Father John Dyer: The Extraordinary Tale of Colorado’s Snowshoe Itinerant
For nearly twenty years, Father John Dyer traversed the 13,000-foot Mosquito Range of Colorado, traveling from one mining camp to another to preach, deliver mail, and care for the early mountain communities. Surviving snowstorms and avalanches, with limited resources in an unfamiliar land, he became endeared to the locals and one of the most famous early residents of the Colorado western slope. His story of grit and faithful determination led to his now-famous nickname: The snow-shoe itinerant. This is the extraordinary story of Father John Dyer of Breckenridge, Colorado.
Early Beginnings in the Midwest
John Dyer was born in Franklin County, Ohio near modern-day Columbus in March of 1812. His father Samuel was a farmer and justice of the peace, as well as a practicing Methodist. The family attended many camp meetings and revivals together, exposing young John to the faith and outdoors.
In 1831 he had one of his first close calls in the wilderness while moving with this family to Illinois – at the time still the frontier. While scouting for a site to build a home, John’s father became hypothermic in the cold January snow, eventually, urging John to go to a nearby homestead for help. While John successfully found help, his father walked away from the incident with a frostbitten cheek and nose that would scar him for life. For John, this was this was just the first of many winter rescues he would partake in during his time in Colorado.
Mining for Lead or Searching for Souls?
In 1844 John, now a young man, moved his wife Harriet and five children to southern Wisconsin to join the lead mining industry. While he remained active in the Methodist Church in the area, John spent most of his time prospecting – a dangerous and difficult job in those days. In July of 1847, his wife died tragically, followed shortly after by their infant daughter. The doubled loss put John into a deep depression and left them in financial distress as well
Two years later, while digging a new prospecting shaft near Mineral Point, John had a revelation. He heard a voice urge him to preach the gospel, and that this would bring him happiness and peace. He put down his shovel, stepped into the bucket, and said “Hoist.” He climbed out of the bucket, talked to his family, and almost immediately reported his intention to the presiding elder. In 1851 he was admitted as a pastor, already 40 years old with five children. His story was just getting started.
Riding the Circuit While Learning to Snowshoe
For four years Father Dyer “rode the circuit” in southern Wisconsin. In these days, pastors and priests would ride a circuit, visiting towns, in turn, to preach, conduct baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and then move on again. It was lonely, exhausting, and often dangerous work, but John did it with a passion and love for the small camps and communities he visited. In 1855, he was re-assigned to Richland Mission, Minnesota.
His first circuit here was a two-week cycle with eight main stops – though John immediately identified a few extra places to add along the way. A Scandinavian family showed him how to make Norwegian-style skis by splitting pine logs and boiling the tips. At the time, people called these ‘snowshoes,’ but at 7-8 feet in length, they were essentially nordic skies. John used them to travel from town to town despite the deep winter snowdrifts that were the norm in Minnesota. It was an important skill that would come in handy for him later on.
Making the Move to Denver, Colorado
From a young age, John had a lifelong desire to see Pikes Peak for himself. In 1861 Colorado was in the early period of the Gold Rush era. Denver had just been founded three years prior, and was a small town of 5,000 or so people – mostly miners. However, the area was becoming famous across the states, and John decided it was time for a change. With his children now adults, and his assignment in Minnesota coming to an end, he decided to put his affairs in order and travel west to the Colorado Territory.
John met up with a wagon train early on in the trek and agreed to join them – however, to save money, he agreed to walk for nearly the entire 600-mile journey. They fought off illnesses like cholera, met with numerous Native American tribes, and dealt with drunken robbers along the trip, and Father Dyer made time to preach whenever and wherever people would listen. Finally, after many weeks, he arrived in the frontier town of Denver, where he met up with his second son, Elias. From this point onward, Father John Dyer would only leave New Mexico and Colorado once – he spent the rest of his life out west.
The First Year in the Rocky Mountains
John traded for supplies, met with several acquaintances, and decided it was time for a mountain trip. He joined a group headed for Buckskin Joe, a mining camp located between Alma and Kite Lake today, just below the Decalibron fourteeners. Climbing up and over Kenosha Pass, they stopped to wonder at the sight of South Park. Father Dyer described the view in his autobiography, “It is a view of grandeur never to be forgotten. Prairies, surrounded by high mountains and interspersed with pine-groves and small peaks – a very Eden park – are a sight seldom surpassed even in the Rocky Mountains.”
After six days of walking, the company reached Buckskin Joe, located in the heart of mining country. Father Dyer spent the rest of July and August visiting numerous mining camps in the area and preaching. He was the first minister to share a sermon in Fairplay, Mosquito, and Quartz Hil nearby. He was eventually asked to preach in the Leadville area, then known as California Gulch. It took eight miles of hiking up and over Mosquito Pass to reach the area, which he did alone – the first of many times he would cross the 13,000-foot high pass.
