History of Cotopaxi, CO

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Part I, The Place

Cotopaxi, a small, unincorporated village on the banks of the Arkansas River, has been the scene of an unusual chapter in Colorado history. This oddly-named town, today just a “whistle-stop” on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, Thirty-three miles west of Canon City in Fremont Count, is mentioned in many encyclopedias and books on American agricultural colonies.  Environmental factors are always important in analyzing an historical episode, but particularly in the case of the colony founded here because its failure has been attributed solely to these factors. The naming founding and description of its physical features are necessary for an appreciation of Cotopaxi’s role in this history.

The man responsible for the strange name was Henry Thomas, known to contemporaries as “Gold Tom”. He was an itinerant prospector who left the Central City gold camp in 1867, and crossed the Divide to investigate the Upper Arkansas Valley around California Gulch. There he conceived the idea that some of the heavier gold might have washed downstream  so he continued south along the river, reaching the forks near the present site of Salida about 1870. At the same time, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad began its survey of a proposed transcontinental route through the Arkansas Valley.  By October 31, 1872 track had been laid as far west on this route as Labran, seven miles east of Canon City, and Henry Thomas had taken a job with the railroad to augment his meager prospecting income. His duties included procuring timber for ties and this meant he had to scout not only the region the being graded but neighboring alleys and mountains. Particularly struck by one of these valleys as closely resembling an area he had once prospected in northern Ecuador, he named the Colorado counterpart after the dominant Andean geographic feature, a volcano called “Cotopaxi”. At the juncture of the small tributary streams which flow into the Arkansas River at Cotopaxi, Colorado, looking westward through the narrow canyon of the river, one can see a conical-shaped peak, part of the Sangre de Cristo Range, framed by the steep walls of the canyon, Old residents of the area who knew Henry (Gold Tom) Thomas say that it is this unusual view which recalled to his mind the Andean volcano and caused him to call the little valley by the odd-sounding Spanish name. In 1873 he built a cabin there as a base for his prospecting in the surrounding hills.  In 1874 he had filed several mining claims at Canon City and is credited with the discovery of the Cotopaxi Lode, one of the richest deposits of silver with zinc in Fremont County.

The small streams mentioned above are ephemeral, becoming quite dry in summer and fall, although they have been destructive during the spring flood stage. The northern one is known as Bernard Creek and the southern one, which flows out of the tip of (the) Wet Mountain valley, is called Oak Grove Creek. They join the Arkansas where a bend in the latter’s course widens the valley floor to about one mile in width. This confluence of streams has cut an oval-shaped, flat-floored valley almost completely encircled by steep, rocky cliffs. So narrow is the canyon cut by the Arkansas immediately beyond Cotopaxi that the Denver and Rio Grande tracks run along a man-made ledge cut out of the rock walls. The town itself lies at an elevation of 6,718 feet above sea level, while the elevation of the transecting valleys rises in a steep gradient to 8,000 feet within four miles.

There are several such valleys along the Arkansas River between Canon City and Salida and these wire first utilized by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad as sites for warehouses and for water, wood and coal storage. Henry (Gold Tom) Thomas built a shed to house his ties at Cotopaxi in 1874. It was not until late in 1878 that some of these storage sites became depots, post offices and townsites, due to the four-year delay caused by the famous “Royal Gorge War”. Bitter legal battles in the courts and violent physical struggles along the right-of-way itself between the Denver and Rio Grande and the Santa Fe railroads divided the people of the region into warring camps. This controversy was held responsible for the retarded economic development of western Fremont County.

Mineral resources did not attract population to Fremont County, at least in a manner experienced by other counties. It never became a center of refining or smelting as did Pueblo County, although early in the 1880’s Canon City was vying with Pueblo for the title of “Pittsburgh of the West”.  The best source of gold and silver was in the southern half of the county, which was separated for the northern half in April of 1877. This new section was named Custer County and as the scene several years later of several spectacular mining booms.

The only comparable gold and silver mines in Fremont County were the Gem and the Cotopaxi Lodes but considerable deposits of coal, oil and iron were found and developed elsewhere in the county. Also, unusual metals such as nickel, molybdenum and pure zincblende were mined. In general, mining laws in Fremont Count conformed to those and were patterned after the laws of other Colorado mining counties, except where coal and oil development required different provisions.

There was no placer gold to attract large “rushes” of “Panners” and “Fly-by-nighters” as in Clear Creek or Gilpin Counties. No one except Carl Wulsten prospected for silver in Fremont County before 1872.   When silver was discovered in large quantities in the region, it proved to be vary difficult to mine (with the exception of the horn silver at Silver Cliff), requiring skilled labor, considerable capital investment, as well as metallurgical experience to handle the ore in reduction works. The coal and oil deposits were mostly accidental discoveries, made while surveying for farms or digging artesian wells or irrigation ditches.

Despite the altitude and aridity of the Fremont County section of the Arkansas Valley, it was early considered to be favorable for agriculture. The arable valleys were settled early in Colorado Territory’s history and the abundance of water was looked upon as a decided advantage over the lower, but drier, sections downstream. Nevertheless, these other regions soon surpassed Fremont County in agricultural production. Historians have offered many reasons for this situation. Hubert Howe Bancroft cited the delay in rail connection caused by the “royal Gorge War” as the main deterent.  Alvin Steinel, professor at Colorado Agricultural College, pointed to the engineering difficulties of getting the water, admittedly most abundant, up on the plateaus where it was needed. These difficulties prevented cultivation.  B.F. Rockafellow, an early settler in the county, remarks on the lack of mills and other processing facilities as the cause of Fremont Count’s slow development.

During the 1860’s corn and wheat were planted in Fremont County, but weather and soil conditions were found to be unfavorable to them. Then fruit-raising, particularly apples and pears, was attempted and soon supplanted all else in the region. The pioneer in horticulture was Jesse Frazer, known throughout the United States as the developer of the ” Colorado orange apple”.

However, it was not until later that fruit-raising was recognized as the proper agricultural pursuit for Fremont County, after group attempts in the early 1870’s with grain crops had failed. These groups had felt that the collective method of the “agricultural colony” would aid them in solving those larger problems of irrigation and finance that the individual farmer could not surmount. The first of these was the German Colony at Colfax in [the] Wet Mountain Valley.  The second was the Mormon Colony which located near Ula in 1871.  Then a group of English people settled near Westcliffe in 1872.  Some ten years later still another agricultural colony was established in Fremont County, the Russian Jewish one, which came to the Cotopaxi area and farmed lands along Oak Grove and Bernard Creeks controlled by Emanuel H. Saltiel.

Saltiel was a Portuguese Jew from New York City who had come to Colorado in 1867.  By 1876 the Cotopaxi area had begun to attract a few settlers and many mining prospectors. Several shafts had been opened and sluices put in operation at the site of Gold Tom’s first strikes. Saltiel became interested in the Cotopaxi Lode, particularly when he learned that the discoverer, Henry Thomas, did not have the capital or experience to work it. Saltiels’s business and political contacts in Denver were well-know in Fremont County and his influence with officials of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was sufficient to have that company designate his newly-acquired property around Cotopaxi as a major stop on their run to South Arkansas (Salida), build there a large depot and call the stop “Saltiels”.

Saltiel had filed on 2,000 acres of Government land and made token payments at the county clerk’s office in Canon City by 1878. This acreage was a long, narrow strip running north and south Oak Grove Creek and Bernard Creek. Within his “property”, which he defined as a “town and land company” development, Saltiel also filed at least seven separate mining claims. These claims were quite clear and indisputable, for shortly after registering them at the County Clerk’s office in Canon City, he had his workers construct shafts and tunnels and other improvements on the vein outcrops and had spent well over the minimum of $500 required by the Law of 1872, thus acquiring a clear patent to the mineral lands thereon. These seven claims, all located within the broader boundaries of his proposed town-site, were along the streams, using their scant water for sluicing and other mining operations.

