Saturday, January 9, 2010
They were born on the Emerald Isle – near the Silent Valley – “where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea” as the song says. County Down, Northern Ireland had been the home of their families for generations. Water was a big part of their lives. They were born near it, raised around it, travelled on it, lived closed to it all their lives and for a few years worked on a pioneer project helping to harness it – through the Gunnison Diversion Tunnel at East Portal (River Portal) in Montrose, Colorado.
They were a young couple married only a few years with a toddler son when they decided to sail away to a new country – leaving their homeland behind forever. He came first – on the S.S. Caledonia in 1905. Their plans to travel together were changed when their young son got sick and couldn’t travel so the wife and child remained behind. The husband travelled directly to Pueblo, Colorado and got a job at the steel mill there where he continued to work for nearly a year until his young wife and son were able to join him. They arrived in 1906 – on the S.S. Haverford. They were John Patrick and Anna (Phillips) Mason and their son John Joseph Mason. They were my great grandparents and my grandfather.
They heard of work in Montrose and they packed up and headed there. John was a miner and his skills might be put to use on the new tunnel being built there. The 5.8 miles tunnel would divert the Gunnison River to help bring badly needed water to the Uncompahgre Valley. It was a mammoth task. It required drilling through solid rock in a remote area at the bottom of the Black Canyon. The road down to the bottom of the gorge was steep and difficult to traverse. Work on the tunnel was treacherous. Lives were lost in the process.
John Patrick became a driller on the tunnel. I often wonder if he was intrigued by the thought of turning brown land into green. I wonder what he thought of his new home in Colorado. Did he miss the Emerald Isle and the green of his faraway birthland? Did he find the lack of water and the resulting brown land surrounding him to be less than appealing? I wonder if he felt exhilarated by the challenge of changing the landscape and the quality of life. I know he worked to provide sustenance for his family but turning brown land into green must have been a satisfying bonus.
John Patrick and Anna lived at River Portal – a small community built at the base of the gorge to provide the necessary facilities for the work being done at the tunnel. John Patrick was an industrious man – hard working and dedicated. He and Anna were devout Roman Catholics and they carried their faith and their Irish heritage with them wherever they went. They were strong people – not easily discouraged and not prone to giving up in hard times. While they lived at River Portal their family expanded. My grandfather John Joseph was joined by three siblings – Theresa in 1907, James in 1909 and Daniel in 1910. Daniel died as young child and it’s believed that he died there at River Portal. The family most likely arrived in River Portal in 1906. Theresa was born in March of 1907. It’s difficult to imagine that the family travelled down the gorge in the winter months with Anna being pregnant. Church records from that area show the baptism of James at River Portal. Documentation has the family living there until 1912. Although the official dedication of the tunnel was in 1909 there was still work to be done to fully complete the project so some of the workers remained. John Patrick was one of those.
I never dreamed when I moved to Colorado that I would find that I had come full-circle. I was back to where my Irish Mason family had started out in America. I never dreamed that I would find a connection between my Irish Mason family and the Gunnison Diversion Tunnel.
Later I'll share how I came to find my Mason roots because it's a story of many miracles. I came to have pictures I never thought I'd have. The picture of the tunnel is one of those. I also have a picture of the family that we now know was taken at River Portal. Amazing! Here it is. You can pass it around. I love this picture! The service berries still grow here at East Portal. See them over there? One hundred years later and they still survive! As we sit here on the bank of the Gunnison River at the bottom of this deep gorge - I think back to what their life must have been like then. Many things to muse about as I share my Mason heritage.