Now and Then: Bumback Spring (1870’s to 1970’s)

By Loretta (Stevens) Bailey

Many, many years ago a spring was naturally born to provide water for many different purposes at different times.  The source of the spring was an aquifer. As snowmelt and rainwater trickle through cracks and fractures in the rock formations, the aquifer is filled and the water table rises. The water recharges and eventually flows back to the surface.  These often occur in springs or seeps.

The Florence Cañon City Embayment[1] had many springs and some oil seeps.  Most of these no longer flow as the aquifer has not replenished.  One of these vanished springs, the subject of this blog, was known as Bumback Springs.

The history of the spring and surrounding area during 1860’s through the 1970’s has all the makings for a thrilling page-turner mystery novel!

Now: It is an easy drive from Cañon City to view the location where Bumback Spring bubbled its cold water.  Take Highway #50 to top of Eight-Mile Hill.  Where Highway #9 and #50 connects turn right on #9, which has pull-offs on both sides. This is the safest place to have a look down into the valley. It is on private land.

Look for a line of cottonwood trees. That’s the area where the spring once flowed.  You can also see the cottonwood trees down in the valley by driving west on Highway #50. It’s not advisable to park along the highway.

Bumback Springs, 1994; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center
Bumback Springs, 1994; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

Water, Precious Natural Resource

Water has always been, and always will be, a powerful attraction that’s desperately needed and vigorously sought-after, causing quarrels, brawls, fist fights, killings and wars.

This is some Bumback Spring history about events and people who lived nearby the springs or traveled there, seeking a natural offering to nourish, heal, and sustain life.

Earliest Known Inhabitants

Then: Some scholars presume to trace the Utes back to around 10,000 years ago, in the Colorado-Utah-New Mexico area.  The Utes were pushed into the mountains by pressure from the stronger and more established Plains Indians.  Utes probably were the first Indians to live and travel in what is known now as the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

Bumback Springs would likely have been known by the Utes and used in assorted ways. Wild life known to live in the mountains would have sought watering holes and could be hunted in the area surrounding the springs.

Utes often buried their dead in rock crevices or caves with rocks covering the spot. Many personal possessions to be used in the afterlife were buried with the bodies.  Burials took place a sufficient distance from camp to keep away the spirit of the deceased or the camp itself was moved.  The Bumback Springs area would have been an excellent choice providing ample rocks, crevices, and caves for secret and safe burials.

Early European explores from Spain and France arrived in the late 1700’s. Zebulon Pike camped on the east entrance of the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River in December of 1806. Lt. Pike and his men built one of the first structures built in Florence Cañon City Embayment.

John C. Fremont and Fur Trappers came to this area and discovered numerous creeks and cold and hot springs on both sides of the Arkansas River by following well defined Ute and wild game trails. Bumback Springs would certainly be among the discoveries. Artifacts left behind have been found, demonstrating proof of time of human existing in days past.

Photo of Pueblo Indians (likely on a visit to Cañon City), ca. 1880; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center
Photo of Pueblo Indians (likely on a visit to Cañon City), ca. 1880; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

Homesteaders and Gold Seekers 

In the early 1860’s and after the Civil War there was a great migration of people coming west.  People from the east came looking for wide open spaces where there was gold, silver, copper, coal, oil and other valuable riches. Ranchers and farmers were told to go “out west” where grasses grow high, land has rich soil and there’s abundance of water. Buffalo roamed in massive herds.  All for the taking. Oh yes, they were also told that the Indians were mostly friendly and liked “trinkets”

The ones suffering from the dreaded contiguous disease of tuberculosis were told the cure could be found “out west.” The air was crisp, clear and cold in the high mountains with natural hot and cold springs. A favorable climate with mild winters could be found.

Cañon City Main Street, 1874; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center
Cañon City Main Street, 1874; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

A Natural Park Hemmed in and Protected by Mountains on Three Sides

On the east side of the Florence Cañon City Embayment the valley widens and extends gradually until it blends into the plains.  As the Arkansas River reaches the plains it tames to a meandering river.  A far cry from the wild white-water river that hurtled and crashed its pathway from an elevation of 10,000 feet then slashed and gashed through the Royal Gorge dropping to 5,000 feet above sea level, in just a short distance of 120 miles.

Cañon City and Florence and the surrounding areas grew and prospered into supply towns. Good soil and wholesome water provided a place to grow fruits, vegetables, hay, livestock, and poultry.

