No Burro, No Colorado

The burro and mining are like peanut butter and jelly in the history of Colorado.

Miners relied on these tough, small donkeys to carry their supplies up the sides of mountains as they sought their fortunes.

Mining companies pulled ore out of the earth via donkeys pulling carts up through tunnels too narrow for mules or horses.

A burro, mule and a horse

The difference between a burro, mule, ass, donkey and horse confuse us.

Burro is the Spanish term for donkey. “Ass” is an American colloquial term also used in reference to donkeys. A burro, a donkey and an ass are all the same animal.

A mule results from the mating of a male donkey and a female horse. The resulting animal will grow to be much larger than a donkey, too large for mining use.

Burros are ideal for mining

Burros are quite small relative to horses and mules and low to the ground.

Their low center of gravity allows them to move up steep inclines without toppling over. Horses, and even mules, grow too tall to traverse mountain slopes safely.

Miners relied on these loyal animals to carry their tools and supplies up the sides of mountains as the prospected for gold and silver.

A man with a burro walks from a mine entrance
A burro carries supplies in the 1960s much as it would have in the 1860s. Shot by W. R. Allen

The silver rush brought hundreds of men and their burros to Leadville, Colorado, nestled at 10,000 feet above sea level.

The silver rush infused hundreds of thousands of dollars into both the Leadville and Denver economies and turned Denver from a hick town to the largest metropolis between Chicago and San Francisco.

Even with the advances in locomotion and the laying of railroad track to Leadville, miners continued to rely on burros. Burros still roamed through parts of Leadville as late as the 1920s.

The Depression probably killed most of them off.

Most humans barely had enough to eat during the 1930s. What ever food they might have given to these loyal animals they probably needed for themselves.

Burros are an ideal tourist draw

In the mid-1940s the town of Fairplay, Colorado wanted to bring in more tourists for its “Gold Days” celebration.

Merchants decided a burro race would be just the event to captivate tourists. Leadville merchants agreed.

“Now burros, the animals who once carried an industry on their backs, bore the weight of keeping alive the memories of an industry that once exploited them.”

In 1949 the inaugural pack burro race ran from the Courthouse in Leadville to Fairplay, Colorado. Bu 1953 the two towns decided to alternate the start and finish towns.

Several humans and burros begin the burro race in Leadville Colorado
The start of the burro race in Leadville, Colorado. The race ended in Fairplay, Colorado. Shot by W. R. Allen.

Considering the town where the race finished benefited from the most tourist dollars, Leadville was eager to partake of this important money.

After all, mining was dead in Leadville. Tourists provided much needed city income.

International Pack Burro Race and Burro Days

By the late 1960s the two towns argued over who did more work and decided to split up, creating two burro races.

Leadville named their 22-mile race the Leadville International Pack Burro Race.

Fairplay followed with their own 29-mile race they named Burro Days.

The Burro Days race was brutal then and now. It includes a 3,000 foot vertical ascent and descent.

A portion of the race also runs through an area two-miles above the timberline. That means humans and burros race in an area where there isn’t even enough oxygen for trees.

Imagine trail running with burro in that kind of oxygen-deprived environment.

Colorado State Summer Heritage Sport

Colorado has designated pack burro racing as the summer heritage sport.

2019 will be the 70th anniversary of this summer sport. A mixture of nostalgia, fun and the athletic exploits of human and burro make it a highly-anticipated and much attended sport.

The burro continues to remind us how the carried the weight of Colorado’s vast fortunes on their loyal backs.

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