In the dark tunnels of the 1890s gold rush, you won’t hear the metal ore carts clanging on rusty railways through narrow passageways. Paths won’t be lined by LED lights or headlamps. Instead, there’s a clacking of hooves and the braying of donkeys echoing throughout the darkness.
When the Gold Rush was booming in the 1890s, the Gold Camp District discovered thick veins of gold and all by the light of a candle’s flame. At one point, 500 hundred mines existed in the Gold Camp District during the Gold Rush. Before the area had adequate technology to mine more efficiently, they used pack burros to transport goods through the mine tunnels.
The tunnels, lit by nothing but small flames, were pitch black making it difficult to see almost anything. Many of the donkeys that lived in the tunnels were born into the darkness and lived out their entire lives in the black tunnels of the Greatest Gold Camp.
When President Teddy Roosevelt discovered the area had been using donkeys for such high-stress work, he considered their care in the mines inhumane and passed a law that mandated the donkeys get daylight at least an hour per day.
Adhering to this law, miners hoisted donkeys to the underside of the elevators and carried them up into the daylight. Having never seen the sun in their lives, the brightness of the day blinded the donkeys and sent them into a panic. The donkeys kicked from their harnesses falling to their death at the bottom of the mines.
This bit of history has earned the burros and domesticated donkeys of the Greatest Gold Camp some respect. Even now a wild herd of donkeys roams the streets of Victor’s sister city, Cripple Creek, eating to their hearts’ content and enjoying freedom from the mines their ancestors once served in.
“The amount of labor burros contributed to the gold rush is humbling,” Said Ruth Zalewski.
Cripple Creek is not the only one who celebrates the heritage of the donkeys and burros that existed in the area for the purpose of mining long ago.
Every September Victor, Colorado holds its annual Pack Burro Races, a high impact human and donkey race completed in under 10 miles.
The Pack Burro Races have celebrated over 70 years of hauling ass throughout the state of Colorado, frequenting other locations like Fairplay, Buena Vista, and Leadville.
While the tradition reigns strong in Colorado, Victor has only been hosting these races for the last six years. The idea began seven years ago when Pack Burro Race Directors Mike Vann and Tony White teamed up with Newmont Gold Corp Sr. Environmental Coordinator, Gary Horton, to coordinate a two man race through Victor.
“Legend has it that once upon a time two prospectors raced back to town to file a mining claim.” Said Mike Vann. “Burro racing is a nod to the mining heritage of the state.”
The following year, Horton, Vann, White, and members of the Southern Teller County Focus Group made the race an official part of Victor’s heritage.
Many of the Pack Burro Races extend the length of a half marathon or more. In the race circuit, Victor’s course is the shortest, however, it is the most strenuous for participants. This is due in large part to high altitude and the steep hills of the area. No matter how difficult the course, humans aren’t the ones carrying the weight of the race.
“In the mining days, burros weren’t ridden but rather used to carry supplies and gear into the mountains.” Said Vann. “Burro races today require each burro to wear a pack saddle with a small shovel/pick and a gold pan.”
Obviously, humans would have to go through adequate conditioning to prepare for races at this elevation and with such difficult terrain, but what does it take for donkeys to complete 10 miles?
“In terms of race preparation, most of the donkeys racing in Victor have worked with their human partners/handlers/owners specifically for these types of events.” Said Vann. “Physically, most donkeys can knock out a less than 10-mile effort without a lot of conditioning. A lot of the donkeys also do summer backcountry camping trips, hunting trips, etc. They are all generally pretty active.”
The race is sponsored by the Southern Teller County Focus Group, a non-profit community development organization based in Victor. The race is sanctioned by the Western Pack Burro Association. Members of both groups, plus community volunteers, Teller County Sheriff’s Posse, Victor’s Ag & Mining Museum, and Victor Elks Lodge #367 all volunteer to make the event occur. In 2018, The Victor Pack Burro Races attracted around 60 teams to participate.
This year, the race will happen on September 7th, 2019 in downtown Victor at noon. The participants will finish in downtown over an hour after the race begins and the Victor Elks Lodge will give the awards.
For spectators interested in observing Victor’s unique tradition, they can expect entertaining races and many activities to be a part of. Live music and food start around 2:00 p.m. Other activities that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike include gold panning at the Victor Lowell Thomas Museum, tractor-churned ice cream from the Victor Ag and Mine Museum, shopping, food, and a free concert by cowboy poet, Susie Knight.
The Southern Teller County Focus Group suggests guests arrive early since many streets will be closed to provide a safe leisure area for racers and visitors.
Parking will be along city streets surrounding the downtown. Access to the racecourse outside of town is limited to viewers unless they walk from Victor to spectate. The racecourse from Sunnyside Cemetery Road outside of Victor up and around Little Grouse is closed to spectators this year as well as the parking area at Little Grouse Trailhead.
For something “a little bit off… the beaten path” visit Victor, Colorado on September 7th for the Victor Pack Burro Races.