Ruby Peak:  A monument to inference and ways of knowing

Ruby Peak stands at a metaphorical point of triangulation on the map of how we know the world involving the West Elk Mountains, 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, and field science.

Edward Howard Ruffner was a minor surveyor who was overshadowed by the four great surveyors of the west, John Wesley Powell, Clarence King, George Wheeler, and Ferdinand Hayden. Funded by the Departments of Interior and War, these surveyors launched major campaigns to measure distance and angle from thousands of locations, using the law of cosines, to generate precise maps.

In contrast to the general surveys, Ruffner’s purpose for visiting the Elk Mountains in 1873 was very specific. Miners were increasingly pushing into Ute territory and Ruffner was tasked with determining the exact location of the 107th Meridian, an imaginary line running over the saddle of Snodgrass and Gothic Mountains (“probably as difficult a line to establish as could have been chosen”) and which established the eastern boundary of the Ute nations in 1868.

Ruby Peak serves as our first metaphorical intersection, where the West Elks and scientific induction cross paths. Ruffner named some of the peaks in the Elk Mountains after scientists, which Hayden refers to as Ruffner’s “Philosophers’ Monuments”. Making a guess, what we now call “Purple” Ruffner named Mt. Spencer (Herbert Spencer, 1820-1903, who coined the term “survival of the fittest”); our “Marcellina” was Mt. Huxley (Darwin’s bulldog Thomas Huxley, 1825-1895); our “Owen” was named for social reformer Robert Owen (1771-1858); our “Whetstone” was originally Mt. Wheatstone (telegraph tinkerer Charles Wheatstone 1802-1875),  and our “Ruby” was likely Ruffner’s Mt. Mill (John Stuart Mill 1806-1873).

John Stuart Mill was interested in the problem of how we can develop general truths from observations of particular situations. While it is one thing to start with general truths and use logic to make deductions, it is an entirely different thing to observe something and thereby infer a general truth. In his book published in 1843, A System of Logic, Mill describes five inductive methods for making just such leaps, using patterns and variability to establish general truths emerging from an understanding of cause and effect.

Ruby Peak, or Mt. Mill, sits on a dike geological formation named the “Dyke”. Similar to how a laccolith is formed when magma intrudes into a sedimentary formation, causing uplifting and creation of a dome, a dike occurs when magma fills seams and cracks that cut across multiple older rock beds. The resultant igneous intrusion in the Dyke was harder than the surrounding sedimentary rock, which eroded away, leaving a striking fin of rocks, or the “Dyke”.

It is amazing how much 19th century geologists were able to figure out despite their inability to conduct planetary experiments (e.g., adding and subtracting volcanoes to worlds). Their ability to correlate observations of the earth’s surface across complex landscapes to infer complex causes brings us to our second metaphorical point of intersection, field science and induction.

Field research at RMBL is distinguished by the wide-ranging tools that scientists deploy to develop insights that inform our general understanding of fundamental environmental processes. From natural history observations, to complex modeling, to experimentation, our scientists deploy a variety of tools to generate insight into the biological processes filling the peaks and valleys around Gothic to change how we see all ecosystems. Hopefully our points of intersection, involving the West Elks, John Stuart Mill, and field science, provide a metaphorical triangulation that explains why the research at RMBL is so impactful. For more, take a look at the adjoining article summarizing major media coverage from 2023.

Thanks to Brian Levine with Mt. Gothic Tomes for introducing me to Ruffner’s map and providing access to original source material.


Lieutenant E.H. Ruffner, Report and Map of a Reconnaissance in the Ute Country Made in 1873.

F.V. Hayden. Annual Report of the US Geological Survey of the Territories Embracing Colorado and Parts of Adjacent Territories; Being a Report of Progress of the Exploration for the Year 1874 (especially pg. 100).

Crested Butte Taylor Park Recreation Topo Map. Latitude 40 Maps.

Jack Shroder, Amy Ellwein, et al. Geology Underfoot on Colorado’s Western Slope.