Gunnison, Colorado – September 11, 2021
Now that we are retired, it seems any day is a good day to take a drive. Leslie and I decided it was the perfect time to drive to Gunnison to complete some genealogy research. On the way, we decided to stop at the town of Marble, Colorado. The last time I was there was about five decades ago. Leslie had never visited.
One of the sites along the east side of Highway 133 is Paonia Reservoir. Because of the drought in western Colorado, there was very little water remaining in the reservoir. What was there was very muddy. One has to wonder if there are any fish left in the reservoir or if they have all succumbed to the lack of oxygen.
It took a little more than one and one-half hours to get to Marble. The final leg is about six miles along a beautiful, winding county road. Periodically alongside the road one catches a glimpse of the Crystal River. The air was refreshing, probably due in part to the elevation of 7,950 feet (2,423 meters).
Our first stop in town was at Abstract Marble. There we struck up a conversation with the owner, Gary Bascom. The marble quarried from the Marble quarry is stark white. The molecules and minerals that make up the marble offer teeny reflections of light resulting in a sparkling surface. It is like a very cold, pristine chunk of snow that never melts. The front yard of Abstract Marble held numerous sculptures, birdbaths, and other art pieces. Inside were small pieces of marble tinged with a green hue. Bascom told us the green hue is from copper leaching into the marble. He made several items from the beautiful stone. We came away with one piece.
We then drove to Beaver Lake on the eastern edge of town. If the truth be known, the destination was more for the “blue trees” rather than the view. You see, there are very few public restrooms available.
Backtracking from Beaver Lake, it was time to drive to the marble quarry. At the south edge of town, one crosses the bridge over Crystal River and begins a four-mile ascent to the quarry. In the ever-deepening gorge beside the road is Yule Creek. It seemed to be almost a chalky color. That may be due to the dust from the quarry.
Bascom had mentioned there is a trail near the parking area at the end of the dirt road. The trail is a 15-minute hike to a point where one can see people working in the quarry. We stopped at a parking area at the western edge of the quarry. At about 9,500 feet (2,895 meters), neither of us felt much like hiking. Instead, we sat in the car and enjoyed a tuna salad sandwich Leslie had kindly prepared before we departed home. Once lunch was done, we both enjoyed the view from a small overlook at the parking area. One could see blocks of marble alongside Yule Creek. We also heard machinery, but it was not visible because of the trees.
The quarry, known as Yule Quarry, began operation in 1886. The quarry has provided its beautiful marble to projects worldwide. One notable example is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. See my visit to Arlington National Cemetery here. Additional information about Yule Quarry can be found here.
After the bit of sightseeing, we began our drive back to Marble. We stopped at one final place, the Marble Gallery and General Store. Displayed in front of the establishment were many sculptures. Several were significantly larger than those at Abstract Marble. With significantly larger pieces came significantly larger prices. There seemed to be more zeros in the prices than there are fish bubbles in Beaver Lake! Regardless, we did not leave empty-handed…we now have a refrigerator magnet from Marble, Colorado! Is it a marble magnet? Alas no, it is a printed photograph of Crystal Mill; but, hey, a magnet is good enough for us.
Our final destination was Gunnison, Colorado. Neither of us really wanted to drive back through Paonia, Colorado to catch Highway 92 and then Highway 50 into Gunnison. That was around a 100-mile route or about two hours 15-minutes. Instead, it seemed a much better idea to take County Road 12 over Kebler Pass, drop down to Crested Butte, Colorado, and then on into Gunnison. After all, that was only 80 miles. That ended up being an err in judgment. Before departing home I had looked at County Road 12 using Mr. Google’s mapping feature. In the few places I looked, it appeared the road was two lanes and paved. That is far from the truth. I am guessing less than ten miles of the road are paved. That meant the vast majority of the trip was on a dirt road. That is probably why our GPS kept encouraging me to make a U-turn when possible and return to a more sane road surface.
Nearly four hours later, we made it to the hotel in Gunnison. We passed innumerable oncoming vehicles on County Road 12. If it were not for the incessant bumping and the massive clouds of dust, we might have thought we were on Interstate 70! Regardless of the carping, it was a beautiful drive; however, I was too tired to stop, take a photograph, and then try to elbow my way back into traffic.
That first evening in Gunnison turned out to be Mexican food night for us. The clerk at the front desk directed us to the best Mexican food restaurant in town, El Paraíso Family Mexican Restaurant. Leslie ordered a burrito smothered in pork green chili. I opted for two cheese enchiladas. Both were delicious. We thought the tastes were a cut above the standard Mexican fare. Caveat…make a reservation!
