All other feats of all the other mighty men—even Dirty Dan Harris' incredible cattle drive up the Skagit Gorge to Hope, and up the Indian Trail on the Fraser to starving gold-rush hordes—fade into insignificance before that mute albatross of iron. I know when I am hooked. Ever since, every time I run across an early-day ranger, a gyppo logger or an ancient timber cruiser, a venerable prospector with gnarled and broken old hands, I ask him about Joe Morovits. Once I even went down to Seattle when an old trunk of Morovits was found in the basement of a hotel that was being demolished. Shoved way under a stair in a dank corner for more than 40 years, the trunk contained Joe's musty black Sunday suit—the clothing he wore when he made infrequent trips to Seattle to interest new capital in his mines. There were faded old photographs, too, showing Joe, a great skookum bull of a man, and early-day members of the Mountaineers, Seattle's climbers' club, standing on the summits of Joe's mountains. It's all right, Joe, I thought. I'm your friend. A reporter from the
came around and looked at the contents of the trunk, too, but so lost is Morovits to the history books that the newspaper could do no more than run a feature story, Who was Joe Morovits?
Well, I could have told them who Joe Morovits was, but I still do not know why he gave all the years of his superb strength and marvelous will to a search that he knew was futile. Joe came down out of the mountains, after 27 years of labor the like of which only rarely can have been equaled, with exactly $175. The $175 was the value of a small poke of gold flakes and bits that he used time and again to salt his mines—as much for his own encouragement as to fool possible investors. He left behind, stuck with a knife to the table of one of his masterly cabins, a promissory note written to himself for the sum of $100,000 for a half interest in a surface prospect on Rainbow Creek, which he called the Saint Joe Mine. Now why did Joe do that? Was he thumbing his nose at mountains that had withheld their treasure from him? I don't think so, for he loved and knew the mountains with a passion felt by few men. I believe the note was a cry of wry pain for the dreams of his lost youth.
Morovits was a different man to each oldtimer who knew him. To one, Joe was a French Canadian voyageur who drifted to British Columbia and thence to his multiple mining claims and homestead at the foot of Mount Baker. To another he was a Russian, come down to Cascade country from the colony in Sitka, Alaska. Still another is sure of just one thing: "Morovits was born in the Alps," he insists to me; while a fourth swears that Joe talked to packhorses in the Croatian tongue. Like many a man who never tells a story twice in the same way—and likes a little mystery about his origins—Morovits dealt with fact only when he took unfamiliar pencil in his calloused, work-hardened hands. Joe wrote to his mountain-climbing friend, the late Charles Finley Easton, historian of Bellingham, that he was born near the town of Eastman, Crawford County, Wis. on April 25, 1866. His parents, Bohemian immigrants, separated, the mother being left with seven children and small funds. Neighbors took Joe on as a farmhand at 9 years of age for a wage of $2 a month. He never went to school, learning to read and write during his early manhood from a bunkmate in the coal mines.
He came west, working coal mines in Colorado, Idaho, California, Vancouver Island in British Columbia and finally Blue Canyon Mine on Lake Whatcom near Bellingham, Wash. There Joe lifted his eyes to the mountains and found the adventure he had been seeking. He left the coal mine and found his way to the unknown wilderness of the Baker Lake country, south and east of Mount Baker. Locations and relocations of mines by the score, up the slopes of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan, are listed in Morovits' name in old Whatcom County records.
He wrote: "I located here two miles west of Baker Lake on the 13th day of October 1891, built a cabin fit to move into five days later. I lived alone for 27 years. The closest settler finally come in 12 miles down the river. There were no trails before me, not even blazes. I wanted to prospect the mountains for precious metals and settled to stay until I could clean up a few hundred thousand dollars. Single handed I drove over 1,000 feet of tunnel and shaft work, have washed down thousands of yards of gravel for placer and have built over 40 miles of trail and kept it open all these years. I have been alone nearly all the time, a hermit, but a busy one. I am a jack of all trades. I do iron work and wood work and run my own stamp mill. I put in my own tram, harnessed the water power, took in my own machinery and set it up."
