Category Archives: Colorado History

Alnwick, Colorado: The First Connection Between Cripple Creek and Canon City

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

This is the first of several installments with excerpts from articles about the Cripple Creek District of Colorado, as well as Jan’s book, Lost Ghosts Towns of Teller County, Colorado.

 It is surmised that the village of Alnwick, located at the confluence of Four Mile Creek and West Four Mile Creek, was named for the most historic place and castle of the same name in England. A post office opened there on August 11, 1887 in what was then El Paso County. At the time, Alnwick was one of the very few stops for ranchers and farmers wishing to access Canon City from Teller County. There was plenty of water along what was then known as Oil Creek, and the budding hamlet was comfortably nestled along a high-rise bank well out of flash flood danger.

By 1892, with the gold boom going on in the nearby Cripple Creek District, the founders of Alnwick stepped things up a bit and officially platted the town on March 23. Some of the streets were given the names of Collbran, Hagerman and Howbert, likely in hopes that railroad moguls Henry Collbran, J.J. Hagerman and Irving Howbert might build a railroad through there someday. In November, the United States Geological Survey party visited. The Aspen Daily Chronicle gave details:

“Mssrs. W.S. Post, W.L. Wilson, and T.M. Bannon, of the United States Geological Survey, have been at Cripple Creek this week. They compose the surveying party which four the last two months has been engaged in surveying this district for the purpose of making an official topographical map. The survey extends from Pikes Peak on the northeast to Florissant and Lake George on  the Northwest, and almost to Canon City on the south. It will be a valuable and thoroughly reliable map and will comprise nearly 30 miles square, with Cripple Creek in the center. The survey is no almost completed, the last camp of the party now being located at Alnwick.”

   Efforts to make Alnwick the central hub between Cripple Creek and  Canon City were for naught. The post office closed on October 26, 1893. In March of 1894, the town was vacated. A short time later, geologist Charles Whitman Cross noted that the “Alnwick lake beds” were made up of “fine-grained sandstone and conglomerate, the latter containing pebbles representative of the volcanic series to west.” Alnwick Lake was mentioned in passing again in 1906 as Henry Gannett, in his Gazetteer of Colorado, called Alnwick “a village.”

Nothing more was mentioned about Alnwick until 1974, when another report stated the area was “abandoned.” Today Alnwick is comprised of nothing more than the meadow of an historic ranch. The road leading to it is privately owned by a local outfitter.

Image: Alnwick, Colorado as it appeared in 2016. Copyright Jan MacKell Collins.

Zan Hicklin: A Confederate Along the Santa Fe Trail

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in New Legends Magazine.

Alexander “Zan” Hicklin was a sight to behold. The Missouri native with the thick southern drawl towered over six feet in height—taller if he was wearing his high silk hat. The man seemed friendly enough, with a chuckle or a joke at the ready. But Hicklin also had his secrets, extending one hand in welcome to those who enjoyed his hospitality while keeping the other hand busy with issues of a more serious nature.

There were no bones about it: Hicklin was a southerner through and through. He first came west along the Santa Fe Trail circa 1845 to work with a merchant train for Ceran St. Vrain’s trading post at Taos, New Mexico. He quickly became good friends with St. Vrain’s business partners, Cornelio Vigil and Charles, George and William Bent. The Bent brothers’ fort along the Arkansas River in Colorado was not only a key stopping point along the Santa Fe Trail before it reached the Mountain Branch at Pueblo; it was also a base for Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny when his “Army of the West” readied for battle during the war against Mexico in 1846.

Hicklin was mighty keen on wars over for a good cause. He was on his way to fight in the Battle of Sacramento alongside Colonel Alexander Doniphan in January of 1847 when he learned that Charles Bent had been murdered in the infamous Taos Uprising in New Mexico. By the time he returned in 1851, Bent’s children were under the care of their uncle, the famed trapper and explorer, Christopher “Kit” Carson. And the oldest daughter, Maria Estefana Bent, was heir to 5,000 of the 4.1 million acres held by the Vigil and St. Vrain Land Grant in southern Colorado.

By 1856 Hicklin had married Estefana Bent. Shortly after the 1860 census was taken the couple moved to their land in the Greenhorn Valley some twenty-five miles south of Pueblo and filed their ownership claim. The Hicklin ranch, alternatively known as Hicklin’s Rancho and Greenhorn Rancho, was situated close to the Taos Trail which crossed Greenhorn Creek and paralleled the Santa Fe Trail south into New Mexico. Visitors from both trails could stop at Greenhorn Rancho for a meal or night’s stay. And Zan Hicklin was more than accommodating.

For many years, Greenhorn Rancho was the only civilized place on the trail between Pueblo and Santa Fe. By the early 1860’s the Hicklin was well known as one of the most prominent farmers and stock growers in Colorado. Hicklin’s friends recalled that he became quite wealthy and spent his money freely. He was friendly and kind, and a shrewd businessman. Notably, he also was in the habit of sealing his deals with a drink. On more than one occasion he became too inebriated to make it back to Greenhorn, but those he did business with appreciated his good nature and sense of humor.

The hospitality provided at Greenhorn Rancho was widely known too. Pueblo’s Colorado Chieftain raved about Hicklin’s “open-handed hospitality,” the impromptu parties and horse races at the ranch, and Estefana’s fine meals of beef and lamb, warm tortillas, fresh vegetables and fruit, and homemade wine. Notably, Hicklin was less keen on “city folk” who were often the victims of his practical jokes. He once led a couple of well-dressed visitors to believe he planned to rob them, and insisted they stay over until the next day. The frightened men agreed but lit out in the dead of night, scared for their lives. Another time Hicklin fooled two other guests into believing a dead Indian was being prepared for supper instead of an antelope. He also once charged a guest $7.00 instead of the usual $1.50 for his stay, explaining that “your friend waited upon himself, and it took everybody about the ranch to wait upon you.”

