Ian Neligh has won many state and national journalism awards for his writing and reporting including first place for online in-depth reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and first place for investigative reporting from the Colorado Press Association.
He developed his passion for storytelling growing up in Colorado, where around the family dinner table he learned a good story must be captivating — and if possible, hilarious.
What inspired you to write this book?
From the decayed remnants of old mining operations along I-70 to the ghost towns hidden beneath the state’s mountainous passes, Colorado’s history is all around us and the memorials to that time are everywhere. They are signs of an age gone but not dead. Ten years ago, I worked as a newspaper editor in a small mountain town and had the good fortune to meet and become acquaintances with people who made their living finding gold. One man in particular would see me on my way to an assignment and call me across to street to show off the gold nugget he’d dug out of the river just the day before. He regularly climbed into a wetsuit and dove into freezing mountain rivers to find an elusive fortune. I realized then that people were still risking everything to find gold — much as those miners and prospectors did over 150 years ago and often in the same areas. The idea someone could, or would, still do that I found amazing. Mining, in any form, is dangerous, difficult and sometimes lethal. I asked myself “are there others out there who do this?”
I then spent the better part of a year answering that question by finding and following these people largely located in Clear Creek and Gilpin County which was the epicenter for Colorado’s original gold rush. I went back to the history of the state to look at what type of person would come out to what was a lawless territory to risk everything and how they compared to those still doing it today. I found the history and pursuit of gold is filled with wild stories that are sometimes funny and just as often terrifying. I followed, researched and wrote about the modern and historic miners, prospectors and treasure hunters and the gunslingers, criminals, and cannibals that came out West with the discovery of gold and the one thing they all had in common — gold fever.
Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?
For nonfiction I am an enormous fan of the author John McPhee. His books take readers into unusual and fascinating worlds, where he shows a seamless ability to educate and entertain about everything from the Swiss Army to humankind’s attempts to control nature. Also, I enjoy the work of Hunter S. Thompson, who could both make you laugh and cry as he dragged you through the vestiges of the American dream. My admiration also goes to the extraordinary writing skill of authors such as Studs Terkel, Erik Larson and too many more to count. I read a fair amount of fiction as well and am amazed by the masterful storytelling of Neil Gaiman, Tony Hillerman’s magnificent descriptions of the American West, and the delightful imagery of Ray Bradbury — and many, many more. I also enjoy the books of C.J. Box, who has a wonderful sense of plot and unpredictability. I also have tremendous respect for Mr. Box’s ability to research his stories, making them as authentic as possible as he was originally trained as a newspaper journalist.
Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?
“Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies” features a lot about those who built the mines, dug out the gold, and who still do today. I selected the chapter “Bat Country” because it is a wonderful opportunity to share with readers what happens to mines after they’ve become abandoned and how they have taken on a second life that’s beneficial to the residents of Colorado. The story of the gold rush isn’t a tale that is relegated to the past but continues onward into our present and future.
What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?
Getting to spend time with the people who make up the modern history of gold today was a thrill and a tremendous amount of fun. I went with miners into 140-year-old mines, rode with state employees whose job it is to find abandoned mines and have the dangerous job of closing them, and interviewed museum curators about unusual gold discoveries. Researching the voices of those who lived the original gold rush was amazing but spending time with those living in its shadow today was a blast.
What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?
Deciding how to cover the history of the gold rush was challenging because historians have already written so much about the state’s history. It was essential not to write something like “The Westward Expansion and Economic Realities of the European Settler, Vol. 2”; there is already plenty out there like that and they’re all miserable to read recreationally. My goal was to write something that expressed the excitement and wonder of the time. History is thrilling and it was my goal to convey that in the best way I could. When writing about history it is always my primary goal to find the stories that have slipped through the cracks, to give a chapter to someone who might only get a sentence or two in a traditional history book, and to convey a sense of how weird and amazing the time was.
What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?
The entire process of researching those who discover gold today and 150 years ago was a journey of learning one interesting fact after another. If I’m not amazed and in wonder about what I’m discovering and writing I don’t imagine the reader will be, either. However, moving past the stories of gunslingers, cannibalism, and even stories of the supernatural written by the newspapers of the time, I found the story of the ghost town of Independence fascinating. The state is brimming with ghost towns but only in Independence did the town have to evacuate on makeshift skis torn from the buildings to avoid dying in a massive avalanche.
What project are you working on next?
I’ve recently recorded the audiobook for “Gold! Madness, Murder, and Mayhem in the Colorado Rockies,” which should be available sometime later this year. I also just finished “Spurred West,” which is a nonfiction book about the historic and modern-day Wild West. I’ve been researching and interviewing bounty hunters, U.S. Marshals, bare-knuckle boxers, gunslingers, brand inspectors, and more to compare them with their historical counterparts and to discover if the West is still wild. Writing this book allowed me to look for lost treasure, to meet the inventor of one of the most powerful handguns on the planet and enroll in an outdoor survival school. The book will be out in bookstores this fall.
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