The Egglestons: The Erie Canal, Underground Railroad, and Oak Dell

Myra Eggleston, Ruby’s mother, laid claim to being a native of Colorado Territory. She was born on June 1, 1876, exactly two months before Colorado was officially a state.

We’ll get to Myra’s mother’s family in a moment, because that’s pretty interesting too. But we’ll start with the Egglestons. Her father was Wellington Kinne Eggleston, from a family that appears to be mostly of English descent but with a long history in America.

Wellington’s grandfather, Darius Eggleston (born 1773, the youngest of ten kids) played a role in the building of the Erie Canal. Constructed between 1817 and 1825, the canal was a huge deal; it connected New York City (thus, the Atlantic Ocean) to the Great Lakes. Really, it’s considered one of the greatest engineering and construction feats of its time. Darius, a sawmill operator, farmer and businessman, contracted at least two sections of the canal, about 2½ miles in length, near the town of Sullivan, New York, not far from Syracuse.[1] (If you get lost in relations, consult the family tree.)

Darius’ son Elisha was born in New York. Elisha married Rachel Kinne in 1832 in New York, and the couple headed for Ontario, Canada. Elisha is said to have taken up arms during the Upper Canadian Rebellion in December 1837.[2] This short fight was an attempt to wrestle some control from the British rulers in the colony of Upper Canada, or Ontario as we call it now. The government put down the rebellion, but the ideals lived on.

Elisha and Rachel returned to the U.S. for a few years but again ventured north to Norfolk County, Ontario, with their growing family in the early 1840s. Wellington was born in Canada in 1843, on “one of the thousand islands,” as the story goes. The Thousand Islands are located on the St. Lawrence River, which exits Lake Ontario and separates the U.S. from Canada as it heads toward the Atlantic Ocean. (There’s really about 1,864 islands in this fifty-mile stretch, but who’s counting?) And yes, that’s where Thousand Island dressing came from, so if you love Reuben sandwiches, then you’ll want to know more, such as this possibly true tidbit: The dressing was created by a fishing guide’s wife who made it as part of his shore dinner around 1890.

Wellington’s mother, Rachel, died in 1849, when Wellington was just 5. Elisha remarried six months later to a woman less than half his age (that’s the way they often did it back then), and then the family, with eight kids, left Canada and took up residence in northern Illinois, northwest of Chicago on the Wisconsin border. After a brief stay they moved again, this time to Fayette County, in northeastern Iowa. In West Union, Iowa, Elisha farmed, and set up businesses making bricks and milling. He and his second wife, Rebecca, had several more children.

But the urge to keep moving westward was strong. In 1860 Elisha came to Colorado, liked what he saw of the mining districts, and moved the family out in 1861.[3] They lived on Coal Creek, southwest of Boulder, where they farmed, ranched, and mined. Elisha’s name is on a Colorado land patent dated 1870 in Boulder County. The Egglestons invested heavily in Colorado’s future; several of Elisha’s children, Elisha M., George W., and Wellington, for starters, made numerous land patents in Colorado.

Wellington Kinne Eggleston

That’s an impressive sounding name, but what the heck, the guy deserves it. Wellington was reportedly just 5-foot-3½, but these were rugged times, and he was up to the task.

Wellington Eggleston with unidentified child.

When Elisha brought his family to Colorado, Wellington spent a few months teaching in 1861-62 in what is believed to be the first school in Boulder.[4] In the summer of 1862 Wellington drove a horse team into New Mexico, walked the 365 miles back, then went to work in the mines. In 1863 he returned with his brother Byron to Iowa, where they enrolled at West Union Teachers College.[5]

The Civil War derailed Wellington’s immediate plans. He missed his boyhood friends, many of whom already had gone to war. He wrote: “My mind wandered far away into Dixie (where the Union forces were battling) and I wished to be a soldier and enjoy the honors of a patriot. … I was restless until I had placed my name on the enlistment papers.” [6]

On February 5, 1864, Wellington enlisted as a private in the 1st Iowa Cavalry, on the Union side. He trained at Camp McClellan, near Davenport. A prison camp there was occupied by 12,000 Rebels and 400 Indians, among whom a smallpox epidemic raged.[7] He was inoculated, and by March 5 he was headed south with 500 others, 60 with Wellington in the 1st Iowa Cavalry.

Their rations were meager, and they were expected to forage the countryside for food. How desperate were they? A beehive with honey provided nourishment, but he was stung several times, including in the mouth.

By April 4 he had engaged the enemy. The fighting “grew in intensity” on April 10. On April 11:

“The battling started again and continued. The howitzers were brought into action, shelling the grove where the Rebels have taken refuge. Six pound howitzers, unless more effective than any I have seen, are nothing but a nuisance; as I positively believe I can shoot farther and much more accurately with my carbine.”

They drove the Rebels through Camden, southern Arkansas, where the fleeing soldiers got on a boat on the Ouachita River and got away. “I had the honor to be one of the first in town, and the next day General (Eugene Asa) Carr sent his thanks to our battalion for ‘bravery evinced in leading the advance into Camden, facing the danger and driving the enemy from every position taken.’”[8]

Wellington Eggleston spent nearly two years as a soldier, and another diary puts him in Tennessee, among other places. His regiment mustered out in 1866 in Austin, Texas, while on post-war reconstruction duty.