There also was a darker side to the jovial Hicklin. As the Civil War loomed on the horizon, the devout southerner sided with the Confederacy. Colorado was claimed by the Union, and forts in the area were none the wiser to Hicklin’s political views. The wily Hicklin was able to establish a Union mail station a a way to garner information, and sold the army produce for as much as ten cents a pound which was willingly paid. But when Colonel John Heffner appeared on the scene to secretly organize a Confederate army and take over Colorado, Hicklin happily led him to Mace’s Hole, a former outlaw hideout west of his ranch where Confederate sympathizers could hatch their plan. Hicklin not only supplied the rebels with beef; he also passed on information he heard from the Union soldiers passing through Greenhorn Rancho.

Spying on the Union was not easy but Hicklin did it with finesse, passing himself off as a hick farmer who was not quite right in the head. He even rented his adobe to former United States Marshal Peter Dotson in 1862, but made sure to be on hand when the Union mail stage came through. Meanwhile, Hicklin sent hundreds of Confederate recruits to Mace’s Hole while skillfully guiding Union soldiers safely past the hideout on the way to Fort Garland. He also continued selling goods to Fort Garland—although the beef cows he sold were often inexplicably scattered in the night and either made it back to Greenhorn Rancho or were driven to Mace’s Hole. In the meantime, southern sympathizers knew of Hicklin’s hospitality at Greenhorn Rancho, and stayed there often while traveling the Santa Fe.

In time, the Union did discover Mace’s Hole. Too many visitors to Fort Garland were asking suspicious questions, and one soldier actually rode into Greenhorn Rancho and made a direct inquiry about the hideout to Marshal Dotson. Upon realizing his mistake the man rode off amidst gunshots. These missed, but a sentry near Mace’s Hole did not, and the southerner was killed. Soon after Union soldiers discovered the rebels, they arrived at Hicklin’s place and arrested him. Yet he was almost immediately released upon simply taking an oath to support the Constitution. The Union still believed he was a crackpot, which Hicklin added to by offering to shoot the rebels he caught if they numbered too many.

As the Civil War raged on, a number of wagon roads within the vicinity of Greenhorn Rancho kept Hicklin busy. There were the Santa Fe and Taos Trails, but also the Sangre de Cristo Wagon Road three miles south of the ranch and other lesser-known trails, some of whom were served by the Barlow and Sanderson Stage Line. Thus Hicklin stayed busy even after the war ended, meriting occasional mention in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News and other newspapers. When a new post office opened at Greenhorn in 1866, he was made postmaster. The following year, Greenhorn Station became a stage stop.

Alexander Hicklin died on Friday, the 13th of February in 1874—just ten days before his wife Estefana was officially awarded her portion of the Vigil-St. Vrain Land Grant. Most unfortunately most of the land was sold to meet her expenses as squatters invaded her property. The Hicklins have no direct descendants, but Alexander Hicklin’s many adventures are kept alive by mention in history books and his grave, which rests in a field near the site of his ranch.

Photo: The author at Alexander Hicklin’s grave near Greenhorn.

Officers Down: The 1897 Murders of Colorado Deputies William Green and William Kelly in New Mexico

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in New Legends Magazine.

On July 30, 1897, Colorado’s Fort Morgan Times published information regarding a long-posed question: whatever happened to Las Animas County deputies William Green and William Kelly? Over a year before, the men had departed Trinidad in search of some cattle thieves, only to disappear without a trace. Authorities, locals and even Green’s own brothers had worked diligently trying to find out what became of the men. At last there was an answer, solving what the papers called “the greatest murder mystery in the history of this part of the country.”

The story began back in April of 1896, when local cattlemen had started filing complaints after “suffering heavy losses” around the San Isidro mountains in New Mexico, southeast of Trinidad. The suspects were comprised of a gang led by one Miguel Reville, who remained on the lam. Deputy Green, “known to possess plenty of nerve, and who had the record of placing under arrest more desperate criminals than any other man in the territory”, secured a warrant and set out for Reville along with Deputy Kelly, “also a man of nerve.” The men departed Trinidad on April 20 and were due back by the 26th. They were last spotted at a place known as Barela Station, but were never seen again.

Authorities puzzled over the disappearance of the deputies. Meanwhile, Ely and John Green, brothers of the missing deputy, determined to find the men. The pair even relocated from the family home in Las Vegas, New Mexico to Trinidad and set up a business, using their profits to search for the deputies. Throughout the summer and into the winter, the men, along with other law officers, searched high and low for the missing men, as well as Reville. It was well known that the gang leader and his cronies disliked Green intensely; back in 1895, he had caught gang members Leandro Martinez and Pedro Baca after they murdered one Charles Allen at Starkville near Trinidad. Those two killers were serving forty-year sentences at the State Pen in Canon City.

The Green brothers and the Las Animas County sheriff’s department kept up their search, following only a few scant clues. When a report was received that two bodies were found in the San Isidro area, the party conducted a search but found nothing. The men also kept a close eye on Reville’s gang. At last, in July of 1897, the Green brothers received information from someone in Raton, just over the New Mexico border from Trinidad, that one of the gang members, Macedonio Archuleta, had lots of information about Deputies Green and Kelly—including the fact that they had been murdered.

Very quickly and very quietly, the Sheriff’s office arrested Archuleta. The arrest was kept a secret, until the outlaw finally gave the officers a full confession. According to the prisoner, four men—Nestor Martinez, Moses Frayter, Juan Duran and Reville—had been instructed by the gang leader to ambush the deputies. Green and Kelly had apparently found a small settlement where the gang hung out. After killing the officers, the men buried the bodies for three days before digging them back up and burning them. Only a few charred bones were recovered from the site. What became of the men’s horses, saddles, fire arms and badges remains a mystery to this day.

