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When an Ivy League chemistry professor agreed to move West, the mining industry changed forever

From authentic documents and correspondence, author Ellen Kingman Fisher created a historical novel of Nathaniel Hill's journey to Colorado with his wife Alice

When studying for her Ph.D., Ellen Kingman Fisher worked with a collection of letters written by Nathaniel Hill in the 1860s. Intrigued, she used the letters to write “Hill’s Gold,” Gold, a historical novel about the early marriage of Nathaniel and Alice Hill. 

Dr. Fisher was a senior program officer with the Gates Family Foundation and the Director of the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver. She served on the board of the Colorado State Historical Society (now History Colorado) for 28 years and on the Advisory Board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation for 9 years. She was awarded the Molly Brown Spirit Award by Historic Denver for community service and the Alumni Recognition Award by the University of Colorado at Denver for her role in developing the public history (applied history) program at CU Denver. 

“Hill’s Gold” is her first novel. In 2018 it was awarded first place in historical fiction by the Colorado Independent Publishers Association and was also a finalist in western fiction for the Colorado Authors League 2108 awards.

The author has spent most of her life in Colorado enjoying the outdoors, which includes climbing all of Colorado’s fourteeners. She also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro when she was 64.

The following is an excerpt from “Hill’s Gold.”

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


In 1865 Nathaniel and Alice Hill left Providence, Rhode Island where he had quit his professorship at Brown University to pursue the risky business of mining in Colorado Territory. Not only were they leaving the life they knew but also their young children because crossing the Great Plains was one of life-threatening danger.

Their second morning at Black Hawk, Nathaniel was jittery to leave for his office while Alice was still eating her breakfast at a leisurely pace. While showing Alice Black Hawk and Central City the previous day, he had been startled to see that the sign on Lyon’s building had been removed. The windows were bare and the only occupied portion was the small end section he occupied.

The hotel clock chimed eight. It was time to be on his way, but he wanted to make sure Alice did not feel abandoned. He took the napkin from his lap and put it beside his empty plate. “Alice, I need to go to the office so I can introduce Hermann to David and Edward. It’s going to take a while to get caught up, but I can take time to come back here for lunch. Will that suit you?”

Ellen Kingman Fisher.

“That’s fine,” she said sleepily. “I need to write Mama and Kate to let them know about our trip and ask about the children.”

He could read no concern about his leaving in her tired blue eyes. “You don’t have to stay inside.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t. I might get out this afternoon and get to know the town better.”

Nathaniel’s muscles relaxed at her effort to appear confident. It was probably put on, like her smile, but he was grateful. He got up and kissed the top of her head. “I’ll be back around noon.”

Once outside, he took long, rapid strides up the incline toward his office. Half a block away he could see Joe’s empty supply cart pull up in front of the office to let Hermann step down onto the board walkway. Joe gave Nathaniel a cheerful wave as he slapped the reins to start back for Central City.

“Good morning, Hermann. Ready to go to work?” Nathaniel reached for the brass knob to enter. As they entered, his managers jumped to attention like two soldiers recognizing a returning general, one with a new, full mustache. “Good morning, David. Morning, Edward. I’m glad to be back.” He put his hat on the shelf over the coat hooks and placed Hermann’s squat felt crown hat next to it. “Let me introduce you to your new colleague, Hermann Beeger.”

David and Edward bumped into each other in the tight space as they rushed to shake his hand. “Was your trip uneventful?” Edward asked.

  “Nerve-wracking as always. There was snow along the way, but not the storms I feared. In fact, we saw many travelers braving the road. The good news is that we made it in one piece.”

“How did Mrs. Hill fare?” David inquired.

“Mrs. Hill is fine, just tired. She is looking forward to meeting you and wonders if we all might have Sunday dinner together at the hotel. She sends an apology that she can’t entertain you at our house until the furniture arrives.”

He walked to his desk. “Take a seat, gentlemen. Get Hermann a chair and catch us up.” The two managers sat at the narrow ends of the long table and put a chair for Hermann at the long side. Nathaniel pulled the wobbly swivel chair up to his desk and positioned it so he could see everyone.

David began. “You know James Lyon’s history. He spent a fortune, mostly on procedures that weren’t suitable to western ores. His last money went to his smelter, the one that broke down before you left.”

“Most of the money went for construction—shoddy construction, if you ask me,” Edward interjected.