The appellation ” Cotopaxi” clung to the area despite the honor bestowed on its leading citizen by the railroad when it built the depot and warehouses and named the stop “Saltiels”.  By 1879 eight permanent buildings had been constructed and more were in the offing. Several large residences were built. Elaborate plans for a plaza or public park were drawn up and commerce got under way with a hotel, blacksmith shop, general store and a saw-mill. Efforts to establish a saloon and gambling hall were thwarted by the virtuous townspeople, but a meeting house which served as school and church were built that year. At the same time, the government established a post office in the town, but changed the name back to Cotopaxi. By 1880 the town ranked sixth in population in Fremont County. Saltiel had his assay office, mine and milling headquarters in a small building adjacent to the hotel which he owned in connection with one of his partners, A. S. Henry.

Saltiel was generally credited with the discovery and exploitation of most of the important mineral veins in the region, particularly the famous Cotopaxi Lode and the Enterprise Mine.  But since Henry (Gold Tom) Thomas had been prospecting the area since 1873 and had filed mining claims thereon with the County Clerk in 1874, there seems to be sound basis for a claim controversy. It is recorded that Saltiel bought out Thomas’ rights for insignificant amounts, in relation to what was taken out. However, there was little alternative for the independent, small-time miner, owing to the nature of the ores involved, all of which required much capital equipment and complicated processes to refine. Saltiel’s experience business connections and vast wealth put him in a superior position in this respect.

However he soon ran into other difficulties. With the discovery of much richer lodes in southern Fremont County ( Custer County now) labor supply became practically nonexistent in the Cotopaxi area. Saltiel had always been reluctant to pay adequate wages, in relation to neighboring mine owners. “Help-wanted ads” began appearing in the Denver and eastern papers, but even his eloquence there could not buck the competition of the simultaneous strikes in Leadville, Rosita, and Western Slope camps. In addition, those who did not care for a miner’s life could take jobs with the railroads which were then also expanding at a prodigious rate. Saltiel’s ingenious solution to this seemingly insurmountable problem was to import his own labor supply from Europe .

Part II, The People

The people  who comprised the Cotopaxi Colony in the spring of 1882 were Russian Jews from the provinces of Volhynia, Kiev and Ekaterinoslav.  Sixty-three persons in all, there were twenty-two “heads of family”, each of whom were eligible to file on 160 acres of government land. Actually, most of the sixty-three were members of only three main family clans, consisting of several generations and relatives by marriage. Among these three families, too, there was much intermarriage and nearly every colonist at Cotopaxi was related to the others by ties of blood or marriage, the only exception being close friends who had attached themselves to one “patriarch” and were considered as “adopted”. This aggregation had been well solidified in Europe, and the experiences of the pogroms, the emigration and the events at Cotopaxi served to weld it even more firmly together.

The traceable nucleus of the group begins in the early 19th century with a movement among the inhabitants of the Pale  known as “Haskalah”,  or “Enlightenment”, which sought a middle road between the “fathers and sons”, between the extremes of fanaticism espoused on the one hand by the “Hasidim”, and on the other hand by those who denied Judaism or cultural assimilation. The disciples of modernation were known as the “Maskilim”, and were despised by both extremes among their own people and certainly not given much encouragement by the Czarist government. This, in spite of its program for gradual “Russification”, for establishment of Crown Schools, and for urging cooperation with the government. By mid-century the Maskilim concentrated their energy on combating the “Tzaddicks”, the superstition-ridden, mystical obscurantists, chiefly by means of satire. Even so, the Maskilim themselves were dismissed by the more violent, modern young “assimilationists” as too slow and conserveative to be considered progressive!

One of the important leaders of this Haskalah movement within the Pale was an idealistic Volhynian, Isaac Baer Levinsohn, known as the “Moses Mendelsohn”9 of Russia. Alexander II’s program of social amalgamation. Clearly, the children of Jacob and Malka Milstein inherited a view of the Jewish problem quite different from their neighbors in Brest, and it was these same children who, by the 1860’s and 1870’s led the Maskilim of the province who favored secular education, a moderate religious position and the “back-to-the-land” dream

By 1874, with the failure of the Czar’s agricultural colonies and the ‘drift toward oppression’ of the Jews, it became apparent that the Maskilim program would achieve very little. The sudden change of Czar Alexander II’s policies and open anti-Semitism began with the Law of 1874 which restored the unfair methods of juvenile conscription for the Jewish population.  The attempts at cultural fusion through secular education were recognized as utter failures and by 1873 a ukase closed the two rabbinical schools at Vilna and Zhitomir.  Also the “melammeds” renewed their attacks on the “assimilationists”.

Jacob and Malka Milstein’s youngest son, Isaac Leib, was forced to become an “only son” to a childless couple named Shames in order to escape the dreaded quarter-century of military service, a threat that had not menaced the Milstein family for many generations since they were of the exempt estate. Their eldest son, Saul Baer, had experienced during his lifetime the pendulum swing of government attitude toward Jews; first, liberalism, then, persecution intensified after the Polish Insurrection of 1863. As a child Saul imbibed the ideas of Haskalah enthusiastically, and as a young man he prepared to become a “Crown Riabbi” himself by attending the seminary at Zhitomir. He had encouraged his younger brother Benjamin to apply for the agricultural colony in Ekaterinoslav and had watched him, several cousins and friends go off in high spirits to farm–only to see most of them return discouraged and beaten in 1866 when the “last straw” had broken the backs of the ‘camels’. By 1870 even those Jews who had farmed their lands since Czar Nicholas’s reign were evicted and their lands distributed among the newly-emancipated serfs.

With the death of his father in 1861 Saul Baer Milstein became the spiritual leader and business advisor to many people in Brest Litovsk and in the small rural villages in the Pripet River Valley, the vicinity wherein various Jewish families lived and produced the supplies for his warehouses and commission business. The Milstein family had been in this business for several generations since coming to Russia from Germany. As the eldest son, Saul Baer inherited the management of the entire concern, as well as his father’s role in the community of leader and teacher. His was the controlling voice in matters not only relating to business but in family and social affairs as well. Nearly all employed by the firm were relatives. In addition to Saul Baer’s duties as head of a large business with branches in Grodno, Kiev, and Brody, he also taught classes in those secular subjects which were not offered in the “yeshivahs”18 of Brest Litovsk.

By 1871 his younger brother Benjamin had returned to Brest Litovsk from the colony in Ekaterinoslav with his wife Hannah and their son Jacob. He was angry at the Russian Government’s treatment of the Jewish colonists, but was still determined to prove that the Jews of the Pale could become successful farmers if afforded any sort of equality of opportunity.19 But Russia seemingly did not want Jews on the land, and it became increasingly difficult to produce the grain and other supplies needed in the commission house, since Christians were forbidden to sell their produce to Jewish wholesalers. Saul Baer was much impressed with reports from America concerning the liberal Homestead Act, whose benefits could apply even to immigrants who had filed declaration of intention to become citizens. Disappointed with the progress made by conciliation, cooperation and meekness advocated by Maskilism, he began to consider leaving Russia to begin a new life in America. The sale of the commission business should provide enough to finance such a move for the entire family group. Therefore, strengthened in his determination by the Repressive Acts of 1874, 1875, and 1876,20 Saul Baer encouraged his nephew Jacob, who had grown up on a farm, to leave Russia, where he was in danger of being drafted for twenty-five years’ service in the Czar’s Army, and travel to America to investigate the provisions of this Homestead Act and look over the possibilities for establishing the ‘clan’ in the United States.

Thus it was that in 1878 Jacob Milstein left Brest Litovsk to seek out land for members of his family and those others who wished to emigrate with them. He was to act as “advance scout” and to send back all the information on homesteading to his uncle, the leader of the proposed ‘colony’. Was the American government really as tolerant of Jews as they had been led to believe? No special taxes? Freedom of worship? While he was learning these things, as well as the English language, his uncle Saul Baer would send him a monthly allowance to cover his living and travelling expenses.

