Category Archives: Colorado Railroad History

Colorado City, Colorado: Gateway to the Goldfields

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article have appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine and the Ute Pass Vacation Guide

In 1859, the rough and tumble town of Colorado City debuted as the portal to Ute Pass, next to what would eventully become Colorado Springs, Colorado. The pass was an ancient Indian trail skirting up the north base of Pikes Peak and on to the gold fields on the western side of the state. As  more travelers utilized the pass in their quest for gold, Colorado City grew in the form of stick‑built shacks and log cabins. Later, fine stone and brick structures would mingle with tidy wood bungalows and impressive Victorian homes.

Everything a prospector could want was available in Colorado City, including mining supplies, pack mules, grub and grog. There were also a variety of vices, from drinking and dining to poker and prostitution. Local merchants made a tidy profit on the transient population, which flowed constantly in and out of town.

When Colorado Springs was platted in 1872, liquor was banned within its city limits. Then in 1878, Manitou Springs formed to the west. Colorado City, nestled snugly between the two resort towns, prospered: not only as a “sin city” but as a blue collar town as well. A number of railroad workers were employed by the Colorado Midland Railroad. Local mills, namely the Golden Cycle Mill, processed gold ore shipped by train from teh famed Cripple Creek District on the back side of Pikes Peak, and other area mines. The city became a mesh of church‑going families, would‑be prospectors, wild folk and nomads.

Look down Colorado Avenue today and it is easy to envision a Colorado City of the past. Horse races and shoot outs took place on the dirt streets with alarming frequency. Wagons and horses sent pedestrians scurrying as the street bustled with life. The old buildings sported every business house imaginable, and the shouts of street hawkers mingled with the bawdy music flowing from the saloons.

Upwards of 24 taverns once lined the south side of Colorado Avenue. Many of them connected via underground tunnels to the respectable businesses on the north side of the street. In back of the saloons, madams like Laura Bell McDaniel, Mamie Majors and Nellie White were the reigning pleasure queens. The houses of “ill fame” spanned four blocks on Cucharras St. The lawmen and temperance unions of Colorado City levied their own public war against the shameful nightlife, but it was sometimes a losing battle. When the city outlawed liquor, some of the saloon owners and prostitutes started their own town, Ramona, outside the city limits.

On the north side of town, churches, lodges, meeting halls and more respectable social places mingled among the quaint homes and upstanding citizens of the town. Still, there were some real characters adding much color to Colorado City. Prairie Dog O’Byrne’s taxi wagon held a cage with a pet prairie dog inside and was pulled by two tame elk. Judge Baldwin was an honorary judge who was known for his love of libations. Anthony Bott, a founder of the town, also made a name for himself in the Cripple Creek District. Dusty McCarty was a blinded miner who honed his skills at bartending and was the best source of where to go and what to do in town. Bob Ford, the killer of Jesse James, dealt faro in Colorado City before going off to Creede and getting killed.

In 1917 Colorado City was annexed to Colorado Springs, and Colorado City’s wild days ended. Since that time, the city has evolved into an historic section of the Pikes Peak region with a variety of novelty  shops, boutiques and eateries. Neighborhood tours reveal an outstanding array of unique architectural designs, including a few pre-manufactured homes that were literally purchased from catalogs—in essence, the first modular homes in the state.

The Old Colorado City History Center at 1 South 24th Street houses a museum with photographs and hundreds of artifacts outlining Colorado City’s wild and woolly past. To see historic Colorado City on the way to Cripple Creek, take Highway 24 west at Colorado Springs and turn right at 21st Street. For more information, call the Old Colorado History Center at 719-636-1225 or the Old Colorado City Associates at 719-577-4112.

Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Ute Pass Vacation Guide and The Colorado Gambler magazine.

Significant in history and world-reknowned, Pikes Peak is honored as one of the best-known landmarks in America. For centuries, the mountain looming above Colorado Springs has served as a vantage point from all directions across the state and beyond. The unmistakable landmark first guided the Indians, then the fur trappers, and later the white men who inhabit the areas around it now. In 1802, Pike’s Peak was part of the Louisiana Purchase.

When the famous explorer Zebulon Pike determined to scale the peak in 1806, his efforts were somewhat ridiculous by today’s standards. Naming the mountain Grand Peak, Pike denounced it as unclimbable and reaching a height of 18,581 feet. Had Pike chosen a better time of year (he was there in November), better clothing and a better grasp of the peak’s actual altitude of 14,110 feet, he probably would have made it to the summit. Instead, Pike had to be content with being the first white man to note the mountain on maps.

Between 1806 and 1820, the peak was alternately referred to as Grand Peak and Highest Peak. Many historians credit Major Stephen H. Long as the first white man to climb the mountain in the latter year. However, even Long gave the honor to Dr. Edwin James, himself an historian with the expedition. In reality, James was accompanied by Long and two others on the journey. Apparently, because James was first to actually set foot on the summit, Long named the mountain James Peak.

Over the next twenty years, the name of James Peak was gradually replaced with Pikes Peak. Lt. John C. Fremont sealed the official name in his travel logs. By the 1850’s, everyone seemed Pikes Peak-bound as gold booms began all over Colorado. Clothing and supply stores back east manufactured items bearing the Pike’s Peak label. Guidebooks and maps were in abundance, all describing the best ways to reach Pikes Peak country and what the traveler might find upon arrival.

As Colorado launched into its gold boom era, Julia Archibald Holmes became the first white woman to scale the peak. In 1858, Holmes, her husband John and four others from Kansas included the peak in their sight-seeing tour while prospecting for gold. So wide-spread was the quest for gold that even Denver was included in the “Pikes Peak or Bust” rush of 1859.