“So my friend John Peirce was right,” Nathaniel mused out loud. The three men looked at him quizzically. “James rushed instead of thinking things through.”

Edward tapped the pencil as he spoke. “James had almost run out of money, but he received an infusion of new funds when he shifted to his modified version of the Swansea method.”

“But even then, he wasn’t a good manager,” David said. “With high overhead, his profits were not enough to get the plant working again. He recently put it up for sale. He’s more or less closed shop.”

Nathaniel’s eyebrows shot up. “Well, well, well, that’s interesting news. It explains the empty building. I’ve been thinking about that since I drove by yesterday. Has his plant been sold?”

“We haven’t heard of any offers—at least not yet,” Edward said. “There aren’t many buyers in these parts.”

  “That may be to our advantage. What if we take a look-see and figure out if it’s worth buying? It would be a good idea to take Hermann over there with you this afternoon for his opinion.”

David and Edward glanced at each other with barely perceptible smiles. Nathaniel suspected that they had been discussing the possibility of buying Lyon’s interests while he was gone.

“In the meantime, I have some news for you. When I arrived at the hotel, there were letters waiting for me expressing interest in the Swansea method.” Spreading them on his desk like four playing cards, Nathaniel explained, “Not only does Warren Merrill want to learn more about our plans, but so does Gardner Colby. Colby manufactures woolens and imports a variety of dry goods.” He tapped the third letter. “Joseph Sawyer, also a woolen producer, is interested too. Three of his sons studied chemistry under me at Brown.” Nathaniel touched the last letter. “This is from James Converse, a shoe manufacturer. Merrill persuaded him to join in as well. They are all interested in opportunities in the West, but they need to know more about what we are planning.”

“Hill’s Gold” by Ellen Kingman Fisher.

“Mr. Hill, before you go too far, you should know that most of Lyon’s plant will have to be torn down. James built it too fast,” David ruffled his papers looking for figures on the Lyon property. “That’s going to add cost before we can even start building anything new.”

“Land is in short supply in this hill-stacked town,” Nathaniel pointed out, “and Lyon’s property is the most practical piece available at the moment. If Hermann agrees that it is of value, we can save money by starting to tear some of it down ourselves. Later, we will have to hire workers to dismantle the bigger equipment. You’re right. Buying the property will add expense, but there is little other choice.”

“We can probably give you some cost figures on how much money it would take to disassemble his plant fairly quickly,” Edward said. His slightly sheepish look told Nathaniel that he had probably already begun to compile that information. “We will need to know the price of the property, how much it will cost to tear down the plant, and the cost to build our own version of a smelter. The figures will have to make an air-tight case to get investors on board.”

“Would you like us to go from start to finish with the Hill companies’figures for Herr Beeger?” Edward asked, twisting open his inkwell to get ready.

Hermann nodded.

“That would suit me fine,” Nathaniel said. “I’d also like a review.”

David and Edward took turns relaying news about Gilpin County as well as Lyon’s property. After looking at figures for over three hours, Nathaniel rubbed his eyes in weariness. They had good information about the cost of the Lyon property and the expense of tearing it down. Edward and David had been looking at options ever since James Lyon had moved out of the building, making a contest of it to see who could come up with the most solid possibilities. Nathaniel was grateful to have two managers with enough independence and foresight to work so effectively in his absence, but they still needed to build a convincing budget for their investors.

Now that Hermann Beeger had joined them, he could verify the veracity of their proposal. Whatever they did, Nathaniel was convinced that they needed to be thorough in creating their own adaptation of the Swansea process. James Lyon’s tendency to be expeditious without being methodical and careful had no doubt led to his failure. Nathaniel would not make the same mistake.

The short, stout German with square jaw and ruddy complexion had been doing more listening than speaking as Nathaniel’s managers filled them in. Now Nathaniel wanted his opinion. “Hermann, what do you think?”

“I want to take a careful look at what your men have put together, but I’m relieved to know there isn’t immediate competition, and I need to understand what went wrong with Lyon’s plant.” Beeger stroked his gnarly gray beard before continuing. “I have worked in Swansea and have confidence in the process. But there is a difference. In Swansea, the purpose is to recover copper. Granted, they expanded it to collect silver and gold because copper holds those metals.”