But within a year of his departure from Russia Jacob had incurred the wrath of his uncle. He received no more money and for a time the gravity of his offense threatened the plans for the entire group’s migration. Jacob’s “sin” had been to persuade Nettie Milstein, Saul Baer’s eldest child, with whom he had been in love for some time, to run away and join him in America where they could be married. Nettie was her father’s favorite child, and he had lavished on her all his affection and material wealth. He had educated her as thoroughly as any of his sons and had taken her with him on business trips throughout Europe. By the time she was twenty years old, in 1878, a confirmed spinster by Jewish standards, she was able to relieve her father of many of his duties at the commission house, in order that he might devote more time to his studies and pupils, as she preferred a business career to marriage, having refused to accept any of the suitors offered her by the “shadchens”. She was in love with Jacob, her first cousin, and since her father naturally opposed such a union, Nettie simply rejected marriage with anyone else, but when Jacob left Russia and the all-pervasive influence of his patriarchal uncle, Saul Baer, Nettie was impelled to flee and disregard convention, religion and social ostracism by going to Jacob in America. Leaving Brest Litovsk in November of 1879, Nettie journeyed to the home of relatives in Hamburg, Germany, where she awaited passage money from her fiance.

Cut off from his uncle’s support, Jacob Milstein took a job in a tin factory in New York City. He learned English rapidly and also earned enough to put some aside as ‘capital’ with which to prospect for a colony site as well as passage money for his bride-to-be from Germany. But he had worked little more than a year when an industrial accident deprived him of the sight of one eye. It is noteworthy for those days that the owner of the factory recognized his responsibility in the matter of the accident and made arrangements for a pension to be paid his young employee-victim.  Jacob was thus able to afford proper medical care and rest without resorting to charity. While recuperating, he became acquainted with the work being done by the well-know American Jew, Michael Heilprin.

The latter, in 1880, was already busy organizing the Jews of the United States into a relief society to aid in the temporary support of the rapidly increasing number of immigrants pouring into the country from Russia, caused by the increasing rigor of Czar Alexander II’s policies against the Jewish population. Western Jews were beginning to realize the hopeless plight of their Russian correligionists, due particularly to their peculiar economic and political status in the Czar’s Empire. Historically sympathetic throughout the Diaspora, the more fortunate Western Jews had earlier formed aid societies, such as the “Alliance Israelite Universelle”,  guided by Adolphe Cremieux and Moses Montefiore. Michael Heilprin had kept in close touch with representatives of this organization, which had announced a plan at a meeting in Paris in the spring of 1880 to settle refugees in the new and undeveloped countries in South America, South Africa, Australia and especially in North America, where the United States offered even aliens the benefits of their liberal Homestead Act. This plan appealed greatly to Michael Heilprin, who for years had been urging young immigrant Jews to leave the East and try farming, taking advantage of the Government’s “free land”.

Prior to 1880, there had been few Jews in America who were able or eager to follow such advice. Lack of money for land and equipment had not been the main deterent but rather the lack of any agricultural experience, coupled with the age-old fear of investing in land, a commodity not movable nor easily convertible in case of sudden persecution or expulsion. Therefore, when twenty-year-old Jacob Milstein, his sightless eye covered by a black patch, came to Heilprin’s office on State Street in New York City, it seemed an amazing coincidence. Here was a representative of a Russian Jewish group, whose background seemed promising for the venture, who were determined to leave Europe permanently, who were most anxious to “return to the soil” and who best of all, included members who had been farmers in the short-lived agricultural colonies for Jews in Southern Russia and also, had adequate financial resources for the trip, land investment and living expenses. Coupled with these qualifications and Heilprin’s interest in establishing experimental Jewish colonies in the United States, was the receipt, in September of 1880, of a most unusual offer from a wealthy Jewish philanthropist, Emanuel H. Saltiel, who professed a desire to help in the work outlined by Heilprin in the latter’s widely-read articles and settle a colony of Jewish farmers on his lands in Wet Mountain Valley near Cotopaxi, Fremont County, Colorado.

Emanual H. Saltiel had gone to Colorado after the Civil War and had prospered in mining and milling enterpreises, as well as property investments. Although he maintained a home and an office in New York as well as in Colorado, he was not affiliated with any religious organization. Nevertheless, he wrote several eloquent letters to Michael Heilprin, expressing his admiration for the latter’s policy advocating agricultural colonies for Jewish immigrants.

When Heilprin first spoke with Jacob Milstein it was with the idea of sending this particular group of which he was a representative to homestead on the ‘donated’ lands in Oregon, where soil, water and market facilities were known to be excellent. However, Saltiel’s letters were very persuasive and promised that he would undertake to constuct houses for each family, several large communal barns and sheds, provide necessary furniture and household equipment, farm implements, seed, cattle, horses and wagons and a year’s supply of feed for the animals. The offer was quite magnanimous, for Saltiel was to provide all this for a mere $8,750, the remaining $1,250 to be raised by the colonists to cover costs of rail transportation and living expenses en route to Colorado. The entire cost was to be kept under $10,000 which meant an indebtedness for each family of less than $435.

Within a few months after hearing these proposals, Jacob’s father, mother, brother and bride-to-be arrived in New York and letters were dispatched immediately to the others still in Russia describing in great detail the generosity of this American Jew, Saltiel, and his plan to aid them in realizing their dreams of tilling the soil in a free country, to build their homes and equip their farms and help them adjust to life in America. The group in Russia was enthusiastic and began to make preparations for leaving, but before they could complete their arrangements, an event occurred which changed their situation. On March 1, 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated and his son and successor, Alexander III, immediately appointed Nicolas Pavlovich Ignatieff, a militant anti-Semite, as Minister of the Interior. At once a series of pograms began which caused thousands of Jews to leave Russia forever in a mass exodus unparalleled in modern history. The promulgation of the May Laws of 1881  was the capstone in the long history of repressive acts directed against the Jews of the Czar’s Empire.

Consequently the tempo of Jewish immigration to the United States was tremendously changed that spring of 1881. By June the waves of destitute refugees swamped the inadequate facilities of the Port of New York Receiving Station at Castle Garden. Up to that time, assistance to those Jews who needed it had been rendered by private charitable organizations such as B’nai B’rith or the various religious congregations in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore.

But the scope of the 1881 migration was entirely too much for these private groups and the sudden realization of their inadequacy caused them to band together to try to provide emergency relief. The protest meetings that were held all over Europe because of the pogroms raised considerable funds, most of which were sent to the United States, which country received the bulk of the refugees. The Alliance Israelite Universelle mushroomed into a vast relief agency and was responsible for the establishment of depots, “escape hatches” and embarkation stations throughout Europe.

To American Jews the situation that spring was particularly worrisome as their heretofore pleasant and undisturbed insulation had not prepared them for such shock–or problem. Because the Jews came in such large numbers, so rapidly, to America, the government’s immigration authorities were totally unprepared and available facilities completely inadequate. Promp action was imperative lest this problem become large enough to trouble the tranquil Christian-Jewish atmosphere in the United States. Therefore a relief committee composed of prominent American Jews was hastily organized under the chairmanship of a New York judge, Meyer Isaacs, in September of 1881. Within a month this was replaced by a union of all Jewish charitable groups along the Eastern seaboard, religious and secular alike, into what was called the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society (HEAS).  By the end of that year, $300,000 in temporary relief funds had been raised and headquarters of the society set up in Michael Heilprin’s offices in New York city. Heilprin was unanimously elected president and directed the affairs of the society until its dissolution in the fall of 1883. He had to discard for a while his theories of careful relocation of Jews on farms, as clearly these could not be applied quickly enough to solve the pressing and immediate problems of emergency relief. Whenever possible he urged the young men to leave the crowded urban centers and take up land in the West under the Homestead Act.

Despite Heilprin’s preoccupation with Receiving Station duties and housing, he found time to help establish and finance two “colonies” with HEAS funds earmarked for this type of “experiment”. The first of these was the Cotopaxi Colony in Colorado, the settlers, location and investment having been decided upon in 1881 as a result of the coincidence of Saltiel’s offer and Jacob Milstein’s application. The second one was at Vineland, New Jersey.