Morovits customarily carried a pack of 100 pounds on his back on the 32-mile trek from the general store at Birdsview on the Skagit River to his homestead. He'd weigh up his bacon, flour, beans, ammunition and dynamite and make up whatever weight was short in whisky. Settlers on the Skagit swear they remember him forging up the trail with an iron cook stove strapped to his back, the oven of which he'd packed tight with supplies, a sack of flour topping the whole, necks of whisky bottles protruding from his pants pockets. He needed a full mile of continuous cable to transport ore for crushing from one of his mines to the completed stamp mill. While the river people bet one another that Joe had been defeated at last by a task beyond even his gorilla strength, Joe hitched a long line of 22 horses, placed them 10 yards apart, double-looped the great cable in sections from horse to horse and began the drive with a helper. When at last he brought the cable to his claims, he had nothing but his own mighty manpower with which to lift the heavy coils into position in the trees. It took a full year, but he did it and had the pleasure of sending his buckets of ore whizzing down the mountainside on that cable.
If ever he found his few hundred thousands, it was his plan to "move to town, build me a palace, drive an auto and marry me a wife." It wasn't long before he knew the whole thing was a dream—Joe was a smart man—but by then he had come upon a way of life that pleasured him so that he was loth to leave it. Potatoes raised on his ranch, wild berries, Baker River's trout and homing sockeye salmon comprised his main food supplies. Deer, black bear and mountain goats were steady fare on the Morovits menu. Hunting goats was a chore made arduous by the fact that Joe had to come on them from below, alerting them and sending them scrabbling for the heights. Irked at the unfairness of the situation, Morovits deliberately shot minute toe and fingerholds for himself up a steep rock cliff, blasting away at a route by which he could sneak up above the animals and take them by surprise. Thereafter he brought home goat meat as surely as the housewife brings hamburger from the supermarket.
Morovits' renown as a mountaineer began to spread through the Northwest after July of 1908, when Seattle's Mountaineers, bent on ascent of Mount Baker via a new route pioneered between Park and Boulder glaciers by Joe, camped 54 strong near Baker Lake on the long pack-in from the terminus of a logging train then reaching through to Concrete. "He strode into camp with a 100-pound pack on his back like the mountain itself in human form," wrote one of the club members. "A Bohemian, he wore the mustache of a French Canadian. He wasn't more than 5 feet 9 inches in height, weight around 170 pounds, but he was of a close-knit, muscular build with remarkable girth of chest, belling out immediately under his chin and tapering to a small waist. His great arms hung near his knees. An impressive man of swarthy, wild appearance, he had a look of will power and determination about him to match his physical prowess. Without equipment of any kind except for a long pike of fir tipped with a self-made contrivance of steel shaped like the bowl of a large spoon, he had made all the major climbs of the area, seeking out the most violent routes up the mountains as a 'pastime" compared to the hardships of running a one-man mine and stamp mill."
Morovits often required that the men give him a hand at laying in his hay so he could spare time to guide the mountaineers up his Morovits Route. He led one group; L. A. Nelson, a climber with considerable reputation in the area, led another; and Joe finally stood, with club members, for his seventh time on the summit of 10,778-foot Mount Baker. The mountaineers returned to Seattle with many stories of Joe's gallantry to bloomered lady climbers, of his enormous good spirits and of his place discoveries and guiding ability. Thereafter the Morovits Ranch became a kind of headquarters for mountain climbers seeking guidance, among them an ill-matched couple of an eager young wife, enamored of the mountains, and a husband many years her senior. With Joe, they made camp near the snout of Boulder Glacier. Partway up the mountain the next morning, the husband called a halt, declaring that he could go no farther. He was left with the pack in a protected spot while Joe and the girl continued. Some hours later the husband looked up, horrified at wild whoops of, "Get up! Get up and get aboard!" apparently coming out of the sky.
Followed by a 15-foot rooster tail of snow geysering out from Joe's heels, the couple was glissading down Boulder Glacier tandem-seated at a pace that seemed to the timid husband "30 miles an hour." Heeling in, Joe brought the tandem to a graceful, swirling stop just below the man, lifted the lady from his lap to her feet, casually sauntered up, bade the husband the time of day and shouldered his pack for the return down the mountain. Thereafter all Joe's descents of Mount Baker, some of them on a coal scuttle, were seated glissades, wild slaloms around yawning crevasses accomplished in as little as an hour and 12 minutes from the summit of Mount Baker to snow line. Morovits didn't believe in wasting time.