We both realized the following day, 9/11, was the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks at New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania. What we had both forgotten was it was also the 50th anniversary of the school bus crash on Monarch Pass that resulted in the deaths of eight high school football players and one coach. Leslie’s cousin, Billy Miles, was one of the players that died in the accident.
The first time we felt God’s presence was when the table next to us at the Mexican restaurant began a conversation. They were well aware of the Miles family (Gunnison is a town of only about 6,500 people) and the tragedy that struck them 50 years prior. We had a nice conversation, but we really did not think much about it.
Later, back at our room, I decided to confirm what time the Leslie J. Savage Library on the campus of Western Colorado University opened the next morning. Another quick check with my friend Mr. Google indicated the library was closed the following day. That threw me for a loop and into a tirade! Prior to making reservations for our trip, I had called the library to ensure they would be open. The person with whom I spoke said the library would definitely be open. I resigned myself to doing my genealogy research on Sunday, instead of on 9/11. The library was to open at noon that day.
Saturday morning, 9/11, I checked on the library opening time again. The list of hours showed the library did open that morning at 09:00. We drove into Gunnison to have breakfast. We selected W Cafe. The Country Benedict seemed to suit us both. It comes with eggs cooked in any style on a homemade biscuit with a sausage patty and smothered in sausage gravy. As if that were not enough to tighten the arteries, one could select from hash browns or home fries. The service was very quick. Unfortunately, neither of us really cared for the taste of the biscuits. Also, the sausage patties were a bit overcooked.
After breakfast, shortly before 09:00, we drove to the campus. As we approached we saw the parking lot was empty. Zero cars! That did not bode well, but parking our car was easy. I decided to walk to the library anyway. On the front door of the library was a sign with the hours indicating the library would open at 11:00. Since it was now shortly after 09:00, and since we were only a couple of blocks from the Gunnison Pioneer Museum, we decided that was our next stop.
As we walked to the front door of the museum we saw the admission price of $10 per adult. That is a small price to pay for all that there is to see and explore. Once inside, we were immediately greeted by a friendly volunteer. In fact, every volunteer we met was very kind, friendly, and full of helpful information. After one of the volunteers learned the purpose of our trip was to track down some family genealogy newspaper articles, she directed us to the rear portion of the Coleman building. She said there were local newspapers there dating to the late 19th century. She also said we were welcome to handle the newspapers and look through them. Another volunteer, noticing Leslie’s cane, went outside and then returned with the key to a golf cart.
Before leaving the main building, we made a walkthrough and looked at the many exhibits. On the wall of the stairs, near the upper floor landing, we located a photograph of the 1923 Gunnison high school football squad. In the photo, we spied Leslie’s grandfather, Edgar Johnson! Returning to the ground floor the volunteers were happy to hear of our success.
Walking outside, Leslie and I made good use of the golf cart as we drove around the museum grounds. Our first stop was the train and Engine Number 268. We were drawn there because of Leslie’s family. Her great grandfather Peter Johnson and her great grandmother Esther (Carlen) Johnson both worked at the Gunnison train depot. Part of her great grandfather’s responsibility as a carman was inspecting the various train cars. It is certainly possible that he inspected each and every train car on display, including Engine Number 268. I climbed up into the engine and pulled the cord to ring the bell. Both activities are allowed and encouraged by the volunteers.
We walked through several other buildings on the grounds of the museum. One of those was the Paragon schoolhouse. The building dates from 1889. Inside we located another copy of the 1923 Gunnison high school football squad hanging on one of the walls.
Following another stop or two, we finally arrived at the Coleman building. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of exhibits in that building. One of the exhibits includes a lot of information about the school bus crash on September 11, 1971. Part of it includes the Life Magazine article that later reported on the tragedy. Leslie’s cousin, Billy Miles, is pictured in that article. This Life Magazine link will take the reader to the original article. This Colorado Sun link will take the reader to an article about the crash anniversary.
Just around the corner from the 9/11 exhibit are the newspaper archives. I am not sure what I was expecting, but I was surprised to see a wall containing dozens and dozens of bound newspapers by year. The collection contains newspapers from at least five different newspaper companies. I was pleased by my good fortune. Instead of pouring through microfiche or microfilm copies at the Leslie J. Savage Library, I would actually get the full sensory experience of reading an original copy of each newspaper. I was as excited as an OCD genealogy researcher possibly can be!
Beginning with 1925 editions and running through 1964, I located several articles dealing with multiple members of Leslie’s family. All totaled, we spent about three and one-half hours at the Gunnison Pioneer Museum. This is by far the best local history museum I have ever toured. It paints a very precise and colorful history of the Gunnison area. I believe it is a must-see for anyone traveling through Gunnison.