Before the pogroms of 1881 had caused such precipitous migrations and had so drastically altered the situation of the Milstein group still in Brest Litovsk, Michael Heilprin had already decided to go ahead with this plans for an experimental colony located near Cotopaxi. His first act, once he had accepted the offer of Saltiel, was to assign a young lawyer connected with the society, Julius Schwartz, to go to Colorado, make a thorough investigation of the locality, markets, soil, climate, etc., and return a report to the New York office. Schwartz left New York in January of 1881, but HEAS never received any report from him or word concerning him.

Within a few months of Schwartz’s departure, however Heilprin was submerged in the more pressing problems of the Russian pogram victims, and could not spend any more money investigating this far-off colony site. The $10,000 required for its establishment had already been approved and set aside by the society, the rest of the ‘colony group’ had arrived from Europe that winter and began to constitute a ‘dependent immigrant classification’, having been forced to flee Russia without waiting to sell property, etc. The expenses of tenement living during the winter of 1881-82 had used up what little they had been able to bring with them and the conditions in New York, plus the disappointment of delay had eaten up much of their enthusiasm. Heilprin had little choice but to permit the “colony” to go ahead without having received any report of Schwartz’s investigation.

Thus it was that in April of 1882 the twenty “family groups” began their long train journey via Kansas City, Pueblo and the Royal Gorge, to Cotopaxi, without many of the things they shoud have had. First, they were without any first-hand knowledge of just what kind of country they were headed for–save for the descriptions of the eloquent Mr. Saltiel. Secondly, they were without their beloved leader, Saul Baer Milstein. His younger brother, Benjamin, had taken over as Saul Baer was still angry over the matter of his daughter Nettie’s unfortunate marriage with his first cousin. That couple was also missing from the group which left New York for Colorado, having preceded it by several months. They were awaiting the arrival of the colony which they would join, in the meantime living in Blackhawk. Thirdly, the group was no longer well-off financially; the fee of $50.00 per head-of-family, the high cost of living in New York the preceding winter, the cost of the journey, the loss of expected profit from the sale of their property and businesses in Russia, had greatly depleted its resources. Despite these handicaps, the group was confident and optimistic as they set out for the “promised lands” in the rich and fertile Wet Mountain Valley, described so eloquently in the letter from their benefactor, Emanuel H. Saltiel.

Part III, The Events

The townspeople of Cotopaxi watched the tired and bewildered immigrants get off the train. It was the eighth day of May, 1882. They had gathered at the new Denver and Rio Grande depot, curious to see at first hand these “Jew Colonists” about whose arrival they had heard so much from Saltiel and his partners during the preceding months. Some of them were openly scornful of the newcomers’ clothes, language and appearance and made no effort to conceal their hostility. Others felt sympathetic at their looks of terror and awe, caused, no doubt, by the trip through the Royal Gorge and the desolate vastness west of the chasm. The terrain of this entire area is quite forbidding. The land is bare, very rocky, with practically no timber or vegetation. The unimpeded streams which flow into the Arkansas River have cut deep transverse gorges in the black rock formations.

Saltiel sent a wagon to transport the Jews and their baggage from the railroad depot to this hotel  across the public square.  The twenty families were accommodated in rather crowded fashion in the hotel until they were ready to move to their farms, some of which were eight or ten miles south of the town itself. Several of the men met with Saltiel and two of his many partners, A. S. Hart and Julius Schwartz,  to discuss plans for their colony, but little could be decided until the colonists could see the location. Hart and Schwartz drove the men of the group up Oak Grove Creek to inspect their future homes.

Saltiel had written to the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society in October, 1881 6 that the twenty houses were finished and that five large barns would be completed shortly. He listed prices for farm implements and horses, implying that if these prices met with the approval of the Society, the articles would be purchased upon Saltiel’s receipt of their reply. Now, more than seven months later, the newcomers found only twelve small, poorly-constructed cabins approximately eight feet square, six feet high, with flat roofs and no chimneys. They had no doors or windows, nor even the jambs or frames into which such might be easily fitted. There was no furniture inside, and only four of the twelve structures possessed stoves for heating or cooking.

Hart pointed out the twenty divisions of land in the valley. There was supposed to have been 160 acres in each parcel. Twelve of these were located on either side of Oak Grove Creek, the remaining eight farms were marked out beyond a high ridge 8,000 feet above sea-level. These last were in the Wet Mountain Valley itself, but despite the name, there was no water on the lands. No fences or other boundaries separated the colonists’ lands, and in the Wet Mountain Valley sections, the sparse grass which had just begun to grow was being grazed by neighboring ranchers’ cattle.

On the twelve parcels in Oak Grove Valley there was no sign of any other improvement save the tiny cabins. No wells had been dug, no fences built and no road cleared. Hart drove the wagon up the stream bed itself, not too steep under normal circumstances, but obviously impassable during spring flood stages or the sudden mountain cloudbursts which often transformed a dry arroyo into a roaring cataract for several hours. The materials for the twelve structures had been hauled up to the site before winter snows had melted above. McCoy recalls that the stream bed, even in fall, was never too good a ‘road’ since large boulders and other debris had washed down therein, making rough going even for a single horse or mule. Some years later a wagon road was built through this valley, connecting Wet Mountain Valley with Cotopaxi, but it required considerable labor to clear the alluvial deposits.

The terrain of the valley precluded the possibility of preparing extensive fields for crops. Less than half a mile in width, there is a definite shoulder mid-way up the canyon walls, indicating the level of the younger steam in past geologic ages. The soil on the lower half is easily eroded due to the angle of tip. Some tough grass grows, as well as sage brush and other native plants, but almost no trees, except for scrub pines. The valley is watered solely by the tiny seasonal creek and it would have required extensive irrigation works to deflect any of this water out onto the tilted shoulders of land designated as “farms” for the Jewish immigrants. Ed Grimes, one of the colonists, stated to a reporter for the Denver Jewish News in April, 1925, “There ( Cotopaxi) was the poorest place in the world for farming. Poor land, lots of big rocks, no water, and the few crops we were able to raise, by a miracle, were mostly eaten by cattle belonging to neighboring settlers.”

When the men returned to Cotopaxi following their tour of inspection, they sought out Saltiel for an explanation of the many deficiencies. That gentleman was remembered as being profuse in his apologies and used the labor shortage as the primary excuse for non-fulfillment. He explained that items such as window frames, proper furniture, much of the tools and equipment, even lumber, were impossible to procure in the vicinity and that he had sent to Denver for them. They had been delayed. He would be leaving for Denver soon and would try to expedite delivery.

The immigrants had brought only the most personal of household equipment yet it was decided among them within the first week after their arrival that they must move into the available cabins and improve them as best they could themselves, for it was most imperative to begin the preparation of the soil for planting. By the middle of May the Jews were able to borrow Hart’s wagon and moved their baggage and families up to the colony, making the trip on foot themselves, carrying some of their belongings on their backs.

A few days later, Saltiel left Cotopaxi for an extended business trip, leaving the problems of the colonists to be settled by his partners, Hart and Schwartz. They gave what little help and advice they could, and permitted the Jews to borrow the necessary plows and horses, seed and other equipment. Hart, as the proprietor of the General Store, extended credit to the colonists for food staples and other necessities. Four additional stoves were obtained and carted up the valley. The men themselves built mud chimneys for the four remaining stoveless cabins.

There was much discontent and anxiety among the members of the colony, yet they had determined to remain at Cotopaxi. They had no alternative, really, since the expenses of the previous winter in New York City and the trip west had consumed what little cash they had had, and there seemed to be no one to whom they could turn for advice or assistance in their efforts to secure the promised items from Saltiel. The language barrier, also, proved quite a handicap in their attempts to correct what they believed to be an error on the part of Mr. Saltiel, since even that gentleman was quite limited in his knowledge of Hebrew and the immigrants were then barely intelligible in English. When Saltiel left Cotopaxi, their only avenue of communication was the young partner, Julius Schwartz. Later, the colonists met their German neighbors in Wet Mountain Valley. These people proved quite helpful as most of the immigrants spoke German fluently and even those who spoke only Yiddish were able to communicate easily with the German farmers. The latter were sympathetic concerning the plight of the Jewish colonists and assisted them wherever possible. The women of the colony went regularly to visit them, obtaining milk and eggs for the children, and some meat and vegetables. The men sought agricultural advice from the Germans and this was gladly given, even though it was already too late to remedy the delay and mistakes made that first spring sowing. It had been the first of June before the Jews had gathered together the necessary supplies and implements and had cleared the few acres for crops. They planted corn and potatoes and their methods proved a source of much amusement for the people of Cotopaxi. The “greenhorns”, as they were called, had much to learn about high altitude farming in arid country, where even with the most favorable weather, the growing season is less than four months for most crops. They did not attempt any hay or grain crops the first year, since clear, level land was at a premium and they had no animals to feed.

