c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins
There’s nothing quite so good as waking up on a sunny morning and having an awesome revelation: “I wanna go 4-wheeling.” Call me ill-behaved, but knowing I’m going foraging out in the mountains is nearly the same as hearing I just won a cruise. Except the only cruise I ever seem inclined to go on is the cruise me and a willing companion take over hundreds of miles of Colorado back roads. For me, there’s nothing better than roaming a countryside without the luxury of pavement, eating out of a cooler, finding ghost towns, and collapsing at the end of the day either at a remote campsite or an historic motor court with plenty of cold drinks on hand.
These days, that last part is definitely a hit or miss situation. You see, I’ve been researching, finding and exploring ghost towns for some 50 years, including some I don’t even remember because I was very little when my parents taught me the value of learning history. The joy of bumping over faded pathways and careening around rock slide corners has always made me very happy. Naturally I’ve seen seen a lot of old towns come and go, but mostly go. And although that is the nature of the beast when a town is abandoned, it makes me sad.
There are places where as recently as 20 years ago, lots of buildings were standing but now there are none. Places where vandalism, theft or new development has reared its ugly head with no respect for our past. Places where the dead were buried by their families as a forever-remembrance, only to be dug up, discarded and disrespected by people who don’t understand. Places that make us sad, but also places that make us happy because they are still standing and well-preserved. Having watched some of my favorite towns fade away, I—and many others—have become a little more secretive about where they are, a little more vague about where we’ve been, and a little more hopeful that our beloved towns might last a little longer.
Fortunately, there are alternatives (read: battle peacefully on behalf of history preservation) to facing imminent destruction. One is to have a caretaker on-site during the months the town is accessible. They do this at Ashcroft, located near Aspen, Colorado. The caretaker lives in what looks to be an original one-room cabin with no more than a bed, some furniture, water and some pegs to hang clothes on. For the right person, it’s the dream job of a lifetime, waking up each morning to the succulent scent of wild flowers, which are protected by law, and looking out the window at the magnificent old two-story hotel with its false front, which is also protected by law. Both laws would likely be violated on a regular basis if it weren’t for the caretaker.
Sometimes the best of both worlds are reached when an old ghost town is revived, or at least lived in, by a few residents. Such is the case with places like Bonanza and Crestone, north of Alamosa. Both have been occupied in recent decades by summer dwellers, but now even a few die-hards are known to stick it out the year through. In some cases, towns are also protected by private owners who are often descendants of historic figures. Such is the case with Greenhorn, an 1840’s circa rest stop that later blossomed into a fur trading center and, even later, a small resort complete with a restaurant and zoo. Descendants of the Fossceco family, residents since 1916, still own the land and have done their best to save the community’s buildings from falling apart.
St. Elmo is another classic example, albeit also a reason why historic preservation laws should be more stringent. Property owners obviously love their little town, with gracious signs asking visitors to stay in the street and avoid trespassing. But although more of the town remains than most other ghost towns, fires in the last few decades have destroyed some of the historic buildings. To make matters worse, newcomers in recent years have threatened the town’s historic fabric by expressing a desire to build modern homes among the old ones. Thank goodness for the St. Elmo General Store, which not only looks after the town but has a lively Facebook page and offers tourists viable ways to enjoy the historic community.
A lesson could easily be learned by observing what they are doing at Turret, another classic ghost town nestled up north of Salida. At Turret, the old town plat has been utilized in the past to sell lots to new owners—with the agreement, however, that all new construction will follow the town’s historic aesthetics . That means no modern architecture, no electricity, and plenty of respect for what made this town what it was. Naturally this has been challenged in the last two decades, with new property owners declaring they can do what they like with their private land. Yet Turret remains as a viable way to preserve history and encourage building to meet historic guidelines.
One place in particular that seems to have stood the test of time is Animas Forks. Located between Lake City and Silverton, Animas Forks has managed to keep many of its buildings, including a landmark two-story home with a beautiful bay window that has been repaired and primitively restored in recent years. Although the town is located a good long way from civilization and lies in the path of some favorite off-road trails, and although hundreds of people walk into the hotel to have their photo taken from the bay window, somehow it has prevailed.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ludlow, home of heart-wrenching, emotional strikes in 1914 that took the lives of several men, two women and eleven children. Situated on a remote county road between Walsenburg and Trinidad, the abandoned buildings of Ludlow are largely overshadowed by a beautiful granite monument depicting a miner, his wife and their child. In 2003, the monument was severely damaged when vandals chopped off the heads of the adults, including the woman’s arm. To the descendants of strike victims who still live in the area, the act was like vandalizing a veteran’s memorial wall. Supporters of the monument were able to finds a sculptor to restore the heads around 2005, and those who appreciated what important history Ludlow represents keep a wary eye on the area to this day.
Thankfully History Colorado, the state’s official historical society, has continued to play a large part in the preservation and stabilization of historic places all over the state. Especially over the last two decades, signs pointing out preservation efforts have been a common site at ghost towns across Colorado. Sometimes the signs have obviously been there awhile, but they illustrate two wonderful ideas: the state is working diligently to save historic buildings, and the signs serve to deter vandals no matter how deserted the area appears.
Boggsville, Empire and Iron City are some of these places. Founded in 1866, Boggsville served as the last home of explorer Kit Carson, as well as the county seat of Bent County. Since 1993, the CHS has been working to slowly but surely renovate the buildings at Boggsville, and the project fairly complete with a quiet, scenic complex in its original setting. At Empire, located along Interstate 70 on the way to Blackhawk and Central City, four buildings that include Colorado’s oldest hotel, the Peck House, have been added to state and national registers. A rough and rocky road just before St. Elmo leads to the only remaining building at Iron City, a power plant that went under in about 1917 and was recently restored. A sign explaining the structure’s history ends with a most appropriate statement: “The historical heritage of the state of Colorado can only be preserved by the citizens themselves.”
In my experience as a ghost town hunter, researcher, historian and author, the question begs: how can we educate new generations as to how to treat, respect and learn about the ghost towns we visit? One adage that was coined decades ago never dies and remains the best advice: Take only pictures, leave only footprints. But what if the place is slated for demolition with no archeological digs or documentation planned? One way to find help is to enlist the help of local museums, historical societies, History Colorado and Colorado Preservation Inc., the state’s leading preservation organization. All of these worthy organizations can keep you up to date and get you involved not only in finding ghost towns, but assisting in their preservation.
Most of these institutions use a five-point criteria (significant events, significant persons, unique architectural points, geographic importance, and/or important discoveries related to prehistory or history) to determine historically significant properties all over the state of Colorado. And, Colorado Preservation Inc. accepts nominations every year for its Endangered Places List. Everything from Native campsites to trails to bridges, structures and even whole cities are eligible. Those making the list receive media attention and solicitations for support, including an annual meeting in Denver each February. The public is welcome to register for this worthy event, which is attended by experts and others in every historic field there is. To contact Colorado Preservation Inc., access their website at http://www.coloradopreservation.org. History Colorado can be accessed at https://www.historycolorado.org/.