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Visiting The Real Cotopaxi

This summer, I had the opportunity to visit the setting of one of my recent screenplays. It's a special hidden corner of the American West: An old cemetery that is the last remnant of the failed Jewish settlement in Cotopaxi, Colorado.

For years, I had been looking for a story to tell that blends Jewish history and the American West. I love Westerns, but except for a couple of ironic comedies, they never include any Jewish characters or narratives. History relates a different story, where Jews figured (sometimes prominently) into the fabric of America's 19th century frontier.

What's in a Name?

As I researched, the Cotopaxi story caught my eye. I'll be honest, the real reason it captured my attention had nothing to do with the story itself, but with the name of the place. "Cotopaxi" is the name of the huge ship that mysteriously appears in the middle of the desert at the start of Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"! I've always loved that moment in the film. Another screenplay of mine, "Man out of Time", is set in a fictional subterranean science facility called "Cotopaxi Laboratories".

The Wreck of the Cotopaxi from Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"

There was a real ship named Cotopaxi, shipwrecked in the Bermuda Triangle in the 1920s (and only recently found).

And all of these, along with the town in Colorado, were presumably named for Cotopaxi mountain in Ecuador.

The story of the Cotopaxi Jews is a tiny blip in American history. If a small town in the Rockies hadn't been named for a particular mountain in Ecuador, I might have missed the story altogether!

The Cotopaxi Colony

In the early 1880s, a group of Jews fled a small Russian town in search of a better life in America. They first came to New York, where Jewish resettlement charities connected them with a wealthy Jewish merchant named Saltiel who owned lots of land in the Colorado mountains.

Saltiel offered to resettle the Jews on his land. He promised housing, farmland, and all the opportunity of the American West. So the Jews boarded trains and made their way across the country to a small town with an unusual name on the banks of the Arkansas River.

By many accounts, Saltiel was not an honest broker. When the Russian Jews arrived, only a fraction of their houses were built, their land was so rocky that no crops would grow... and winter was coming. Saltiel, who had contracts with local railroad companies, offered the Jews low-wage jobs hauling lumber or working in his mine. He also owned the town's general store, so whatever meager wages the Jews earned would end up back in his pocket eventually. The way it looks to me, Saltiel just wanted cheap labor, and found a way to get it.

But the Cotopaxi Jews gave it their all. They planted fifteen bags of potatoes (and - frustratingly - reaped only fourteen). They procured a Torah and established a small synagogue. And they asked Saltiel for more help.

Saltiel ignored their requests, eventually leaving Colorado for other territories. He met his end in Wyoming, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

The Cotopaxi Jews endured three harsh winters in the Rockies before disbanding the settlement. Most re-settled in other parts of the American West, and many helped grow the roots of prominent Western Jewish communities.

The Golem of Cotopaxi

I found the story of the Cotopaxi Jews captivating. But insufficient. It makes for gripping history, but isn't the kind of story I enjoy writing. I wanted to find a way to use it as a backbone for something fictional, something fantastical - a way to weave history into legend, in the way that all great Westerns do.

You see, for the most part, the real American West looked nothing like the "Wild West" of movies. The Western is a Great American Legend, not a history. So if I wanted to bring Jews into that Legend, I felt like I had to do it through fantasy rather than fact.

So I came up with a Golem story and grounded it in the mountain country between the Monarch Pass and the Arkansas River, right around the collapse of the Cotopaxi colony. I researched the region and its people, from the Ute Indians to the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. It got to the point where I could really picture the stagecoach roads and the paths through the hills.

But I had never been there.

The Real Cotopaxi

This past summer, my family embarked on an ambitious cross-country road trip. When we planned our itinerary, I nudged the route carefully towards the Monarch Pass. We would drive right past Cotopaxi on our way across the Continental Divide.

We visited several points that feature prominently in my screenplay. The Pass itself, the town of Salida (where we met my screenwriting friend, Lee Ross), and Cotopaxi.

We drove along the Arkansas River towards Cotopaxi, and I could see the railroad tracks - the same tracks my characters ride along in my screenplay. Near the tracks, barely visible, the hints of an old stagecoach road. I had seen it many times in my head - seen it or imagined it. But here it was.

I knew that up ahead there would be a turn across a bridge, and we'd be in Cotopaxi. To the right, the old train station (or, where the building once stood). Beyond it, a modern public school, and behind the school building, tucked into an overgrown hillside, the cemetery.

That cemetery was our destination. It's pretty much the only thing left from the Jewish colony. It had been mostly forgotten, too, until some preservationists restored it a few years ago.

Eventually, I found the path that led to the cemetery. My wife and kids stayed in the RV, and I took my camera, popped upon the umbrella and made the short trek to the cemetery gate.

I was nervous, and forgot to adjust my camera settings. The first photos are blurry.

Up there, in the plateau beyond the Cemetery sign, that's where the colony once stood.

The Cemetery in Cotopaxi was established in 1882 - by the Jews, when a child passed away. A Christian cemetery soon grew around the Jewish plots.

But there they are, marked by newly-added signage and symbols.

The brief explanation, with the Cotopaxi Colony's location up in the hills beyond.

The original grave marker - added sometime after the Colony's collapse.

A new marker, a little more specific, added a century later.

A mythical version of Rabbi David Grupitzky features heavily in my screenplay. And here, the real Rabbi Grupitzky buried his son.

Visiting the real Cotopaxi was a deeply moving experience for me. Seeing the graves of the Cotopaxi Jews... I felt a sudden burden of responsibility. I know my story isn't their story - it's made up. But I hope that I honor them through it, somehow. I hope I can use my fiction to shed some light on their historical fact, and to bring some of their legacy into the Great American Story.

Read more about "The Golem of Cotopaxi":

Golem of Cotopaxi - Pitch and Vision
Download PDF • 5.87MB

To read the screenplay on Coverfly, click here.

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