Despite the help of their German neighbors and the credit extended to them for food by Mr. Hart at Cotopaxi’s General Store, two new-born babies died soon after coming and the young son of David Korpitsky died of blood poisoning incurred by stepping on a rusty nail with bare feet. The babies were all buried in the village cemetery of Cotopaxi, in unmarked graves  separated from the rest by a small wooden fence.

In mid-June Jacob and Nettie Millstein left Blackhawk where they had lived for six months and joined the colony, thus becoming the twenty-first “unit”.  Although some of the family units had doubled up to share the shelter of the twelve cabins, two families set up canvas tents while the men prepared and constructed more houses. One family made their own house from cut sod, while Mr. and Mrs. Herschel Toplitsky, assigned to one of the sections across the ridge in Wet Mountain Valley, found an abandoned Indian dugout cave which they used as a house for the first year. The young Millstein couple were most welcome in the colony, despite their unorthodox marriage, for they both spoke English fluently and were able to teach the others.  Benjamin Zalman Milstein, Max Tobias, and David Korpitsky were the leaders of the colony.

The babies’ deaths and other misfortunes and disappointments of the colony must have caused them to turn to religion for solace. They had not been considered a particularly religious group, at least by European standards, but soon after the burial ceremonies, the group felt they must establish some sort of a “spiritual organization”. With the first letter they sent back to New York went a request for a “Torah”. HEAS sent one immediately and by the 23rd of June, 1882, the Jews were able to dedicate their new synagogue, which they had converted from an abandoned cabin behind the General Store, the only building available. David Korpitsky served as rabbi and performed two weddings that first summer. The first united Max Shuteran and Hannah Milstein and the other was the religious ceremony which finally, even in the eyes of the most orthodox, sanctioned the civil union of Jacob Millstein and his cousin Nettie. The reminiscences of the colonists recall these events as rare occasions for joy and celebration. Hannah Shames Quiat can still remember the precious canned peaches, the fresh-caught trout and sugar cakes which were served at the wedding reception.

Saltiel himself was absent from Cotopaxi most of the summer and fall but his young partner, Julius Schwartz, a Hungarian Jew, joined with the Russian immigrants in their religious observances and was chosen Secretary of the Congregation.  Schwartz had been educated in New York and served as Saltiel’s lawyer. It is obvious from letters and remarks of the colonists that they did not connect this young man with the lawyer Michael Heilprin had commissioned to investigate the original offer made by Emanuel Saltiel in September, 1880. None of the group had been in New York, except Jacob Millstein, when Heilprin had sent Schwartz to Colorado for a report on the proposed colony location.

The festivities that summer, Schwartz’s help in the absence of Saltiel, and the agreeable summer climate were perhaps the last pleasant memories the Jews had of Cotopaxi, for with the arrival of autumn their position became most uncomfortable. Saltiel returned and refused to fulfill any of the neglected obligations and even denied them further credit at the General Sore, in which he had a half-interest. He expressed no regret or surprise at their inability to sow adequate crops on the stony hillsides, nor did he deem his failure to provide the necessary farm equipment as contributing to their difficulties. In addition, this part of Colorado suffered an exceptionally early frost the autumn of 1882 and when the Jews attempted to harvest their potatoes, they found most of them frozen.

The colonists were faced with the problem of providing, without money, fuel for heating their drafty shacks, and clothing for the bitter cold mountain winters. They had few possessions they could sell for food, medicine and shoes. The lack of fuel was dramatized by the menace of large bears which prowled about their cabins, looking for food before going into hibernation. The immigrants were terrified and were forced to use what little wood they had been able to gather during the summer to build big bonfires each night to frighten the bears away. As none of the cabins had had doors when they moved in, the men were able to make only the rudest sort of covering with what few tools they possessed, and none of these doors had locks or bolts. A hungry bear could easily push through the flimsy barrier which might bar his way into a cabin.17 Furthermore, the men were without protection in the way of firearms. Only a few owned revolvers and none could afford ammunition, since they were of European make and required a bullet not available in the area.

Again and again, delegations of men would tramp eight miles to town through the deep snow to appeal to Mr. Saltiel. He had received altogether, by October of 1882, close to $10,000 which the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society sent from New York. Part of this was payment for a bill of $5,600 he had tendered the Society the preceding year. This sum was to “cover the cost of building twenty fine homes at $280.00 each.† Since the colonists found only twelve cabins which could not possibly have cost Saltiel even $150.00 apiece, they felt that on this one item alone they should receive some rebate. Two saw-mills were in operation in the immediate vicinity at this time and “first-class lumber sold for $22.50 per thousand.† Now the Jews realized they had no means of forcing Saltiel to fulfill any of his neglected promises, as they themselves possessed no written agreement, no contract, no bill of sale and not even a title, deed or lease to the land they were then occupying. That winter they petitioned HEAS for aid and counsel in how to regain their lost money, believing that organization had documents on file which could intimidate Saltiel.

The weather was unusually severe that year, with blizzards which isolated their farms for weeks at a time, below-freezing temperatures which froze their hands and feet, unprotected by boots or gloves, and caused much suffering. To add to their misery, small bands of Ute Indians appeared from time to time, begging food and the frightened immigrants gave them what little food they had.

The only recourse open to the desperate Jews was to go to work as laborers in Saltiel’s mines. His foremen were glad to hire even the inexperienced Jews as the supply of workers had dwindled even further during the winter months. They promised the Jews $1.50 for the day shift and $2.50 for the night shift, the Cotopaxi and Enterprise Mines being worked constantly and producing well. Despite this the colonists recall they received not a penny in cash for all the work done in the mines. Instead, they received vouchers for credit at the General Store owned by Saltiel and Hart. This system, however unfair, did enable them to buy a few sacks of flour and other necessities.

Mining in deep underground shafts and tunnels is never pleasant work but in wintertime it is particularly disagreeable and hazardous. Since the labor shortage extended to other fields as well, the Jews found they could have employment with the railroad instead of with Saltiel. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was then building its line west of Salida to connect the booming mining camps along the Continental Divide and Western Slope. the railroad was only too happy to employ the Jews as track laborers and even permitted them to take Saturday as their day off, instead of Sunday. Nearly every man in the colony worked that winter for the Denver and Rio Grande, and received cash wages of as much as $3.00 per day, with which they managed to support the entire group of sixty-three persons.

The colony had another reason to be grateful to the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad that winter. The women had been accustomed to scour and comb the tracks in the area for bits of coal or wood dropped by passing trains. Sympathetic engineers and firemen, noticing them, learned of their plight and then would regularly toss down as much coal and wood as they could, thus enabling the women to obtain enough fuel to keep them alive that winter.

Word of the colony’s predicament reached Denver and they were visited by several interested groups. First, the Jewish community of Denver sent as much help as they could, including warm winter clothing, food, medicine and other necessities. Three prominent men from Denver came down to investigate at first hand. On their return they framed still another appeal to the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, explaining Saltiel’s actions and describing his reputation. Then, a number of reporters from the Denver newspapers appeared and interviewed the immigrants and the townspeople. They had heard of this unusual agricultural experiment in Denver and had come down to check certain reports of mismanagement and illegalities.