Second wife Esther

Esther Mosher Eggleston

Esther Mosher Eggleston

Wellington had two children in Colorado with his first wife, Anna Davis. A son, Charles Ernest Eggleston, was born in 1868. The second birth, to a daughter, named Lillian, did not go well. Anna died within a month after delivery, and Lillian died a week after her mother, on May 23, 1870. Anna and Lillian have the heartrending distinction of being the first two buried at Boulder’s Columbia Cemetery. Lillian was aged 1 month, the tombstone’s inscription reads.[i]

In January 1872 Wellington married Esther Mosher in Iowa, and soon they headed for their new homestead along Oak Creek. The site would be fondly called Oak Dell. It’s four miles south of Cotopaxi, a small town on the Arkansas River about 30 miles west of Canon City. (There’s a Mosher Creek running parallel to this Oak Creek, and sure enough, that’s exactly where Wellington Eggleston’s 1884 land patents are.)

With wagon and oxen, they arrived at the site with a bureau, sewing machine, linens, empty feather bed, rag carpet, a few other furnishings and supplies, and basically started from scratch. Once they emptied the wagon, they put the wagon box on the ground and used it for a bed.[9]

Walls were constructed from plentiful aspen. The roof was split logs with soil layered on top to keep out the moisture. It is said they moved in before the first rain hit them.

This must have been quite an adventure for Esther, having just come from Iowa’s loamy, green, rolling lowlands. Now she was living with her 4-year-old stepson in the much drier Rocky Mountains at around 7,000 feet elevation. One of her most memorable early encounters came one day after her husband had left to tend to the dairy herd. Esther wrote about this in her memoirs of Oak Dell, penned around 1912 and written in the third person. An excerpt:

“Suddenly the room darkened and she glanced up to see the narrow doorway occupied by a stalwart Indian. Frightened? Yes, but a pioneer’s wife must know naught of cowardice. … Some remnants of food on the table brought out the request, ‘Swap?’ Tremblingly she passed out the slices of bread.

“‘Where is man?’ was the next exclamation. ‘He has gone in the bushes after cows.’

PH3g Stephen-Ruth Mosher

Stephen and Ruth Mosher operated an underground way station.

“At last they departed with their guns, and as the day passed on she began to breathe easier once more on realizing that she and the little lad were not massacred.”

The Moshers and the Underground

The Mosher ancestry in America dates back to 1632, when Hugh Mosier left Manchester, England, and arrived in Boston.[10]

Esther Mosher was born in 1845 in Ohio, but grew up in West Liberty, a town along the Cedar River in eastern Iowa about ten miles southeast of Iowa City.

She was the daughter of New York state natives Stephen and Ruth Mosher, who as members of the Society of Friends, known as Quakers, had operated a way station on the renowned “Underground Railroad.”[11] These “railroads,” actually secret trails, were traveled by escaping black slaves making a dash to Canada and freedom before the Civil War. Ruth lived a life of “willing service,” a son, Henry Mosher, wrote as she lay on her death bed. “Her life has been one of service to her Master, to her family and to any one who was in distress or in need. Certainly she will be gathered as a shock of corn fully ripe for the Master.”[12]

Esther became a teacher with the knowledge gained from attending several schools, including Iowa City College in 1867. She later taught in Colorado, in Fremont County and in Salida, but learned to be a pioneer settler first.

Wellington the dentist

No doubt there was a lack of health and hygiene in the late-19th-century mining communities, and good dental work must have been near impossible to come by. Wellington decided to venture to Philadelphia in 1880-81 to train as a dentist.[13] When he returned the family moved to Bonanza, a tiny silver mining settlement south of Poncha Pass at 9,250 feet. From this base, Wellington traveled to mining camps, doing dentistry and taking on whatever work was available.

Wellington Eggleston in one of his dentist offices.

Wellington Eggleston in one of his dental offices.

In 1883 the Egglestons relocated in Salida, and Wellington established the first dental office in the town.[14] They moved to Grand Junction – Orchard Mesa, to be more precise – in 1897, where Wellington started another practice, and to Ouray a few years after that, where Wellington opened yet another dental office.[15]

But back to Myra, born in 1876 in Fremont County (probably at Oak Dell). She was the third of Esther’s eight children. She was about 3 months old when grasshoppers came in flocks that blotted the sun and destroyed the crops.

“All was not prosperity in the new home,” Esther wrote. “In the late summer of 1876, the grasshoppers dropped from a cloudless sky, the sun was obscured, and destruction began. Husband and wife worked rapidly as possible in an effort to save crops, but soon even the corn stalks were stripped of their leaves. Garden disappeared as if by magic; where before had been plenty, devastation stalked.” The grasshoppers returned the following two summers.

Need more proof that pioneer life difficult? Three of Esther’s eight children died in infancy. Yet, five advanced to a ripe old age, including Myra.