With Archuleta in jail, sheriff’s officers were able to wrangle the rest of Reville’s gang. Taken into custody were Martinez, Frayter and Duran, as well as Dave Hodges, Rupeito Archuleta, Juan Pacheco and two women, Lucia Duran and Lucia Archuleta. The ladies were especially helpful, later testifying about statements the men had made after the killings. Additional names were provided and more men were arrested. Authorities were hopeful of finding Reville as well, until Macedonio Archuleta revealed that the leader had been killed by other gang members, three days before Deputies Green and Kelly had even gone looking for him.

Still, Reville’s eventual demise remained confusing. Archuleta said the killing was done by other gang members. The Fort Morgan Times stated that Reville was killed by a Mexican neighbor “for undue intimacy with his wife.” Another report stated Reville was killed in November of 1896 by a Texas Ranger near Childress, Texas. In the end, it didn’t matter much how Reville died, but it meant everything to the Green brothers and everyone else that he was indeed dead.

Of everyone arrested in connection with the death of Green and Kelly, five of them were convicted and sentenced to death. The prisoners were sent to the State Penitentiary, where their sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment. In the end, Rupeito Archuleta and Juan Pacheco died in prison in 1899 and 1901. Nestor Martinez was inexplicably pardoned in 1899. The last two prisoners, Juan Duran and Moses Frayter, were paroled between 1911 and 1913.

Today, the memories of Deputies William Green and William Kelly are preserved on the Colorado State Patrol’s “Colorado Fallen Heroes Biographies”, a record of every officer killed in the line of duty since 1860. Their stories can be accessed at the State Patrol’s page at https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/csp/colorado-fallen-heroes-biographies.

Image: The unforgiving San Isidro mountains in northeast New Mexico. Courtesy TripAdvisor.

Trinidad, Colorado Native A.R. Mitchell Painted Life As He Really Saw It

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in New Legends magazine.

On a chilly December day in 1889, a child was born on a lonely homestead west of Trinidad. Little did anyone know that, rather than follow his coal mining father’s footsteps, Arthur Roy “Mitch” Mitchell was destined to pursue a much more colorful life of an illustrator, fine artist, art teacher, historian and preservationist.

Mitchell was born at the perfect time. Trinidad, long a destination along the historic Santa Fe Trail, was surrounded by ranches. Cowboys were a familiar sight in town, and it was their hardworking lifestyles that the artist appreciated most. Mitchell knew he needed to learn the trade and find out what being a cowboy was really like in order to portray them in paint, and also that more inspiration lay beyond Trinidad.

At age seventeen, Mitchell first set out for New Mexico and worked as a ranch hand for the Adams Cattle Company. He was back in Trinidad by 1909, finishing out his schooling at the new family home on Ash Street. For a time, he also worked for Trinidad’s Chronicle News. The 1910 census, however, reveals Mitchell was doing what he really wanted to do: working as an artist.

The urge to wander soon struck Mitchell again. Within a few years he was on the road once more, traveling to the Pacific Northwestern state of Washington. When he registered for the draft for World Ware I, a city clerk in Walla Walla verified he was selling advertising for the newspaper there. After the war, he next worked for the Post-Intelligence newspaper in Seattle. Clearly, however, selling advertising failed to satiate Mitchell’s appetite for painting. On a whim and a prayer, he sold nearly everything he owned and found his way to New York, where he attended the Grand Central School of Art in New York under art professor Harvey Dunn.

Dunn proved to be an excellent mentor and friend. While in New York, Mitchell began a 30-year career of painting pulp magazine and book covers. His career continued to blossom as he followed Dunn to Leonia, New Jersey. By the 1940’s, he had rendered over 160 covers in all. His talents have rightfully earned him the title of “King of Western Pulp” by modern day art critics. Yet he never forgot the enchantment of the west, returning to visit when he could, and continuing to capture scenic landscapes and people on canvas.

In about 1944, Mitchell had seen enough of the east and returned to Trinidad, where he was offered a job as the first professor to teach art at Trinidad State Junior College. It was a position he  held until 1958, alternated with creating his own works of art. It was his more serious artwork—paintings depicting cowboys at work with special attention to detail, complimented by vividly colorful landscapes—that eventually made him comparable to the likes of Frederick Remington, Charles Russell, and even Charles Craig. His goal was to create “paintings of the real cowboy, not the movie variety”, which he achieved with a flair seldom seen in other period art circles.

Desiring the most authentic effects in his work, Mitchell collected hundreds of artifacts and items representative of the cowboy way of life, from camp coffee pots to saddles and pottery to Indian blankets, for reference while working. Outside the studio, he still favored traveling. When a particular landscape caught his fancy on the road, he was known to stop his car and paint en plein air, capturing the beauty of the solitary and wondrous scenes around him.

Being a nomadic artist was a lonely business; perhaps that is why Mitchell never married. His work was his one true love, and he followed themes that were familiar and comfortable to him: cowboys and cowgirls, horses, cattle, Native Americans, and the stellar plains and prairies of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Some of his art was inspired by the pueblo adobes around Santa Fe. He also made paintings of more famous figures such as Billy the Kid and Kit Carson, as well as works depicting travelers on the Santa Fe trail and battles between Native American tribes.

In 1959, Mitchell was chosen to render the logo for the “Rush to the Rockies” Centennial celebration. In time, he also worked to preserve and many of Trinidad’s historic buildings, including today’s Baca House and Bloom Mansion museums. After his work for “Rush to the Rockies”, Trinidad could no longer keep Mitchell a secret. His artwork gained more and more fame, and in 1973 he was named an honorary member of the Cowboy Artists of America. The following year, he was inducted into the National Academy of Western Art at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma. And, a year after that, the Hall of Fame also bestowed the Honorary Trustee Award on the revered artist.