The Denver Republican played up the story, emphasizing Saltiel’s responsibility and the HEAS’s gullibility in investing such a large sum in so novel an experiment, without proper investigation before-hand. They exposed Saltiel’s entire plan as a “vile atrocity† and des cribed the colonists’ sufferings in minute detail. This newspaper took the opportunity of divulging at the same time, other of Saltiel’s deals and schemes, as well as his unsavory personal reputation.

The Rocky Mountain News tended to play down the whole story, reminding its readers that all pioneers must endure some hardship and compared conditions in other outlying districts with those at Cotopaxi, making the lot of the Jews there seem ideal, even better than most.

The colony did manage to survive the first winter, but they faced the coming spring with determination not to make the same mistakes nor rely on Saltiel for any further assistance. They observed their first Passover at Cotopaxi that April of 1883, and immediately after the rites were concluded, again borrowed seed and equipment and sowed their second crop. But nature seemed to conspire against them, for scarcely were the seeds in the ground when a late spring blizzard ruined a large part of them. These late storms are common in Colorado but to the struggling and discouraged colonists, it seemed a special punishment directed at them alone.

Again they wrote to the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society for advice. Up to this time, the directors of that agency in New York could do little but counsel patience and fortitude, but by the late summer of 1883, the pressure of immigration had subsided in New York, due to the Czar’s temporary retirement of Ignatieff, and the new director found time to write to the unhappy farmers in Colorado. Michael Heilprin had been forced to retire that same summer, due to illness, and his successor was not as familiar with the whole story. Also, the emergency funds had been exhausted and the great need for the Society’s existence not as apparent, so there were plans for its dissolution. Late that summer, the colonists received a second letter from HEAS recommending that they use the money that would be sent them to remove to another area; in Colorado, perhaps, but out of the Cotopaxi region, since the legal complications involved in land claims were too difficult to handle at long range. In October, 1883, more than a year after their first appeal and the report made by the Denver investigators, the colonists received $2,000

As their harvest in 1883 was no better than the first, several families prepared to leave as soon as they received their share of the removal funds. For the remaining families, help and encouragement during their second winter was again supplied by their friends from Denver.

Those who stayed on that winter earned their living expenses by working in neighboring mines and on the railroad. The colony celebrated its second Passover at Cotopaxi in 1884, shortly after which a number of families left for new locations. Only six families decided to remain and plant a third crop, but when another late blizzard destroyed it, too, they at last recognized the futility of persevering in this spot and made plans to abandon the site. Each head-of-family had paid a fee of $50.00 into a common fund back in New York for the filing of deeds. When they prepared to depart the county, they checked with the county clerk in Canon City and could find there no record whatsoever of any such deed or conveyance. They had simply been “squatters† or perhaps at best, “tenant farmers† on corporation town-site land. They had wasted almost three years on Saltiel’s “colony† when they could have filed on public domain nearby as homesteaders.

By June of 1884 the colony, as such, was formally dissolved and a final report submitted to Heilprin’s successors in New York. The Cotopaxi Colony had been a failure. But it had served to give its members valuable lessons in pioneering, and had taken them out of the crowded ghettos in the eastern cities and given them a glance at what was available on other farm lands in the West.

Of the twenty-two families who lived through the bitter but edifying experience at Cotopaxi, only two failed to remain in the West. These were Samuel Shradsky, and Sholem Shradsky, his eldest son, both widowers. The elder Shradsky was a very old man and wanted to return to Europe to be buried alongside of his long-dead wife. His son accompanied him and died there before he could return to the United States. The rest used their hard-won knowledge to try farming on better lands in the West.

Saul Baer Milstein had come to Denver in 1883 with is wife Miriam and the seven younger children. He went into the cattle business with two partners. As soon as he was able, he bought grazing lands near Denver and by the time his younger sons were grown, had built a stock-yard and packing house. His brother Benjamin Zalman Milstein bought a farm near Derby, Colorado. His youngest brother, Isaac Leib Shames, took his wife to Salt Lake City, where they lived for many years before moving back to Colorado. Shames’ son Michael moved to Denver and joined his uncle in the cattle business and also bought a farm near Westminister, Colorado. Shames’ daughter Hannah married Philip Quiat and another daughter, Rachel, married Henry Singer. His eldest daughter, Yente, had been but a young bride when she and her husband, Joseph Washer, came as colonists to Cotopaxi. They had no children. Mr. Washer died soon after leaving Cotopaxi. His widow remarried Moses Altman of Denver.

Saul Baer Milstein’s eldest daughter Nettie, whose marriage to her first cousin Jacob had been so bitterly opposed by her father, eventually won his forgiveness. She and her husband were the most enthusiastic and successful of all the new farmers. Their first homestead was some four miles northeast of the city of Longmont in Boulder County. They later moved to a larger farm near Broomfield, which latter productive acreage they sold in 1935, for $18,000 to the Savery Savory Mushroom Company.

Jacob Milstein, Saul Baer’s eldest son, later moved to Seattle, Washington. Both he and his cousin and brother-in-law, Jacob Millstein, had been Colorado Volunteers during an Indian disturbance in 1887.

The Prezants, the Shuterans, David Korpitsky and his daughters, and the Toplitskys moved to Denver, where they entered various fields of business and soon prospered. Several of the men served on the Denver Police Force and Fire Department.

For some years the Tobias family lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where they ran a hardware store.

The Schneider family, including the sons-in-law Morris and Newman, moved to a farm near Omaha, Nebraska, and the Needleman and Moscowitz families homesteaded in South Dakota. The younger Shradskys moved to California from Cotopaxi.

Soloman Shuteran participated in the Cripple Creek gold rush in 1892 and established a comfortable family fortune by profitable real estate investments in that region.

Old Cabin

Conclusions 

Despite its failure, its remoteness, its impermanence and its long submergence in undocumented oblivion, the Cotopaxi Colony did have significance in the shaping of American-Jewish agricultural history. In the immigrant Jew’s attempt to return to the soil, to return to his ancient national character of the agrarian, the colony experiment played a definite and important role. This colony at Cotopaxi happened to be the first of more than sixteen similar Jewish colonies, located in Louisiana, Arkansas, the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon and Michigan. Although individually Jews had long been active and successful in American agriculture, the colony plan, as demonstrated by successful groups during the 1870’s, such as the Union and Chicago colonies in Colorado, seemed better suited for the conquest of the arid high plains and the distant Mountain and Pacific Coast regions, especially for newly-arrived Jews. Other national and religious groups had chosen the collective method as the best way to achieve security and a comfortable social milieu in unfriendly or desolate areas.

Analyses of the histories of these other Jewish Colonies, many of which experienced even worse hardships and exploitation schemes than the one at Cotopaxi, show the same underlying causes for failure. Most of them were conceived in haste, under great pressure, emotional and political, without adequate consideration of those factors upon which successful colonization or even profitable private farming, depend. Geographical location, with relationship to markets, national and local economy, transportation, the character of the land, type of ownership, lease or title, the capital needs, availability of equipment and seed, the existence of any special problems such as the necessity for irrigation, drainage, erosion control, the economic and social condition of the neighboring farmers in comparison with the prospective colonists, the nature of work involved, the personality and integrity of sponsorship and leadership, and last, but not least, the homogeneity of purpose and temperament and physical fitness of the colony members themselves–none of these vital requirements had received sufficient consideration in the hectic and unhappy 1880’s.

It has never been charged that the Cotopaxi Colony failed because of the members’ inability, or lack of inclination for hard, manual, menial labor, or weakness under privation and hardship. It was dissolved when the foolhardiness of persevering on land which was definitely not adapted for agricultural purposes, an arid, stony valley almost 7,000 feet above sea-level, was realized. Similar natural or environmental causes were found in the other Jewish colonies begun in the 1880’s; flood destroyed the Louisiana colony, malaria was the villain in Arkansas, hail, drought and prairie fires combined to foil the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas attempts, while poor, swampy land, combined with a severe local depression, was the nemesis of the Michigan colony at Bad Axe. Though ill-fated and short-lived, these agricultural experiments were not bare of results, for these very failures focused attention on the great need for better guidance, more careful organization, thorough investigation of the site before settlement, and other factors attainable only by means of a definite, well-financed, well-staffed Jewish farm movement. This awareness led to the foundation, in 1884, of first, the Montefiore Agricultural Aid Society, followed by the establishment of the famous Baron de Hirsch Fund, which set up the Jewish Colonization Association and the Industrial Removal Office. These last two merged in 1900 to become the Jewish Agricultural Society whose function it has been to encourage, counsel, educate, train, and settle groups of agriculturally-minded Jews on the land. It has also been responsible for aiding in the adjustment of these groups to their new environment.