The mountains in the 1860’s were booming and rumbling with prospectors hastily building mining camps and tearing into the mountain sides with picks and shovels. Usually, a host of motley others would follow the prospectors and put up their shacks and tents.  All of them were in grave need of supplies to maintain the rugged and rough lifestyle that it took to survive in the beautiful dangerous mountains.

Wagon Masters Driving Freight Wagons to Bumback Spring

In the 1870’s, the railroad had not yet come to Cañon City, an important trading and supply center. The freighting business was a major industry for the young town.

A corral was located on Sixth and Main Street which was pretty much the edge of the town. The business district was farther to the west and only a few houses dotted the residential section in the area.  This corral provided accommodations for freight wagons and their teams while several hotels catered to the freighters and stage lines passengers.

The freight wagons traditionally had a white hood made of canvas, which tended to be lower in the middle while rising upward at the front and back of the wagon.  These curves in the design gave the Conestoga wagons a graceful look, although they were the heavy freight wagons of their day.

Another type used was the flat-bed wagons tied together, often lugged by a team of stout full-bodied oxen.  This type hauled freight, like lumber, in and out of Cañon City.  These heavy-loaded wagons’ usual destinations were either west to Leadville or south into the Wet Mountain Valley.

Wagon masters of the multiple teams became experts with a jerk line attached only to the lead team.  Most of the lead horses or mules were trained to turn right when the driver used the word “Jee.”  When the driver wanted the lead team to go left he would yell out “Haw” and then gave two jerks on the line.

Freight wagon in front of Methodist Church at 5th and Main Street, ca. 1865; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center
Freight wagon in front of Methodist Church at 5th and Main Street, ca. 1865; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

Now:  Let’s follow a group of freighters leaving town with heavy loaded wagons and at the same time learn some history of the town.  The wagons’ destinations are for well populated towns like Fairplay, Alma and Breckenridge. The freighters risk life and limb and their teams on treacherous and risky wagon roads to make their deliveries.

As the wagons make their way out of town, they pass though the main business district. On Fifth and Main is the First Methodist Church. A public library and a three-business, two-story building with offices of Capt. B.F. Rockafellow grace the streets as does a water-powered flour mill.  The mill was built in 1868 by George Rockafellow, an expert miller.

We can catch-up with the freighters after they’ve lugged the rough and dangerous Bumback Hill.  They will follow the stage coach/wagon road along Skyline Drive then turn west.  A place well known to the freighters as “Devil’s Gap” will be navigated carefully. The terrain will flatten out and then go downhill, which can be more hazardous than uphill.

Location of Bumback Springs on “Historical Map of Fremont County” by Nancy C. Hirleman; Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center archive
Location of Bumback Springs on “Historical Map of Fremont County” by Nancy C. Hirleman; Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center archive

Then: Bumback Springs was an important point on the road that served Guffey and all the ranches northwest of Cañon City.  A settlement was built close to the springs that had a gulch, ranch, road, school, cemetery and creek that were all called Bumback.

The spring was two watering troughs made from hewn logs. Cottonwood trees surrounded the springs as the fast-growing shady water lovers have roots with a natural tendency to find water.  Their emerald green leaves have a delicate swivel action that with a little breeze will set them to quaking or “whispering” in gentle swishing manner.  These trees are truly pioneers, setting the way for trees of higher order.

After the trek uphill and then downhill to Bumback Spring, the sounds of water would be heard and cool shade felt. The freighters and their animals would have welcomed a drink of cold spring water and a much-needed rest.

The animals were the first to feel the effect of boosted energy and rushed to the refreshing oasis. Negative ions, the odorless, tasteless and invisible molecules that surrounded the place of moving water were inhaled by the animals and freighters and lifted their spirits.

There are Mysteries at Bumback Springs

During the years of the 1940’s to the 1970’s men were dynamiting, quarrying, and prospecting for uranium in the rocks around the spring and nearby areas, exposing bones, whole skeletons, skulls, and artifacts, possibly unlocking graves that go back in time to when mammoths were alive. (November 5, 1953 Cañon City Daily Record…A Tusk of a Mammoth was discovered by two young boys. The discovery took place in a 10-foot deep arroyo in Parkdale Park.) The Utes then roamed 10,000 year ago in the Rocky Mountains to 1870’s when Bumback Spring was used by white men and women.

Meet Mr. J.W. “Charlie” Bombeck… (b. 1/27/1836 d. 6/11/1875)

Spellings of names differ according to what is documented.  Several places note that Bumback Springs and the settlement were named after Charlie Bombeck who was a rancher and freighter out and into and around the Florence Cañon City Embayment in the late 1860’s.