“You look back over the trail, and you see the fine friends you’ve made, and you see you’ve managed to make a living doing what you loved,” Mitchell once quipped about his illustrious life, “so how could anyone ask for more?” He was still painting in 1975 when he moved to Denver to be closer to his sister, Ethel Erickson. After his death in 1977, it was Erickson who spearheaded the opening of the A.R. Mitchell Museum of Art in Trinidad. The museum staged a grand opening in 1981, just a year before Erickson’s death. In 1989, the museum expanded into the former Jamieson Dry Goods Store, whose historic interior remains intact. Mitchell would have liked that.

Today, Mitchell’s iconic works adorn the walls of his namesake museum, over 350 in all. Also on display are the early western, Hispanic and Native American artworks and textiles from Mitchell’s own collection. This hidden gem of museums in Colorado is a must-see for lovers of art but also history, as well as the charmed and nomadic life of a painter who followed his dreams. The A.R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art will open for the 2018 season on May 25. Call 719-846-4224 for more information.

Image: “Gold Panner,” courtesy A.R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art

Rollinsville, the Cleanest Town in Colorado

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

It is fair to call Rollinsville, located roughly five miles from Nederland, “clean” but not in the tidy sense. The town’s founder, John Quincy Adams Rollins, strictly forbade the brothels, dance halls, gambling houses and saloons that were so common in Colorado’s early mining towns. Even so, Rollinsville remains notable as one of the earliest locales in the state, with a history that still shines even today.

Rollins, formerly of New Hampshire, was 44 years old when he was first documented in Colorado as a rancher. But he also liked dabbling in mines and mills, roads, stage lines, and lumber. His earliest investments included the Gold Dirt Mine on South Boulder Creek and the area’s first quartz mill. It was also said he once won $11,000 in a Denver billiard game. Then he discovered a primitive Ute native trail that had already been crossed by American soldiers led by one Captain John Bonesteel in 1862, and newspaperman William Byers in 1866.

Rollins decided that, even at 11,767′ in elevation, the pass was definitely worth looking into further. Later that year Rollins, along with partners Perley Dodge and Frederic C. Weir, were granted permission by the Colorado Territorial legislature to operate a wagon road along the high trail. The pass was named for Rollins, who established Rollinsville with a stage stop in 1868. He also continued investing in a number of mines. Although they were all located some distance from Rollinsville, there was a stamp mill at the town by 1869.

Two years later the Rollinsville post office opened on January 31, 1871. The town was handy for miners needing supplies, and its stage stop was successful enough to merit upgrading Rollins Pass and making it into a toll road. The Rollinsville and Middle Park Wagon Road premiered in 1873. Travelers across the 30-mile route were required to pay $2.50 to access the pass, but it was a boon to trade routes between Middle Park and the Front Range.

For the next year or so, Rollins Pass remained one of the only ways to access Middle Park and the budding mining towns of the northwestern slope. But those traversing the pass and paying for it soon grew tired of Rollins’ monopoly, and besides, Rollins Pass was not an easy road to maintain. A new toll road was built over Berthoud Pass in 1874. The elevation was a little lower, the road was easier to negotiate, and the pass gave access to even more important mining districts. The Rollins Pass Toll Road was soon losing business Berthoud Pass.

Undaunted, John Rollins continued investing in mines and land. By the late 1870’s, he had managed to acquire 300 placer claims and 2,000 acres of farm land. But the population of Rollinsville was a mere 198 souls as of 1887. Enter railroad magnate David Moffat, who tried to tunnel under Rollins Pass to expand his Denver, Utah & Pacific Railroad. But that plan ended in failure; not until 1902 did Moffat incorporate a new railroad, the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific Railroad, as he contemplated his underground tunnel. It could take years to accomplish, so Moffat decided to build a temporary railroad over Rollins Pass instead.

It wasn’t easy for Moffat to build his railroad over the pass. Thirty-three tunnels had to be blasted out of the rock, and two trestles also were built. The railroad wasn’t complete until 1909, but brought some needed commerce back to Rollinsville. By then several other camps including Antelope, Baltimore, Buckeye, Corona, Gilpin, Gold Dirt, Ladora, Perigo and Tolland (aka Mammoth), were scattered around Rollinsvlle and along the pass before the railroad reached Hot Sulphur Springs. Another notable camp was Arrowhead, later known as Arrow, which did sport a small red-light district where none was available at Rollinsville. One temporary resident of the district was Mona Bell, a young harlot who would later be murdered by her lover in Nevada.

With the railroad in place, Rollinsville was given new life. A 1916 news article reported that miners in search of tungsten, a rare but hardy metal, were finding it around Rollinsville. “Old abandoned buildings, which, for years were considered unsalable, now have signs on them stating that they are for sale at figures which run as high as $2,000 or $3,000,” the paper reported. Rollinsville was again alive and well with “a constant stream of people from Denver and other places” coming and going through town. Some were staying, too, paying around $75 per lot for homesites. Some mining offices even began opening up in town as the tungsten boom survived well into World War I.

By 1928 Moffat’s next project, the long-awaited Moffat Tunnel, premiered. It too brought profit to Rollinsville while it was being built. But there was now no longer a need for the rails across Rollins Pass. Rollinsville eventually downsized to just 53 people by the time the Denver & Salt Lake served the area in the 1930’s. Eventually the railroad, including the Moffat Tunnel, fell out of use.