That the return of the Jew to the land is a good thing for America as a whole is undisputed, for, looking beyond such factors as relieving congestion in urban centers, redistributing population and skills, combatting anti-semitism, or even demonstrating Jewish ability to farm, there is a deeper and broader significance, historically and sociologically. The gain, since 1890, in numbers of Jews on American farms, during a period when the trend of population was to further urbanization, is an important indication, not to be measured in quantity alone. These numbers represent a positive gain in normalization, and the Jewish farmers found for themselves and their descendants a precious lode of self-satisfaction and self-respect in rediscovering the advantages of life on the soil.

Of the effect of the Cotopaxi Colony on Colorado, it will be noted that nearly all of the members remained in the State, or nearby, in farming, stock-raising and allied fields, or quickly became independent and prosperous in business and commerce. They were not discouraged by their failure in Fremont County, but tried again, on an individual or family-group basis, in widely-scattered areas, on homestead land or purchased farms. These ‘pioneers’ became the nucleus of small Jewish communities in such cities as Longmont, Pueblo, Rocky Ford, Montrose and Grand Junction and helped attract later Jewish immigration to these places. Those who settled in Denver and nearby towns were quickly Americanized and assimilated in the business and political life and were in a position, a decade later, to help in adjusting and advising the vast numbers of Jews who flocked to Denver for their health.

Too much blame for the Cotopaxi Colony’s failure has been attributed to the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society’s lack of foresight and careful investigation, but it must be remembered that the plans were undertaken just at the moment when Russian pogroms caused thousands of destitute refugees to crowd into New York, completely absorbing the time and funds available. Too little attention has been paid to the unfortunate role played by the Society’s erstwhile investigator, Julius Schwartz, whose complicity with the motives of Emanuel H. Saltiel prevented an adequate forewarning of the problems ahead. More emphasis should be placed on the labor-procurement aspect of Saltiel’s offer, for the nature and composition of a large part of Colorado’s social development. Lastly, the significance of their experience at Cotopaxi affected the colonists themselves, their children and grandchildren, in that it gave them a share, however small and unusual, in the history of their State and their nation.

ON MAY 8, 1882 a group of Jewish Russian immigrants disembarked from the train at Cotopaxi to establish an agricultural colony. They thought they were leaving the hardships of Tzarist Russia behind, but as it turned out they were exchanging the privations of “home” for new hardships, which included non-arable land, broken promises, and the difficulty of living in a culture where language, religion, and terrain were foreign and inhospitable.

The colonists first stepped off the train in Cotopaxi with high hopes. They had been traveling for five days by train from New York to Kansas City, Pueblo, and at last the harrowing trip west through the Royal Gorge itself. At the time, Cotopaxi consisted of a few residences, a hotel and store, blacksmith shop, and a meeting house with plans in the works for further expansion.

When they arrived, the name “Saltiel” swung above the train station landing. The honor had been bestowed upon the wealthiest man in town, Emanuel H. Saltiel, by the Denver and Rio Grande railroad when the tracks were completed. The actual name of Cotopaxi had been in common use since the arrival of local miner, Henry Thomas, (Gold Tom) in the late 1870’s; after traveling and mining in South America, he was struck by the similarities of the mountains around Cotopaxi to the Ecuadorian volcano called Mount Cotopaxi, and in the end Cotopaxi is the name that stuck.

But the name hanging on the platform made little difference to the colonists. They were Yiddish speaking Hassidic Jews, who couldn’t understand the sign or (it can be hoped) the comments of the spectators. Their arrival was such a curiosity that the locals showed up at the station to watch, much like circus-goers turning out to see the freaks. According to one of the onlookers some of the locals were “openly scornful of the newcomers’ clothes, language and appearance and made no effort to conceal their hostility. Others felt sympathetic at their [the colonists’] looks of terror and awe.”

The group, when all assembled, consisted of sixty-three colonists, most of them related by marriage, intermarriage, adoption or close friendships. There were twenty-two heads of family who would be legally eligible to apply for 160-acre tracts of land under the Homestead Act. They came from the provinces of Volhynia, Kiev, and Ekaterinoslav where they had become increasingly disenchanted with the Tsarist policies which called for the unfair conscription of juveniles and prevented Jews from owning or operating farms. Many of them were already farmers by trade but found it difficult to continue that pursuit under the restraints of Tzar Alexander II.

The colonists plan to emigrate started as a seed in the late 1870’s when Saul Baer Milstein, a wealthy businessman, warehouse owner sent his nephew, Jacob to New York in order to scout out the political attitudes in America towards Jews, to find out about the Homestead Act, and locate land. In addition to this, a search was made to seek out interested relatives and friends for the eventual emigration. Saul Baer planned to sell his business in order to finance the endeavor once the appropriate arrangements were made.

Funded by his uncle, Jacob arrived in New York City in 1778 to begin his investigation, but within the first year, he broke his uncle’s trust by coaxing Saul Baer’s daughter, Yente (Nettie), to join him in America so they could be married. Saul Baer was infuriated by this. She was his oldest daughter, and he had trained Nettie and counted on her to take over much of the work in his commissions business. Immediately Saul Baer cut off the funds to his nephew, and Jacob was forced to find work in a tin factory in New York City in order to survive. This did not thwart the independent and lovesick Nettie. She refused the other suitors offered to her by the shadchen (matchmaker), and against all social and religious conventions ran away to Germany to stay with relatives until Jacob could send money for her passage.

THE MONEY FROM Jacob was not forthcoming. An accident in the tin factory caused the loss of an eye, and a lengthy recovery. It was during this recovery, in 1880, that Jacob became acquainted with Michael Heilprin a leader in the Jewish community who was instrumental in establishing the HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Aide Society). This friendship was one of the factors that eventually led to the establishment of the colony at Cotopaxi.

The second factor was a letter from Emanuel H. Saltiel, the Cotopaxi entrepreneur mentioned above, who had caught wind of the fact that Heilprin was trying to encourage immigrants to leave the urban areas and head west where the opportunities for land ownership and financial independence were greater than what was offered in the ghettos of New York City. Saltiel wrote an eloquent and convincing letter to Heilprin, offering to construct houses and barns, provide farm implements, livestock and seed for the colonists. He would keep the cost under $10,000 and all the colonists would have to raise would be living expenses and transportation costs en route to Colorado.

The deal seemed like a perfect fit. Each family would be indebted for less than $435, and because many of the Russians had experience in farming, the situation would be ideal. Heilprin sent his secretary, Julius Schwartz, to Colorado to investigate the situation and send back a report. During this time, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and under the new rule of Tsar Alexander III, a new set of repressive anti-Semitic laws were enacted, the worst of which were the May Laws of 1881.

THIS HAD A STRONG IMPACT on the Cotopaxi colonists. What began as a well planned and thought out move, became an urgent necessity. The colonists left Russia and were thrown into a massive wave of immigration which flooded the HIAS office with thousands of requests for aide and money for which they were totally unprepared. Because of the new urgency, the colonists arrived in New York and were sent west without ever having gotten a report back from Julius Schwartz about the living conditions at Cotopaxi.

Upon arrival in Cotopaxi, the colonists found that not all of the promises had been fulfilled. Four houses had been constructed two miles south of town on an arid plateau above Oak Grove Creek, which was both dry and sandy during the summer or roiling with water during periodic spring flooding. Eight more houses were constructed above 8,000 feet on dry rocky soil where no irrigation water could be acquired. The houses were only about eight feet square with flat roofs and lacked windows, doors and chimneys. Twenty houses had been promised, but only twelve had been constructed. The houses were unfurnished, and only four of the houses had cooking stoves.