Rocky Mountain News…October 31, 1868

“Mr. J.W. Bombeck of Cañon City, informs us that a week ago yesterday he killed three steers that weighed when dressed, as follow:  One two-year-old 710lbs., one three-year-old 797 lbs. and one four-year-old, 1,000 lbs., (approximately).  They were weighed by Thomas Macon, Esq.  This not very often beat.”

Colorado Daily Chieftain, Pueblo, Colorado

Friday, August 29, 1873…Page 1 Section Front Page

“The Times of the 27 inst., give the following concerning the shooting of Bumbeck by Barnard at Breckenridge, which is the latest at hand from this affair.  “We understand that A.M. Barnard, who shot Bumbeck at Breckenridge, last week, immediately fled.

Barnard is said to have been in bed with Mrs. Bumbeck, and when the husband entered the house and struck a match, Barnard shot him, the ball entering the neck.  He was alive at last accounts, with some prospects of recovery.

Barnard fled to the mountains, but twenty or thirty men started on the hunt at once.  After an unsuccessful search, they all withdrew except about a half dozen of the best hunters and trappers in the country.

Men who have spent years in the mountain wilds, and who can trail a chipmunk if necessary.  They found the trail of the criminal and are determined to follow him until his capture is affected.  Rumor reached us, that an impromptu hanging will take place…”

Bumback Community Structures Removed

By the 1900’s a settlement had been built in the valley by the spring and was known as Bumback with a schoolhouse, ranches, and farming homes with cellars.  Some the structures were built with stone.  A garage and storehouse had ducks and chickens and wells had been dug to supply water for people, stock and irrigation.

On March 11, 1921 Colorado State Highway Department drew-up plans and a profile of a proposed project to remove structures at the Bumback Community.  This was to be done in order to extend Highway 50.

In 1930’s Highway 50 proceeded down into the valley of the springs. Arkansas River was close to the highway. There was a filling station for heated-up “Tin Lizzy” automobiles for water-vapor locked radiators.  Automobiles could gas-up or patch up tires.  There was not a shortage of punctured tires with rocky roads often filled with horse shoe nails.

Now: Newspaper Articles from Cañon City Daily Record are available to read at RGRM&HC along with many other resources.

Cañon City Daily Record…March 8, 1955

Human Skull Uncovered on Eight-Mile

“A smallish skull, grotesquely packed with mud and straw after untold years of repose in the soil of Eight-Mile Park, was turned over to the Sheriff’s office here Tuesday morning for investigation.

A brief inspection of the relic however, Sheriff Charles Canterbury decided the skull probably holds more interest for the physical anthropologist, historian or just a dreamer than it does for the law.

Now orange with replacement minerals, the skull was unearthed by Steve Bowman in the course of some blasting work on his Eight-Mile property.  Although the lower jar appears to have been fractured and dislocated by the shock of the blast, many of the teeth are still intact and the skull is generally in good shape of preservation.  No irregularities betray any sign of an unnatural death.  Several ribs also human have been unearthed at the same site.

The size of the skull has led Sheriff’s officers to suspect it is that of a woman.  The only fair condition of the teeth indicate it is probably not that of a child or very young person.  According to some sources, it may be Indian as it was found near an old watering spot where Indians stopped at earlier days to camp, water their ponies and rest.

Bowman discovered the skull at about 4:30pm Monday afternoon.”

“Skull Identified as That of Elderly Ute Indian”

Canon City Daily Record…March 9, 1955

 “South Canon Mayor Roy T. Mendenhall identified the skull found in Eight-Mile Park Monday on the Adolf Poston uranium claim, as that of a male Ute Indian about, 65 years of age.

Mendenhall said he was positive that the skull had been inferred for at least 50 years, and perhaps longer.  Identification was made by measurement of the skull and the characteristically coarse bone structure of the American Indian.

Mendenhall said the individual was at least 65 years old at death and perhaps older.  The undamaged skull indicates a natural death.

Age was determined by the condition of the teeth.  All bear cavities and are mushroomed at the top indication long use.

Poston said the skull was found in a shallow grave bordering on a slight overhang.  Both these later conditions Mendenhall said, indicate an Indian burial more particularly a Ute burial.  It is a Ute custom he said, to undermine slight overhangs in preparing their shallow graves.  Special scents buried or painted on the corpse serve to repulse animals. Mendenhall holds a Doctor’s degree in archeology from New Mexico University in recognition field work done in the sunshine state.