The last of the 33 tunnels along Rollins Pass collapsed in 1979. Today the pass is a pleasant and challenging four wheel drive road. Rollinsville with its tiny population of 53 people was serving as a shipping point on the Denver & Salt Lake Railway. Eventually the railroad, including the Moffat Tunnel, fell out of use. The last of the 33 tunnels along Rollins Pass collapsed in 1979.

Today Rollins Pass serves as a fun and challenging four wheel drive road. As of 2010, 181 people still called Rollinsville home. The post office still operates and the original stage stop is now a tavern and restaurant, and a small handful of hotels offer unique lodging. Nearby are the remains of the Moffat Tunnel. Rollinsville has definitely seen its ups and downs, but remains a vibrant if small community that has survived for nearly 160 years.

The Ghost Towns We Love to Love: Colorado

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/.

Adelaide, Colorado: The Ill-Fated Stop Along the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

Shortly after gold was discovered in the Cripple Creek District in 1891 merchant James A. McCandless of Florence, to the south, was one of many men who took an interest in generating commerce from the gold boom. In McCandless’s mind was Eight-Mile Canyon, an old, windy and sometimes precarious trail used by Ute natives to travel to the high country and make their summer quarters. With a creek of the same name meandering alongside much of the trail, the canyon was ideal for reaching the District. McCandless and several engineers first surveyed the canyon in 1891. By 1892 Thomas Robinson, whose endeavors included promoting the Florence Electric Street Railway Company, had opened the “Florence Free Road” leading to the District. Around this same time, give a take a few years, the name of the canyon was changed to Phantom Canyon.

Robinson intended for the road through Phantom Canyon to eventually run between the borders of Wyoming to the north and New Mexico to the south. When the Salaman Stage Line debuted on the Florence Free Road, its success inspired plans for the Florence and Cripple Creek State Line Railroad. A map of the new railroad was filed in May of 1892, and the company was reformed as the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad.

As plans unfolded for the new railroad, Denver & Rio Grande Railroad magnate David Moffat got involved. Under his wing, the F&CC was incorporated in April of 1893, and construction of the railroad commenced the following December. Robinson also remained involved with the project, to the effect that one early camp along the line was named for him. Railroad workers and travelers could stop at Robinson, situated nearly halfway between Florence and Cripple Creek, to buy supplies at a general store or stay at a boardinghouse nearby.

By 1894, for reasons unknown, the name of Robinson had been changed to Adelaide. A depot was constructed for the F&CC, as well as some homes and a water tank for the train. Two men worked at the tank, each in a 12 hour shift, so that it would remain full of water for the locomotive. They, as well as other railroad employees, lived in a nearby bunkhouse with a coal-burning stove for warmth. The former boardinghouse was converted into a hotel called the Great Elk. The station agent’s quarters were in the back of the depot.

Adelaide served a second, more important purpose too. As the F&CC tracks progressed up the canyon, it was soon discovered that the last few miles into the district proved steeper than originally thought. A “helper” town of sorts, Alta Vista, was constructed on the edge of the Cripple Creek District near the city of Victor, wherein engines could travel down the canyon to the station at Adelaide in Fremont County and assist the trains in making it up the grade.

For about a year, everything was grand at little Adelaide, nestled there among the trees and below the majestic rock walls of Phantom Canyon. But there came an evening in July of 1895 when a horrific thunderstorm, typical for late summer in Colorado, let loose with a destructive might like no other.

The Cripple Creek Weekly Journal later described the carnage that ensued. A F&CC train with 14 cars had just been lightly damaged when a small landslide derailed the train just a mile above Adelaide. Four railroad men from the train walked down to the Great Elk Hotel, and Conductor Brown had just wired news of the incident when he chanced to step outside. In the twilight he could see a wall of water, towering some 20 feet high and flowing at about thirty miles per hour, roaring down the canyon, and Adelaide was directly in its path.

Just up the tracks from Adelaide, a helper engine with engineer Mathew Lines and fireman Bert Kreis had just passed through Glenbrook, the closest stop above Adelaide, on its way down from Alta Vista. Lines and Kreis saw the wall of water, quickly stoked the fire in the engine and sped up as fast as they could as the flood chased after them. If anyone saw the engine fly past Adelaide, there does not seem to be a record of it. The engine managed to pass by the next stop, McCourt, before reaching Russell where the tracks diverted away from the flooded creek. Lines and Kreis survived.

Back at Adelaide, meanwhile, the railroad men and the station agent and his family quickly climbed to safety, as well as three other men and “three tramps” who were dining at the hotel. The railroad men turned around in time to see the Great Elk Hotel smashed to pieces by the water and carried away. Tragically, inside were the hotel’s proprietress, Mrs. Carr, as well as waiter Lee Tracy and cook John Watson. Tracy’s body was eventually found nine miles south of Adelaide, near Russell. Mrs. Carr’s body was carried several miles further, almost to Vesta Junction near Florence. Watson was found too, as well as the bodies of three other men who were believed to be section men for the railroad. Three other men surfaced safely in Florence the next day.

In all, the flood washed away ten miles of tracks as well as several bridges. It took quite some time to reach Adelaide and assess the damage, which was estimated at $100,000—over $3 million dollars in today’s money. One would think that would be the end of the F&CC, but the company remained resilient. Over the next year, workers toiled to rebuild the railroad at a cost of just over $238,000. At Adelaide, the station was relocated about half a mile down from its original location on today’s Phantom Canyon Road, well above the creek. A new water tank, a large cistern and a new depot were eventually built at the site.

Although other cloudbursts and occasional floods continued to plague Phantom Canyon, Adelaide remained safe until July of 1912 when another storm sent yet another wall of water crashing down the F&CC tracks. This time, twelve bridges were wiped out and five miles of track were either damaged or lost altogether in the flood. Rather than rebuild again, the F&CC took into consideration its own finances but also those in the Cripple Creek District, where the mining boom was slowly fading away. In 1915 the F&CC was dissolved, and the remaining tracks were removed from the canyon.