Myra grew up attending schools in Salida, and she was an excellent student. She completed three or four years of college in the early 1900s at Colorado Agricultural College (you modern folks know it as Colorado State) in Fort Collins, and majored in domestic science. She learned botany, and she learned birds. (In 1931 she was part of a state committee that chose the state bird, the lark bunting. Myra was dismayed, thinking it should be the more common meadowlark.[16]) After her third year of college she dropped out to help at home.[17]

PH3g Myra 1890s

Myra Eggleston in the 1890s

Myra was with her parents in both Grand Junction and Ouray. Using some of her college smarts, particularly in horticulture, Myra, along with her mother, was involved in opening and running a family greenhouse and flower shop in Ouray. They utilized the heat from the famous nearby springs.[18]

Myra and John, and the flood

Myra and John M. met in Ouray, a town that supported the nearby mining camps prevalent at the time. Both worked retail, just down the street from each other. It was an interesting match: the well-educated, American pioneer child Myra, falling for John M., a Swedish immigrant who dropped out of elementary school so he could make money for his struggling family.

In her memoirs, Ruby Zink expounded on those differences in more detail:

“Dad, when he was single, had been part of a lively group of young people who went bicycling, had picnics and dances, and played musical instruments together. Mother was raised in more strict surroundings, being taught that these pleasures were sinful, so our upbringing was somewhat of a combination.”[19]

Myra and John Nelson.

Myra and John Nelson on their wedding day.

Myra Eggleston (age 32) and John Malcolm Nelson (age 38) were married August 6, 1908, in Ouray. A birth announcement in the Ouray newspaper in late July 1909 congratulates Malcolm Nelson, who was working at Derry’s Cigar Store, on his first child. John Ernest Nelson weighed about 9 pounds, and, “Mother and baby are getting along nicely.”[20]

In September 1911, a few months after Amy was born, the cigar store owner, R.J. Derry, moved to Grand Junction. It left J. Malcolm Nelson at least temporarily in charge of Derry’s in Ouray.[21] It’s possible Derry’s intent was to shut down the Ouray store. In any case, that shift seems to have spurred John M., who’d been working for Derry for several years, to seek greener pastures himself.

John M. wanted to check out the possibilities in Montezuma County and La Plata County, so he took a scouting trip to the area in early late September/early October 1911.

Bad timing.

Heavy rains begat rising waters, and October 5 brought what’s still called the worst flooding ever in Durango’s history. Bridges were washed away, railroad tracks destroyed, crops damaged. The Animas River was running at 25,000 cubic feet per second, about fifty times the average for that day. Yep, it was big.

A historically based description from Jonathan Thompson, grandson of Amy Nelson Thompson:[22]

“Down low, in the valleys, the farmers, who by nature were more religious, felt as if the hand of God were punishing them with a deluge of biblical proportions. Streams turned into brick-red, frothing monsters; rivers overflowed and took bridges and houses and fields and livestock with them.”

For John M. Nelson, it meant he couldn’t get back to Ouray immediately. Instead he staked out some land at Sunnyside, next to the Animas River in the valley about ten miles south of Durango. And eventually the storm abated. Soon he, Myra and the two children were settled onto their 80-acre spread. They farmed, ranched, and enjoyed the warmer climate of the valley.

And in 1916, at ages 46 and 39, they welcomed their third and final child. They named her Ethel Ruby Nelson, and she would come to be known as Ruby. She was a smart kid, and perhaps her sister gets some credit for that.



[1] Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York, March 9, 1831.

[2] Eggleston Family History found on, George Eggleston (1833-1903) as subject, biographical notes from 1898.

[3] Ibid.

[4] From biography of Wellington Kinne Eggleston on Authorship credited to Linda Eggleston McBroom.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Roughing it in the South,” Wellington Kinne Eggleston’s diary of his war years, 1864-66.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[i] Information from Heidi Zink, in email March 10, 2017.

[9] Oak Dell, story of coming to Colorado and settling on the frontier, written by Esther Mosher Wellington around 1912.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Family Records of Stephen Mosher and Ruth Smith-Mosher and Their Descendants,” on Source says information was transcribed from the records.

[12] Letter from Henry Mosher to his sister, Esther Mosher Eggleston, dated February 4, 1897, West Liberty, Iowa.

[13] Wellington Eggleston biography, McBroom.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Anne Zink Putnam email, January 25, 2017.

[17] Colorado Families: A Territorial Heritage. The U.S. Census of 1940 shows that Myra completed four years of college, but the family member reporting to the Census taker may have given incorrect information.

[18] Interview with Ed Zink, Jerry Zink, Anne Zink Putnam, Heidi Zink, Kristi Zink, and Patti Zink, November 20, 2016.

[19] Our Family History, compiled by Ida Zink Kolb. Oral histories of Ruby and John Zink apparently put together in 1982 by Marty Hartmann.

[20] Ouray Herald, July 30, 1909.

[21] Ouray Herald, September 1, 1911.

[22] Silverton Standard, 2005 Summer Guide, “River of Lost Souls,” by Jonathan Thompson.