The supplies, too, were inadequate. When asked about this, Saltiel explained that labor and building materials were in short supply and were not available locally. He said they had been sent for, but had been delayed. Shortly after that, Saltiel left on an extended business trip and was absent for several months, leaving the colonists to cope with little more than the personal belongings they had brought with them from Russia.

Because of the immediate necessity of planting their crops, the colonists decided to move into the unfinished houses.

The colonists borrowed plows, horses, seed and other equipment from A.S. Hart who was in partnership with Saltiel and the co-owner of the store. The Jews were extended credit for the purchase of food and personal supplies. Rocks were cleared and crops were planted, chimneys were built, and the door-less, windowless houses were made into homes. Even then, it was near the first of June before their first crops were sown on the wind-swept slopes below the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where a “good” growing season was less than four months.

There were a few happy moments during the first summer in Cotopaxi. A Sefer Torah was donated to the colonists by the New York Orphan Asylum and the colonists were able to locate an abandoned building north of the General Store to use as a synagogue. The dedication of the synagogue on June 23rd held a mystical and divine quality, and was described with these words in an account sent to the Jewish Messenger, 1882: “The young secretary (Julius Schwartz) opened the Ark, and after the chanting of several hymns placed the Torah in its place…. Later they danced in their peculiar Russian manner and the silent moon sent its silvery rays upon the dancing and singing Russians.”

DURING THE FIRST SUMMER, two weddings were performed, one of them a religious ceremony to sanctify the marriage of Nettie and Jacob Milstein. The couple had already been married in a civil ceremony in Blackhawk where Jacob worked as a mule skinner for six months while he waited for the colonists to gather in New York and travel west. When Jacob and Nettie finally arrived at the colony, they were welcomed with open arms. They both spoke English fluently and were willing to teach the others.

Only one colonist was unhappy at the arrival of the Millsteins (now spelled with two l’s).  This was Idel (Ed) Grimes who was one of the suitors who had been promised to Nettie by the matchmaker in Russia. He joined the colony and followed Nettie to America hoping to get the marriage annulled. Once his hopes were dashed, he left the colony and set out to Denver on foot, thereby making the male heads of family who were able to file on land, one less.

The singing and dancing the colonists enjoyed that summer ended abruptly when an early frost put an end to the growing season. One colonist, Morris (Zedek) Needleman had sown fifteen bags of potatoes and reaped only fourteen. Without the income from the crops, the already strapped colonists had to turn to other work to pay off their debt at the store and to provide food and clothing for the winter. Many of the men took jobs as laborers in Saltiel’s mines but saw not a penny from it. Instead they were paid in vouchers for use in Hart’s store.

In addition to the crop failure, the colonists were forced to use their winter supply of firewood for large bonfires to keep away the marauding bears. The extra houses, never having been completed, forced two families to set up camp in canvas tents and another family to spend their first year in an Indian dugout cave. During the first winter, the weather was severe, and starving Ute Indians frequently visited, begging for food.

FINALLY THE MEN found work with the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad which was extending its line west from Salida over Marshall Pass. They were paid $3 a day as track laborers, carrying felled trees, three men to a tree, on their shoulders from the forest down to the site of the construction. This job held two benefits for the colonists, the first was that the railroad was happy to give them the Sabbath off in exchange for working on Sunday, and the second was that once the train firemen, conductors, and engineers learned of the colonists plight, they threw extra coal from the train along the tracks near Cotopaxi so that the women from the colony could gather it to use for heat throughout the long, harsh winter.

By the fall of 1882, it was clear that the colonists would need outside help. The promises Saltiel had made for the additional houses and supplies were never met. The colonists wrote numerous letters to the HIAS without response, and made appeals to the Jewish community in Denver who sent food, winter clothing, and medicine. At this point, the predicament of the colony became the subject of much debate. Reporters from Denver newspapers came to Cotopaxi to investigate the truth of the rumors that the colony had been mismanaged and ill-prepared.

Two completely different points of view emerged. According to Flora Satt in her master’s thesis detailing the history of the colony, the DenverRepublican pinned the blame on Saltiel emphasizing his unsavory character, and they blamed the HIAS for sending the colonists into a situation which had not been fully researched ahead of time. A second newspaper, the Rocky Mountain News downplayed the situation by saying that “all pioneers must endure some hardship.” They believed the colonists were not facing anything more difficult than other settlers, and felt they were far better off than most.

The debate continued with conflicting reports, one of them from Julius Schwartz to the HIAS giving a glowing report of the colony and its success. Many reports and letters were to follow, documenting the hardships and tales of terror. One report sent to HIAS from the Denver Committee dated February 16, 1883, stated the following:

The instances of suffering among the colonists are numerous and pitiful. On one occasion the family of Morris Mimorsky was without food for two days; his wife was sick, and the Arkansas River was swollen to such an extent that it carried destruction in its terrible course. It was a question of life and death. Mimorsky plunged in the stream and, after a desperate effort, in which no other man would venture, reached the opposite shore in safety. He secured the necessary provisions for his sick wife and brought them back with him.

In a letter dated March 2, 1883, H.S. Henry from the HIAS responded with a mild reprimand:

Instead of such a report as your committee has made, a committee sent by German, Irish or Norwegian Emigrant Society would probably have encouraged the colonists by pointing out that their present discomforts were temporary, that with the return of spring and another harvest, things would improve; that perseverance after all the expenditure of money would certainly result in ultimate success…. This committee would recommend that to start life in a new country is not child’s play–that there are frequent disappointments and some misery, but that after all, success when obtained, opens out a vista of happiness to which a peddler or small artisan in a city can never reach.

Throughout the debate, the colonists endured. They celebrated their first Passover in April with flour purchased by walking 26 miles to Salida. Once again they borrowed seed and equipment for a second crop, but were unprepared for the late spring snowstorms in the Colorado mountains. A large part of the second crop was destroyed leaving the colonists discouraged and further in debt.

It was the poor crop, following the second spring planting that led to the final dissolution of the colony. In the fall of 1883, a year after their first appeal to the HIAS, the colonists received $2000 in removal funds. A few families took their share and relocated. Others remained, relying on support from the Denver Jewish community to see them through another harsh winter. Most of these people left soon after the second Passover, leaving only six families to plant a third crop. This crop, too, was destroyed by a spring blizzard, and it was evident, then, to continue would be futile. The colony was officially dissolved in June of 1884.

There has been much debate about why the Jewish colony at Cotopaxi did not succeed. Poor timing, poor preparation, poor weather, poor funding, the cultural and language barrier, and the role played by Emanuel Saltiel have all been questioned. If any one of these things had been different, would the colony have been a success?

In a recent paper written by a descendent of the Saltiel family, Miles Saltiel defends Emanuel Saltiel as a somewhat “rumbustious,” but well-intended benefactor. He points out that there are no other cases of successful agricultural colonies in the United States during that time period. Perhaps this is so, but if nothing else, Emanuel Saltiel influenced the placement of the colony with his letter to HIAS, extolling the virtues of Cotopaxi and by promising to provide adequate housing and equipment to enable the colonists a good start. When asked for help, Saltiel at one point simply “shrugged.”

Another lingering question regards the land that the colonists expected to eventually own through the Homestead Act. It is said the colonists were taken by wagon to Cañon City to file declarations, but these turned out to be little more than statements taken by a confused clerk which gave them no legal entitlement to the land. Because of the language barrier, it is unclear what understanding they had of the filing process or if anyone told them how to properly apply for the land.

Throughout all this, the spirit of these Russian Jews eclipsed the travesty. After the dissolution of the colony, many of them remained in Colorado and became successful farmers and ranchers in places such as Rocky Ford, Longmont, Pueblo, and Montrose. Others moved to Denver and became successful businessmen and leaders in the West Colfax Jewish community. The Cotopaxi colony itself was short-lived, but the legacy of the “experiment” has survived. The colonists of Cotopaxi proved the pioneer dictum that stepping into the unknown requires courage and faith, and while their journey did not end where they imagined, taking the first step eventually led to the new lives they desired.