Over the last several decades, any structural remnants remaining at Adelaide have disappeared altogether. The only evidence of the whistle stop today is the large cistern, which can be seen below the road along Phantom Canyon. Small signs denote Adelaide and most of the other stops along the route, making for a most scenic drive through the canyon with a little history thrown in. And in Florence, both the McCandless house and the Robinson mansion bear proof that, for a time, the F&CC was a good investment indeed.

Miramont Castle: A Son’s Love for His Mother in Manitou Springs

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

It is all well and good to “honor thy father and thy mother” just as the Bible says. Manitou Springs’ Father Francolon, however, took this commandment to extremes where his mother was concerned.

Father Jean Baptist Francolon was a native Frenchman who first came to Manitou in 1892 to work with the Catholic Sisters of Mercy. At the time, the Sisters of Mercy were the largest Catholic order of nuns in the country, sent to places like Manitou and Cripple Creek to assist the sick and needy. In a time when tuberculosis was running rampant across the nation, Colorado saw an amazing influx of those afflicted who were seeking a healthier climate. The population of tubercular patients throughout the state actually exceeded the number of miners who came to Colorado during the gold rushes of 1859 and 1890!

Rather than live on the grounds of the Sisters’ tubercular sanitarium, however, Francolon purchased a large lot right next door. Within a few years, the eccentric priest took even more unconventional steps when he decided to build a monumental home for his mother, Marie. The castle was named Miramont in her honor.

Work on the castle began in 1895. Francolon commissioned Manitou builders Angus and Archie Gillis and combined Romanesque, Moorish and Gothic styles to create what would be known as the Castle of the West. The outer walls of the castle were two feet thick and made of hand-cut native green sandstone. Overall, nine different styles of architecture were applied to reflect childhood places that Francolon fondly remembered. There are very few four sided rooms in the building. An octagonal shaped chapel originally served as Froncolon’s library.

By 1897 the 14,000 square foot structure was completed with four floors and an amazing 46 rooms. These included a drawing room, dining room, a great hall and eight fireplaces, including one measuring 16 feet wide and weighing 400,000 pounds, allegedly with a secret passageway behind it. Many of the ceilings were painted in gold leaf. Plumbing and electricity, very modern for the time, were installed as well.

Curiously only 28 of the rooms, mostly located on the second and third floors, were used by Father Francolon and his mother. The kitchen, complete with an intricate intercom system to the rest of the house, was rarely used since the Sisters of Mercy usually brought prepared meals to the castle via a tunnel from the sanitarium next door.

Allegedly, Marie Francolon slept in a bed with four towering posters that was formerly owned by Marie Antoinette or Empress Josephine. Some claim the bed was literally built in Marie’s bedroom and therefore cannot be removed without destroying it. Whimsical stories such as this have surrounded the castle for years, including just why Father Francolon abruptly left town in 1900 and returned to France. Marie Francolon passed away just a few months later.

In 1904 the castle was deeded to the Sisters of Mercy. When the sanitarium burned in 1907, the Sisters occupied the castle full time and called it Montcalme. After Francolon’s death in 1922, the Sisters hung on a few more years before closing the castle in 1928. It was then used for retreats until it was sold in 1946 and converted to apartments.

In 1976, the Manitou Springs Historical Society managed to purchase the castle for just $60,000. Over 260 broken windows were repaired. Staircases and other woodwork that were long ago burned for firewood were lovingly restored or replaced. Today Miramont remains as one of the Colorado’s most intriguing museums, as well as a monumental tribute to a strange little priest who dearly loved his mother. You can learn more by visiting the museum’s website here: https://www.miramontcastle.org/

Image courtesy of Miramont Castle

The Queen Throws a Tantrum: Queen Palmer’s Trip Up Ute Pass

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

It was an understatement to say Queen Palmer was a picky wife.

The genteel daughter of New York attorney William P. Mellen, Queen’s refined and comfortable upbringing was hardly compatible with the raw reality of living in the west. Her disdain wasn’t without reason, for her grandparents and an uncle had been killed by Natives. Beyond that horrifying story, Queen knew relatively little about the wild frontier far from her comfortable station back East.

Then in 1869, Queen met one of her father’s colleagues, General William Jackson Palmer. One look at soft spoken, doe-eyed Queen, and it was all over for Palmer. The esteemed entrepreneur talked about Colorado Territory, a new land of opportunity that was already bustling with life, mining camps and the chance to make lots of money. Palmer told Queen of his gift for making dreams come true, and soon asked for her hand. The two of them could then embark on this magical journey together.

Queen was ambivalent. The proposal coincided with the sealing of a business deal between her fiancé and her father, but it also meant leaving everything and everyone she knew for a harsh, barren land. The refined debutante was accustomed to getting what she wanted: “bacon for breakfast—fried thin!”, according to her diary. She adored operas and shopping. Lucky for the lady, Palmer took her lifestyle into careful consideration. Believing a beautiful, elite “Saratoga of the West” resort town would best suit Queen’s desires, Palmer established Colorado Springs for his high maintenance bride.

The couple were married in New York in November of 1870 and embarked on a honeymoon cruise to Europe. Palmer had business affairs to attend to and made the trip somewhat of a working vacation. If only he had chanced a peek at Queen’s diary of the journey, where already the new bride was tiring of her husband’s business endeavors. “In the evening Will dined with Mr. Speyer,” she revealed in one entry. “Queen remained at home and played Bezique.” Comments about the pending move to the base of Pikes Peak are curiously absent from the journal.

