving his native upstate New York at 18 to seek his fortune. He first arrived in Colorado in 1859 and finally settled in Breckenridge in 1868, by then earning a reputation matched by few peers in the region as a rare judge of placer ground; he seemed drawn to gold like a bomb-sniffing dog. When he once found a deer with gold in its molars, for instance, he traced the animal to its home and unearthed a rich stash of precious ore.

Yet as Carter's wealth and renown grew, he began seeing strange things in the areas he mined. Hills were torn apart and left barren and abandoned, an inevitable consequence of the trade. More troubling to Carter was what he saw happening to the animals. Deer and elk were growing deformed antlers, bison ceased calving, and livestock sprouted ungodly mutations, like a baby cow with two heads. Carter soon realized that ore-treatment chemicals such as cyanide were flowing unimpeded into the ecosystem and devastating soil, water, even air. With no preventive regulations in place, Carter began to worry that many of Colorado's animals might soon be extinct.

In the absence of a formal education—the limited records about him show that he got no further than high school; his few remaining letters are riddled with misspellings—Carter relied upon an innovative mind and stubborn determination. He could not write like John Muir or take photographs like Ansel Adams, but, while still living in New York, he had trained in taxidermy, a craft practiced by the likes of Charles Darwin and John James Audubon.

He soon realized that killing, and then preserving, these animals was his best way to document what he saw taking place. To compile his 3,300 stuffed specimens, Carter traveled for days in the dead of winter with his dog, Bismark, who towed a sled with provisions while Carter stalked species on snowshoe across some of the continent's most rugged and wild terrain. He was equally interested in the science of the animals' existence; he once observed a bird for three days before killing and mounting it. He also shot and stuffed grizzly bears, mountain lions, river otters, wolves, songbirds, and mountain goats. He even killed and mounted one ptarmigan a day for an entire year to document its changing colors. Carter's goal was to showcase each species in extensive detail; for example, he stuffed more than 40 grizzly specimens, everything from cubs to full-grown adults. He treated the hides with arsenic and other chemicals and prepared the animals in his self-built log cabin, which became Carter's Museum—free to all—that attracted an international cognoscenti of scientists and dignitaries. More than any pioneer, Carter put tiny Breckenridge on the world map.

Despite the fame his museum brought, Carter would remain strangely alone for his entire life, a "bachelor by choice," as one old mining acquaintance once described him. "The hectic life of a typical mining camp with its dance halls, its gambling dens, and its feverish excitement touched him not at all." Still, he was immensely popular, beloved by everyone from fellow miners and settlers to Colorado's Ute Indian tribes. Every night he would retreat to his tiny log cabin and sleep peacefully among his dead animals, including six full-size buffalo. He played the flute, engaged in snowball fights with local schoolchildren, and ran with a diverse, bawdy collection of scholars and high rollers. He was, as the Summit County Journal once described him, "a worthy example of what mankind should be."

Carter died in 1900, ironically after being poisoned by the arsenic he had been using to preserve his thousands of animal hides. His obituary in the Breckenridge Bulletin, headlined "Nature His Idol," lauded Carter's legacy as a shining example of austerity and conviction in feverishly changing times. "His was a sublime life in its simplicity," the paper wrote. "His mission was one of the most noble." Carter had sold his collection to a group of museum backers in Denver for $10,000, believing the emerging town was "destined to be one of the great cities on the continent," and after he died he lay in state at the Capitol, the first private citizen honored in such fashion. His death was covered by newspapers as far away as Chicago, and people worldwide mourned him as a pioneer who had introduced a value not tied to money, a prescience that continues to guide conservationist thinking today.

Devon O'Neil is a Breckenridge-based writer. E-mail him at [email protected].