The final stop on this genealogy adventure was the Gunnison Cemetery, just east of town on Highway 50. I wanted to look at the Johnson family plot. Leslie and I had to search a bit, but we finally found the plot. We looked at the grave markers and talked about our memories of several of the family members. When we turned around to walk back to the car, I spotted a tall monument stone in the distance. I could see there were a lot of flowers around the monument. I told Leslie I thought that was for the victims of the school bus crash. We drove over to take a closer look.
When we got back out and walked to the monument, my hunch was confirmed. The area has the interred remains of all nine victims of the 1971 bus crash. In front of each grave marker was a small football with the number of the player. Billy Miles’s number was 72. We walked to the front of the monument. Etched into the monument is the name and age of each victim as well as an attached photograph. Billy was 14 at the time of the accident, born just five months prior to Leslie.
Our solitary time at the monument came to an end when three bicycle riders approached, stopped, and dismounted. The three men each wore the same style jersey with the letter “G” in the center of the chest. Soon three vehicles appeared and parked behind our car. Driving each vehicle were the wives of the three men. One of the men asked if we were family. Leslie explained about her cousin Billy. The man replied that Billy was a great kid. Leslie asked him if he knew Billy. He said he had been on the bus, and he was a year ahead of Billy’s class. He was Bill Marshall, 15 years old when the accident happened. Leslie immediately began to sob. The other two men had not been on the bus.
Marshall shared that he and his companions had just arrived from Salida, Colorado. They began their 70-mile ride at the hospital in Salida. That is where the victims of the bus crash were taken 50 years ago. They rode directly from the hospital to the cemetery to honor Marshall’s teammates. While he was talking he began fumbling around with his backpack. He withdrew from it a game ball and placed it at the foot of the monument. The following inscription was on the ball.
1971 GHS Memorial Football Foundation
Memorial Ride Home 9/11/21
Salida to Gunnison – 70 Miles
Billy Miles #72
Ted Maw #77
Mark Broadwater #14
Kent Cooper #85
Tim Dutton #64
Pat Graham #25
Mike Pasqua #12
Brad Hall #36
Coach L. D. Floyd
Marshall related that the ride raised about $13,000 in support of the 1971 GHS Football Memorial Foundation’s mission of advocating for school bus safety and providing scholarships. From the cemetery, he and his companions only had to make it to the Gunnison high school stadium by 14:00 (it was around 12:30 when we met him) to present the game ball to the officials. As we turned to walk back to our car, Marshall said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” In the car, both of us thought how amazing it was that God brought two unknown groups of people together at that exact moment to have such an awe-inspiring exchange.
The September/October 2021 edition of Colorado Life magazine has an article on page 12 about the anniversary of the bus crash. It is titled Survivors remember Gunnison school bus crash 50 years later. The article is written by my friend Sue McMillin. A copy of the Colorado Life magazine can be purchased here.
There was one more aha moment due to us on that amazing day. In our room at The Gunnison Inn at Dos Rios, Leslie mentioned she would really like to see some news on television. I turned on the TV and began going channel by channel to find a news broadcast. Just as I got to the channel carrying 9News, even though it was about 17:10 by then, the reporters began a news story immediately after I landed on the channel. The story was on the 50th anniversary of the bus crash and the game earlier that day. Leslie and I both looked at each other with our mouths agape! By the way, Gunnison high school won the game!
After that, we sat outside our room to enjoy a glass of wine and watch the golfers at the Dos Rios Golf Club play the hole that paralleled the building in which we stayed. That was when I noticed the course’s tribute to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On each flag-pin flew a miniature American flag instead of the normal Dos Rios flag. American flags were everywhere that day. Three very large flags flew directly above the road at each of the three main entry points to the town of Gunnison. On Main street, there were flags every twenty or thirty feet on both sides of the street for a few blocks. This made us feel very patriotic.
To finish our day, we went to Garlic Mike’s for dinner. This was our first time at that restaurant. What a wonderful discovery! It is situated right on the bank of the Gunnison River. Leslie began with Crema di Funghi (cream of mushroom soup). She loved the rich flavor. For the main course, she ordered the Filetto di Lombardia. It is a filet mignon with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and roasted garlic with a cabernet wine sauce. I thought her eyes might roll back in her head! She absolutely loved her meal. I began with a Caesar salad and then opted for the Lasagna Bolognese. It had layers of pasta, three kinds of cheese, and sausage. The serving is topped with bolognese sauce. To accompany the meal we ordered a bottle of Pedroncelli merlot 2018. For anyone searching for an upscale restaurant in Gunnison, we both highly recommend Garlic Mike’s!
The following day we departed Gunnison for home.