c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article are excerpted from Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County, Colorado.
As the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad (aka the F. & C.C.) built up Eight Mile Canyon towards the Cripple Creek District during the 1890s, it was soon discovered that the last few miles into the District proved steeper than originally thought. The new railroad needed a way to help the engines make the grade. There may have already been an old stage route in the high meadow where the “helper” town was built, for by the time the railroad reached there, the place had been named Alta Vista, Spanish for “High View.” True to its name Alta Vista, at 9,710 feet in altitude, afforded a beautiful view for miles around. From the whistlestop’s lofty location, passengers could see the District=s working mines, as well as the budding city of Victor.
Alta Vista was never platted and never had a post office. Though small, the village played a prominent role in the railroad history of the District. The railroad officially reached the tiny stop on May 20, 1894. Unlike other stops along the tracks, Alta Vista served several purposes for the F. & C.C. A large station yard allowed for repair of both freight and passenger cars. A “classification yard” was also built, wherein freight cars could be sorted by content and destination. Most importantly, Alta Vista housed extra engines to travel south down the tracks to the railroad stop of Adelaide, attach to trains coming up the canyon, and assist them in making the steep grade up to the city of Victor a few miles away. The helper engines were then disconnected at Alta Vista and turned around to head back down the grade to Adelaide.
The founding of Alta Vista happened to coincide with the first of the Cripple Creek District’s tumultuous labor wars. No sooner had the railroad reached town when miners in the Cripple Creek District began a strike. At issue were demands by mine owners for the men to work more hours at the same rate of pay. On May 29, just over a week after the F. & C.C. debuted at Alta Vista, fifty picketing miners showed up. So did Denver deputies, who had a clear view of Victor and watched in horror as strikers blew up the Strong Mine above town. Newspapers noted that “the entire four miles of winding track to Victor was picketed with sharpshooters.” Following the explosion, according to the Aspen Daily Times, “the road supervisor accordingly required all trains to be searched, beginning with a passenger train coming in that included two coaches, the baggage car and even the engine.” Presumably nothing was found, and the train was allowed to roll on in to Victor.
After the labor war ended, coal, gold ore, mining equipment and supplies continued to be brought through Alta Vista regularly, as well as upwards of six daily passenger trains. Few got off the train, for Alta Vista offered very few services aside from a small one-room depot and some residences for railroad workers. For a mere whistlestop, however, Alta Vista’s presence was both necessary and important because of the classification yard. Because the F. & C.C.’s early equipment often included the use of Denver & Rio Grande train cars, defective cars would be held at Alta Vista to await repair or maintenance.
On March 23, 1895, Alta Vista played a very small part when Sherman Crumley’s gang staged the first robbery of the F. & C.C. Crumley, from a good family in Pueblo, had come to the Cripple Creek District with brothers Grant and Newton. He was in Colorado Springs as early as 1894, when he was arrested in June for participating in the kidnapping, tar and feathering of Adjutant General Timothy Tarsney. The General had come in defense of striking miners who had been arrested during the labor wars. Crumley and his gang were hired to kidnap Tarsney, take him to the barn of mine owner William Otis, tar and feather him, and leave him on the edge of town with orders to walk to Denver.
Sherman Crumley initially pleaded innocent in the ordeal, telling reporters he was messaged to bring a hack from his Colorado Springs livery stable to the Alamo Hotel on South Tejon Street. To his surprise, he claimed, a group of masked men dumped their victim into his hack while one of the men jumped up beside him. “‘Now drive, G___ D____ you,’ said the man with me, sticking a revolver against my ribs. It is unnecessary to say that I did as he told me,” Crumley said. While the newspapers might have bought Crumley’s story, the authorities did not. Crumley and several men were subsequently arrested. Amazingly almost all of the men were released due to lack of evidence and reliable witnesses. The exception was El Paso County Deputy Sheriff Joe Wilson, who confessed and subsequently tried.
Crumley soon relocated to Cripple Creek, forming a gang comprised of himself, Bob Taylor, O.C. Wilder, “Kid” Wallace, W.R. Gibson and Louis Vanneck and planning to rob the F. & C.C. On the day of the robbery, the men stationed themselves just below Hollywood, a southern suburb of Victor, and flagged down the F. & C.C. train just outside of town. Passengers were duly relieved of their wallets, jewelry and other valuables before the robbers disembarked and disappeared into the hills. The engineer was instructed to move on. At Alta Vista, Conductor Paddy Lane jumped off the train and notified authorities. A search led to Taylor’s cabin at the Strong Mine, and the posse eventually found the men partying away their profits in the bars of Victor. The men were taken into custody to await trial. Newspapers expounded on the charges: “It is charged that these parties wounded and attacked Alexander McArthur, the custodian of the United States mails, and took possession of said mails,” reported the Aspen Daily Times. Only Gibson and Taylor were held over for trial before a grand jury. By some miracle, Crumley and the other fellows were released per request from the district attorney and a plea from Wallace’s attorney.
The most exciting event to take place around Alta Vista was a flash flood, which erupted just below the station on Eight Mile Creek on July 30, 1895. Water in the creek, which paralleled the F. & C.C. tracks, reached speeds of thirty miles per hour as it swept down Phantom Canyon towards Adelaide. A helper engine on the way back from Alta Vista made breakneck speed to outrun the flood until it reached another whistlestop, Russell, at which point the tracks diverted away from Eight Mile Creek. But the flood caused much havoc. Amongst the drowned were Lee Tracey, proprietor of Adelaide’s Great Elk Hotel. Also drowned were the hotel cook, Mrs. Carr, as well as a boarder identified as Mr. Watson and three F. & C.C. section men.
It cost a bit to rebuild the tracks, but the F. & C.C. was up and running again by November. Four trains passed through Alta Vista daily. Two of them left Florence at 6 a.m. and 2 p.m.; the other two returned from Cripple Creek at 9:10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. By 1899, day picnics in Alta Vista’s sunny meadows were a favorite destination amongst District pioneers. Passengers boarded the F. & C.C. at Cripple Creek at 9 a.m., receiving a nice tour of the District before arriving at Alta Vista. Picnic baskets were unloaded and wildflowers picked as the visitors enjoyed the outdoors. At 3:30 p.m., all boarded the train back to Cripple Creek. A round trip ticket cost a twenty five cents.
Curiously, Alta Vista never appeared under its own listing in Cripple Creek District directories. Only in the 1900 directory, which included residents living outside the city limits of the district towns, were a scant few citizens listed at Alta Vista. They were operator S. Aller, operator, F. & C.C. employees Jim Doyle and George Metzger, miner E.H. Niles and Harvey Taylor’s Brickyard. Taylor employed Louis Scott as a brick maker. Alta Vista remained very quiet throughout the early 1900’s, especially after the F. & C.C.’s tracks washed out a second and final time in 1912. In 1913, the Fairplay Flume reported the Alta Vista Mining Company planned to build a new mill at Alta Vista, with an expected cost of $20,000. This apparently never happened.
A 1923 map still shows Alta Vista on Eight Mile Creek in Fremont County. At that point, however, the tiny community was surely no more than a scattering of abandoned houses. In time only the depot remained, standing in a field along what was now the dirt road of Phantom Canyon. The depot has since been moved to Victor, where it serves today as a visitor’s center.
Pictured: An early postcard depicts the Alta Vista Depot before it was moved to Victor and restored.