  “And here it is the reverse,” Nathaniel added. “We use copper to hold the silver and gold. There is little copper in Colorado, and it isn’t an exportable product.”

Hermann tilted his chin toward the four letters on the desk. “Mr. Hill, do you think those investors will be willing to commit? We can’t construct anything without money.”

“The failures of Lyon’s company will make them wary. We will have to prove to them how our effort will be different. It has to be well built and well organized using our version of the Swansea system.” Nathaniel’s brown eyes gleamed with enthusiasm. “I believe we can do it . . . and help the economy in the process. Convincing others will be part of the challenge. I would like the three of you to put together the figures to demonstrate the possibilities so we can send them off as soon as we can.”

They had enough money to buy Lyon’s property, but that was it. They needed investors to sign on quickly. The good news was that James Lyon appeared to be desperate to sell his property. Nathaniel did not want to take advantage of him, but he did want to get the property at a good price. The managers had put together a fair offer, and Nathaniel hoped that James would accept it, even though his investors would suffer a loss. But Nathaniel knew that his crew would have to tear down his existing structures before they could make use of his four acres, and that would cost both time and money. If Lyon accepted the offer, Nathaniel would have Hermann draw up a schematic of what he was going to call the Hill Smelter and put figures to it.

He was excited about the plan and eager to share it with Alice over lunch.

After breakfast, Alice had gone upstairs to their room and located her slant-topped lap desk among her baggage. She was keen to describe her journey to her mother and Kate.

Black Hawk

April 4, 1866

Dear Mama,

I am hoping for a letter from you shortly telling me stories of the dear little children. My fractured schedule has helped keep my mind from missing their sweet presence.

Our trip required six different railroad lines and one steamboat just to reach Atchison, Kansas. We encountered the necessity of many river crossings. We had to be careful with our connections because every railroad uses a different time. You may think a train left at 2:00, but that may not have been correct. Cleveland had twelve different time zones to contend with. 

The rolling hills of Illinois and Missouri are pleasant and filled with cattle, pigs, and timberland. As we followed the Platte River for four hundred miles from Fort Kearney, the land became arid. For long stretches, the Plains were covered with dead grass, and then it changed to a blanket of white when a wet snow fell during one entire day. We were told that when the temperature warmed and the snow melted, the spring grass grew only to dry up again during the latter part of May. This dry grass is almost as nutritious as grain, and cattle are as fat as our best grain-fed cattle.

The road had many travelers. Sometimes we saw a hundred oxcarts in a day. We held our breath for two days as we watched a good number of Indians on their way south to the Republican River. They had their squaws and papooses with them and presented no danger. The drivers fear the bushwhackers, which are gangs from Kansas and Missouri that attack trains, stages, forts, and even family houses as much as they do the Indians.

We stopped in Denver only briefly because the town was in a state of anxiety over threats from both Indians and bushwhackers. 

I will write again about our tour of Black Hawk and our new home, as well as Central City, which is only a mile to the west of Black Hawk.

My heart aches when I think how much I miss you, Kate, and most of all, our little children. Kiss them each for me and tell them stories so they will not forget their Mama.

Your loving daughter,

Alice

She folded the letter and addressed the outside. Her head bowed as she collected her emotions, then she lifted the flap of her writing box for another sheet of paper to write Kate.

Over a noon meal of fried pork chops and syrupy peaches, Nathaniel explained to Alice what he and his managers had decided that morning about buying James Lyon’s property and what they would do with it. They would start with something much smaller than the plants he and John had seen in Wales. There would be two roasting furnaces and one smelting unit to produce a matte of gold and silver combined with copper. No refinery would be built initially. He wanted to prove that the smelter could operate first.

Alice was grateful to be in the role of confidant again, and while it all sounded risky to her, she knew that he would carefully think through and manage the project because that was the kind of man he was.

Nathaniel warned her that he would be spending many hours at the office for a couple of weeks but promised to take her to Denver once the proposals were sent to his investors. She was excited about the prospects of seeing Denver. They had barely stopped there on their way to Black Hawk, and she had not even had the opportunity to meet his friend Tom Potter.

A trip to Denver held the added benefit of giving her a chance to purchase things for the house that she could not get at Joe Watson’s store. The furniture would be arriving soon, and she began making a list in her head of what be needed.

— Buy “Hill’s Gold” at BookBar

— Interview with author Ellen Kingman Fisher