Upon returning to the states, Queen stayed in New York and prepared for the move, while Palmer went on to Colorado Springs. He meant to make things as comfortable and stylish for his bride as he could, but the harsh reality was, the fledgling city looked like a bleak dot on a treeless prairie as it cowered under mighty Cheyenne Mountain and the unforgiving Pikes Peak. How he hoped to make the high prairie more attractive is anyone’s guess, but he failed miserably. Worse yet, just a few miles west was Colorado City, a wild and woolly supply town that only grew more raucous as Palmer’s plans were announced.

Upon her arrival in October of 1871, Queen had to be less than impressed with Colorado Springs. Her dismay grew as she spent the first six months bouncing between a hayloft and a tent for a house. Palmer lost no time in showing her Queen’s Canyon, a beautiful and wild oasis against the hills far west of town. He was building his bride a house, christened Glen Eyrie, with the promise that it would offer the most modern amenities. Outside, he promised, the couple could enjoy the crisp, pine-scented air and view millions of stars at night.

The house was finished at last, and the Palmers moved in. But for stately Queen, the house seemed small and ordinary, nothing like the luxurious apartments and suites she was used to. The air was too dry, the nights too cold, and winter snows could be severe in the canyon. The words exchanged between husband and wife are lost to history, but Palmer eventually planned, and built, a magnificently modern castle at Glen Eyrie that could “stand for a thousand years”, according to him. Until it was completed, however, Queen could only wait in anguished anticipation.

As she waited for her grand castle to be built, Queen tried to adjust to western living. She started a school, but gave it up after a month due to the unruly children. With little else to do, she began taking an interest in the development of Colorado Springs. Local legend claims that it was Queen Palmer who stipulated the streets must be wide enough to turn a carriage around, and that their names should reflect Palmer’s career and western geography.

Both of the Palmers also agreed that no liquor would be sold within the city limits. The decree did much for the liquid economy of Colorado City and its saloons, gambling dens and bawdy houses. There were plenty of respectable, hard-working residents too, but Queen saw Colorado City as a besotted eyesore. Neither she nor her husband intended to let Colorado Springs follow in its footsteps. It is said that even today, the old property deeds declare that any property formerly belonging to the Palmers is to immediately revert to the family heirs if ever liquor is publicly sold within its boundaries.

It was the best Queen could do. Despite friendships with other wealthy easterners, Colorado Springs was not the kingdom Queen wanted. Everything was boring, and the dry high altitude bothered her. The primitive roads were bumpy and dusty and the weather was too unpredictable. There were snakes and the Natives frightened her. Even the command appearance of the Mellen family cook from back home did little to console Queen. Her only entertainment, it seemed, was singing at various social functions and attending teas and luncheons. When she became pregnant with her first daughter in 1872, she staunchly returned to New York to give birth in a more modern facility.

One day Palmer, in another of many attempts to break the monotony of Queen’s life, offered to take his bride to the Manitou Park Hotel above Woodland Park. The elite lodge was built by Palmer and his associate, Dr. William Bell, in 1873. At the time, the Manitou Park Hotel reflected the finest in western living, with lots of eastern influence. There were approximately 60 rooms, a ballroom, bowling alley, billiards parlor, an outdoor pavilion, stables, carriage houses, a blacksmith shop, a golf course and tennis courts. These amenities were described in detail by Palmer in order to lure his bride up Ute Pass. The ploy worked.

It was a beautiful day as the couple set out for the hotel in an open carriage. The ride up Ute Pass however, was bound to take awhile in a day when 20 miles was a real stretch for a wagon. Plus, the pass at the time was still a mere trail and not necessarily conducive to travel by a well-heeled couple. Surely Queen felt more than one jar as the carriage made its way over the bumpy passage.

Then, halfway up the pass, one of Colorado’s famous Chinook winds came storming down a canyon. A whirlwind of dust blew over Palmer’s carriage, covering the couple in a hail of eye-watering dirt.

That tore it for Queen. The only words she uttered—in a dangerously low undertone—were for Palmer to stop the carriage. Then she quickly disembarked and headed for the nearest cluster of bushes which were actually some distance away. There, Queen disappeared for several minutes. Upon returning, no doubt a bit sweaty and out of lung capacity, Queen explained to her perplexed husband what had transpired. “I made the best use of my rest. I was in a furious passion as if the wind were a person, so I lay kicking and screaming as if I were crazy.”

Following Queen’s infamous fit, Palmer toiled even more to make her life more comfortable. Queen managed to remain in Colorado for the birth of her second daughter in 1880. A short time later, however, she suffered a mild heart attack during a visit to Leadville. It was a warning of things to come. It was now clear that Queen not only had no use for the barren land of Colorado Springs, but also that she was ill. She began taking trips back east and to England as her visits to Colorado Springs became more and more sporadic. Queen was visiting England regularly by the time she had her third and last daughter in 1881.

William Palmer, who had been steadily working to raise a first-class city from the ground, was helpless. Although he did finish the grand castle at Glen Eyrie and outfitted it with as many modern amenities as he could, he could hardly convince his wife to stay there much. Ultimately Queen moved to England for good, where she died of heart disease in December of 1894 at the young age of 44. General Palmer was left to live out his lonely life at Glen Eyrie. An unexpected spill from his horse in 1906 paralyzed him and required installing a custom-made waterbed created from animal skins. Palmer died in his sleep in1909 and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery. Possibly against Queen’s wishes, her ashes were disinterred in England and placed beside Palmer’s in 1910.

A number of landmarks remain in Colorado Springs as a testament to Palmer’s influence on his own brainchild. The most prominent of these is a statue of him on his horse which resides majestically right in the middle of the intersection at Nevada and Platte Avenues, much to the chagrin of motorists who must maneuver around it. Glen Eyrie is now owned by The Navigators, a national Christian organization. They do host Victorian teas at the castle, which would probably please Queen. Overall, however, she would probably be glad to know her name appears very little beside that of her husband except in history annals. In a way, her absence is her final word on Palmer and his silly Saratoga of the West.