In determining the race and sex of the skull the archeologist made measurements. One being the base of and continuing over the brow; and another spanning to the cheek bone of the face.  The latter is the more important measurement and the span was 4 ½ inches.  The measurement on a European stock skull would be only about three inches.

Another student of Indian culture Andrew Hallberg, verified Mendenhall’s findings.  Hallberg however did not attempt to estimate the age and the sex of the skull but identified it as Indian after inspecting the teeth.  The skull was discovered late last Monday afternoon by Steve Bowman while blasting on the Poston uranium claim.”

Cañon City Daily Record…March 15, 1955

“Eight-Mile Skeleton May Be Remains of Early Day Freight Wagon Driver”

“That skeleton found on the west end of Eight-Mile Park last week maybe the remains of Charles Bumback (or Bombeck) for whom Bumback Hill and Bumback Spring were named.

Old timers of the Eight-Mile country this week compared mental notes and were agreed that the body could have been that of the ill-fated Bumback, who passed to his reward some 65 years ago by falling off a freight wagon.

When the skull was first examined, it was believed that of acute Indian.  It might be.  But it could also be “Charley Bumback”, who freighted out of Cañon City to Breckenridge and Fairplay and other mining camps.

Joe Munson, long-time resident of Eight-Mile country, told Sheriff Canterbury Tuesday that Bumback was buried near State Highway No. 9, not far from the spring that bears his name.

It was near that very spot that he came to his death under the wheels of his freight wagon.  Friends dug a grave with a name rock monument.

The old Bumback Springs was a watering place for ranchers and freighters for many years.  An old house stood there in the early Days.

Mrs. Emma Rupp of Cañon City, an old timer on Twelve-Mile Creek believes the remains might be those of Bumback.

He was buried right near there, she recalled.  “I’ve forgotten how he died, but seems that I do remember something about falling off his wagon.  I guess he was sick.

Mrs. H.C. of Lincoln Park, who played in that section as a girl, remembers the Bumback grave.

“It was one of two graves that I remember on Eight-Mile.  The other was that of G.G. Daily (a second-hand store owner on South 4th for many years).”

Munson told Sheriff Canterbury that Bumbeck was one of several freighters, who operated over what is now State Highway No. 9.  Four and six-teams were used, he said.

The skeleton in question came to unexpected light on Steve Bowman’s ranch on West Eight-Mile while he was blasting for uranium.  Adolph Posten of Cañon City is associated with Bowman on a partnership basis.”

Another Skeleton Story at Bumback Springs

This account did not make the newspapers.  It was told to families and close friends of Loyd “Shorty” Stevens and Willard Hardesty, both deceased.  I did an oral history with my father in 2002 and this was one of his stories.

Some day they are going to find a skeleton and they are probably going to think it’s very old and human. But I know how it got there by that spring that’s at the bottom of Eight-Mile Hill, west side.

In the 1940’s, people around here would have been awfully hungry, if it hadn’t been for beans and “buckskins” (deer).  They would have a hunting season in October for a little while.  Then hunting deer was all over for another year.  But people had to eat.  I came from a big family and so did Willard.

Willard and me were out late at night at a spring bottom of Eight-Mile Hill.  He did not remember the name however he pointed it out to me as we drove by.  We were poaching for buckskins.  I was using the spot light on my car.  Searching around. Willard was sitting in the front seat and had his 303 Savage Rifle, loaded and ready to shoot.

We both heard a noise like branches shaking that came from the top of a cottonwood tree.  I turned the spotlight up and toward the noise. We seen some kind of animal moving around and then a pair of eyes was shinning in the light. I first thought it was a bear or a mountain lion.  We had saw a mountain lion a few weeks back.

Willard got out and took aim.  He thought he was shooting, but all he was doing was ejecting the bullets out of his rifle.  I guess he got buck-fever, a guy would get so shaky that he couldn’t shoot. But he thought he was.

I told him he wasn’t shooting just ejecting bullets.  He took aim again.  The shot hit and something dropped on the ground. Made a big thug.

We waited around a few minutes.  I was thinking if we get caught by the game warden we would be going to jail.  We walked over to have a look.  It was a monkey! I told Willard we got to bury this thing and get the hell out of here.

We dug a shallow hole the best we could.  Buried the monkey and headed back to Canon.

A few days later we heard at Santelli’s pool hall, that two monkeys had escaped from a zoo.  A male and a female. They caught the female right away, but the male took off.

And with that I will end the skeletons, bones, and skulls at Bumback Spring with one thought. Could it have been?


[1] The Florence Cañon City Embayment refers to a geologic term of a topographically low-lying basin.

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