That first year, Father Dyer would travel as far as the Crested Butte area in the creatively named mining camp of Minersville. On his return, he met with a southerner along the trail. While the Civil War raged in the East, the two shared a camp, and John joked with the man that they shouldn’t fight, as there would be no one there to report that it had happened. He went on to Leadville, crossed Weston Pass in a snowstorm to return to Buckskin Joe, and planned to remain there for his first Colorado winter.
Miner, Pastor, Snowshoer… Mail Carrier?
As a former miner in the Wisconsin lead mines, John understood the plight of the Colorado miners he met and lived among. He did what he could to support their spiritual and intellectual needs, often going out of his way to visit smaller camps that went months, or years, without a visit from a preacher. While Methodists don’t typically call their pastors ‘Father’ the miners quickly began to call him Father John Dyer, recognizing how much he cared for the mountain communities of the era.
Between his limited salary as a minister and his repeated donations to those in need, Father Dyer lived on a very small budget. He would walk hundreds of miles instead of taking the stagecoach to save money, with little security. One day in a Fairplay saloon he met a man who carried the mail each week to Leadville over Mosquito Pass. As Father Dyer already made this trip somewhat regularly, he agreed to carry two sacks of mail with him each week to make a bit of extra income. It would lead to some of his wildest adventures yet to come.
Saving Souls and Lives on Mosquito Pass
For the next fifteen years, Father John Dyer made the rounds up to Breckenridge, around to Mosquito, up and over the pass to Leadville, then back over and down to Fairplay, with many smaller stops and sermons along the way. In summer the pass was a beautiful place, with wildflowers carpeting the alpine meadows. However, in the autumn, winter, and spring, it was a much less hospitable place, with menacing snowdrifts, avalanches, and freezing cold that could kill if one wasn’t too careful.
In one instance Father Dyer got caught on the pass during a spring snowstorm and felt the snow giving out with a great roar – what he thought must have been an avalanche. He was able to turn out of the slide and continued climbing up past the crown – which he said was a moment of great relief. Upon his return later in the week, he saw that the entire slope had slid down and filled the gorge below with debris, hidden in the whiteout storm. These close-calls helped Father Dyer learn from his mistakes, and eventually, he became a renowned local guide for those crossing the pass.
In many situations, Father Dyer played the role of rescuer, both to those he guided and those he stumbled upon in the mountains. In one situation, an Irishman refused his offer of guidance in return for sharing the sack of mail. He eventually caught up with him out on the pass, exhausted, freezing, and worried that his feet were frozen. Father Dyer, ignoring the man’s earlier insults, helped his comrades carry him down to treeline, start a campfire, and get the man’s boots off – only to find that his feet were blistered, but far from frozen. Father Dyer would assist dozens of people over the years, often caught in this same situation.
Re-marriage and Retirement
In 1870, he met and married Lucinda Rankin, a widow from Castle Rock. She remained with him for fifteen years while he traveled and preached in Summit County from their home in Breckenridge. There, in 1880 he bought and donated land so the town could build a small Methodist chapel – the first church building of any denomination to be built on Colorado’s western slope.
Finally, at the age of seventy-three, Father John Dyer decided it was time for him to retire. Twenty years of snowshoeing and hiking from town to town had taken its toll on the old man, and he and his wife moved back to Denver – now a small but thriving city. Here he wrote his autobiography, The Snow-Shoe Itinerant, supported local institutions, and continued to preach at nearby methodist churches. Father John Dye died in 1901 at the age of eighty-nine after a long, rich life spent in service to others.
The Legacy of Father John Dyer
For a man who came to Colorado penniless, Father John Dyer’s legacy is extensive. He brought spiritual guidance to thousands of miners across the state who routinely went months or years without a sermon. He gave much of what little he had to the poor, served in a variety of local leadership roles, and helped build many of the first churches throughout the Colorado Rockies. Perhaps most memorably, he saved lives out in the mountains on a dozen or more occasions, serving as a guide, rescuer, and nurse for those who lost their way.
He is considered one of the state’s sixteen founders, honored with a stained glass portrait in the capitol, and was one of the first inductees in the state Skiing Hall of Fame. The most fitting honor of all though is the naming of Father Dyer Peak, a high thirteener located just north of the route he took across Mosquito Pass for so many years. The spirit of Father John Dyer lives on with all those who hike and climb the same mountains he explored long ago.
More Info About Father John Dyer
Looking for more information about Father John Dyer? There are many fascinating books and articles written about him, but the best is his own autobiography. You can read it using the link below on Google Books for free. Here are some other helpful resources and articles to get started with as well. I hope you enjoy them!