From fool to fame: the life of Lon Chaney

c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins

If ever a man were born to entertain, it was Lon Chaney. Leonidas Frank Chaney was born in Colorado Springs on April 1, 1883. He was the second of four children, and the family lived on Bijou Street near the downtown district. His parents, Frank and Emma, were both deaf but his father, nicknamed “Dummy Chaney,” made enough to live on by working as a barber for Phil Strubel. Lon later cheerfully attributed his father’s success to the fact that people could talk to Frank all day and he didn’t seem to mind.

In the fourth grade, Lon left school because he was needed at home to help his mother, who suffered from inflammatory rheumatism. The boy was already mastering the art of pantomime as a means to communicate with his parents and to entertain his family. Many an evening at the Chaney home consisted of Lon putting on silent plays for his family, re-enacting characters and situations he had witnessed in town that day. His talent for contorting his body and face into all sorts of positions amused his family, but little did they know that such a talent would also bring Lon world-acclaimed fame.

By age twelve, Lon was proving a useful source of income at home. He worked as a tour guide to escort tourists to the top of Pikes Peak before he and his older brother John secured employment at a local theater. Lon worked as a prop boy, earning .25 cents per night. A few years later, the family had saved enough money to send Lon to Denver, where he learned to hang wallpaper and draperies and lay carpet. In 1900 he was back in Colorado Springs, working as a painter.

Still, young Lon could not stay away from the stage and secured a job at the Colorado Springs Opera House. By 1901, after studying makeup techniques in vaudeville and perfecting his own skills, Lon and John formed their own acting company and produced their first play, “The Little Tycoon.” For the next twelve years, the pair traveled throughout the Midwest and the south. Lon performed a variety of duties in addition to playing on stage, but his contorted and varied characters quickly earned him the nickname “Man of a Thousand Faces.” In 1905 he married a 16-year old actress named Francis Cleveland “Cleva” Creighton in Oklahoma City, and the couple remained in town long enough to have a son. Lon’s career was put on hold as he and Cleva worked to support the baby, whom they named Creighton.

Eventually the stage called to Lon Chaney once more. For the next several years he and Cleva eeked out a living with traveling shows and by performing for money on street corners. The couple would sing and dance while young Creighton gathered tossed coins off the sidewalk. The year 1910 found the Chaneys in California, with Lon working various stage shows in San Francisco while Cleva danced and sang in cabaret shows.

By 1912, Chaney was ready for the movies. He played tiny, uncredited parts in no less than an amazing 38 short silent films through 1914. Such work became a strain on the Chaney marriage, and Cleva attempted suicide backstage in Los Angeles in 1913. The poison she swallowed was not fatal, but it did ruin her vocal chords. After years of jealousy and fighting, Chaney left her. Creighton was sent to a children’s home while Lon continued his career. During 1915 he wrote two films, directed both as well as five more, and played in 32 films. He also remarried to chorus girl Hazel Hastings and reclaimed his son.

Chaney’s biggest break came in the 1919 film The Miracle Man about a con artist pretending to be a crippled man who is healed. By 1920 the Chaneys were living in an average Los Angeles neighborhood with a larger-than-life household consisting of Hazel and Creighton, as well as 5 ½ year old Roy Willard who was inexplicably listed in the census as an uncle, and Hazel’s sister and her husband.

The family no doubt moved to larger quarters after 1923 when Chaney donned pounds of makeup and latex to play Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And his incredible made up disfigurement as the maniacal Erik in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera further escalated him to stardom. So unrecognizable were his many characters that he soon became the darling Mystery Man of Hollywood. “Don’t step on that spider, it might be Lon Chaney!” was the tongue-in-cheek quip of Tinseltown.

It is no wonder then, that Chaney commanded his personal privacy and spent his off time with his family at his cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. His true friends understood, but Hollywood was less forgiving. Despite descriptions of him by friends and colleagues as a fun loving friend, good natured and a wonderful father, Lon’s refusal to attend very many events or grant interviews, combined with his gruesome characters, made him appear odd to the world. “Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney,” the famed actor once explained, but to no avail. Thus the man who worked so hard to understand people like his parents who were labeled “different” was so labeled himself.

In 1929, Chaney swallowed a piece of fake snow during the filming of Thunder that allegedly required throat surgery. But the real malady was throat cancer. The acclaimed actor made one talking movie, a remake of one of his earlier films called The Unholy Three. Then he retired to his cabin in the Sierras and died on August 26, 1930. He was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in California. During his funeral, MGM stopped all production on the studio lot and honored him in silence. Hazel died three years later.

Lon Chaney’s legacy carried on. His son, Creighton, had been discouraged from going into theater because the lifestyle was so unstable. Following Chaney’s death, however, Creighton decided to utilize the vast amount of experience he learned from the father. Against his own wishes but at a producer’s urging, he took the stage name Lon Chaney Jr. and went on to fulfill roles his father might have played. Among them were Of Mice and Men in 1939, The Wolf Man in 1941, Ghost of Frankenstein in 1942, and several subsequent “Wolf Man” and other horror movies. Lon Jr. died in California in 1973. His mother, Cleva, who had some bit parts in the movies during the 1950’s, died in Sierra Madre in 1967.

Together, father and son made well over 300 films. Today the Chaney cabin in the Sierra Mountains is on the National Register of Historic Places. Chaney’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren continue to promote their famous grandpa. In Colorado Springs, the Lon Chaney Theater at the Colorado Springs Auditorium puts on performances and honors the man who only wanted to talk to his parents.