As thousands of miners flocked to the rocky mountains to seek their fortunes, their trek was aptly titled the Great Pikes Peak Gold Rush. The spirit of those first pioneers who sacrificed their homes and even their families to find Pikes Peak was an inspiration to others. Because of them, millions of people found the courage to come west and settle in new territory. The sight of Pikes Peak, even hundreds of miles in the distance, gave them hope. Many of those pioneers wound up at Colorado City, a supply town established at the base of the peak near Ute Pass.

When Colorado Springs sprang to life in 1871, a popular pastime was to scale the peak. A U.S. Signal Corps station, constructed from rocks, was used as a weather station. Later abandoned, the building eventually became a tourist hotel. The number of tourists to the summit escalated in 1873 with a mild gold strike on the eastern slopes. The strike turned out to be a hoax, however.

As it was, hoaxes and jokes upon the unsuspecting public seemed to be running rampant through Colorado about this time. Other such mischief included the 1876 “death” of a non-existent baby named Erin O’Keefe. One John O’Keefe claimed his infant daughter had been consumed by mountain rats atop the peak. A realistic photograph showed Erin’s grave surrounded by several mourners. Tourists flocked to the burial site to see the grave and leave trinkets before the hoax was revealed.

For the next several years, Pikes Peak gained even more notoriety. In 1884 a route was established for a railway to the summit, but was abandoned. A few years later, Dr. A.G. Lewis homesteaded 160 acres at the summit. Amazingly, Lewis was able to grow a few crops as required by the 1862 Homestead Act. Lewis’ intent was to build a tourist trap illustrating his crops. A carriage road was built in anticipation for the new business.

Unfortunately for Lewis, railroad pioneer David H. Moffat succeeded in acquiring a 99-year lease on just five acres of the summit. Lewis lost his claim in court, and a cog railway began daily excursions to the top of Pikes Peak beginning in 1891. Viewed as one of the most scenic rides in America, the train ran a distance of 8.9 miles, climbing 7,518 feet (the Pikes Peak Cog Railroad is currently closed for needed renovations, but will be open again next year). A daily guide was given to passengers, listing visitors of the day before and expounding on other interesting sites in the region.

The same year as the premier of the cog railway, the Cripple Creek District on the backside of Pikes Peak experienced the last, and one of the largest, gold booms in Colorado’s history. Numerous trails were established and there was talk of building a road to the top of Pikes Peak from the Cripple Creek side. The closest anyone came, however, was at Seven Lakes, which had opened as a resort quite some years before some seven miles below the summit.

The peak gained further popularity in 1895 when Katharine Lee Bates, a professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, published the anthem “America The Beautiful”. The song was based on her visit to the peak two years earlier. More and more travelers made the summit of Pikes Peak a destination spot. In fact, one might say that in the rush to see Pikes Peak, people began turning it into a race of sorts. Excursions of all kinds, from wildflower-picking expeditions to hiking trips to the first wedding in 1905, were the popular mode of the day.

There were tragedies here and there: In August of 1911, Mr. and Mrs. William A. Skinner learned a hard lesson about the perils of hiking unprepared on Pike’s Peak. Ignoring the advice of guides and the editor of the Pike’s Peak Daily News, Mrs. Skinner insisted on setting out for the summit late in the afternoon. Snow clouds looming on the horizon were soon hovering over the couple, who were poorly dressed for the trek and already tuckered out. After a two-foot snowfall during the night, the couple was found frozen to death about two miles below the summit the next day.

The unfortunate fate of the Skinners hardly stopped other hikers, or drivers. In 1916, the Pikes Peak Automobile Company opened the toll road to the summit. An annual hill climb was also established, which steadily gained world fame. The Pikes Peak Auto Hill Climb is now called the Pikes Peak International Hlil Climb and takes place each year. The event draws thousands, not to mention some very famous participants.

Other innovative news about Pikes Peak came in 1918 with the opening of Barr Trail. Built by Fred Barr, the trail took four years to construct and included a camp halfway to the summit which is still in use today. The Barr Trail opening was followed by the establishment of the AdAmAn Club in 1923. Each year, a new member is chosen to join the group, which treks to the summit on New Years’ Eve to set off fire works at midnight. In 1935, this group gained notoriety as they broadcasted greetings from the peak to Admiral Richard C. Byrd in the Antarctic. Just six years earlier, Bill Williams gained fame by pushing a peanut to the top of Pikes Peak with his nose.

It has been nearly 200 years since the first explorers spotted “America’s Mountain”, Pikes Peak, off in the distance. Since that time, untold numbers of men and women around the world have traversed the United States in search of this great landmark. They were looking for opportunity and freedom they had only imagined in their dreams. They found it, too, here in the American west where the untamed land dared the bravest to fight for peace, happiness, and the American way of life.

Manitou Spring’s Mystic Sisters and Redstone Castle

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine.

Photo credit: Rufus Porter

Manitou Springs, Colorado has long been known as a haven to hauntings and the supernatural. It is no wonder, when one considers such odd and wonderful treasures as the Redstone Castle. As one of Manitou’s many intriguing landmarks, the castle and its history exude the macabre charm that embraces the city even today.

Redstone Castle’s charming history begins with the mysterious Crawford sisters, Emma and Alice. Emma and her mother first appeared in Manitou during the late 1880’s, residing on Ruxton Avenue. Like so many, young Emma initially came to Manitou seeking relief from tuberculosis in the high mountain air. Her fiancé, one Mr. Hildebrand or Hiltbrand, was working as a civil engineer for the Pikes Peak Cog Railroad. Recuperating by way of much rest and little exercise, Emma spent much of her time concentrating on her psychic powers. The occult was a vivid fascination in the Victorian era, and the fact that Emma and her family were professed psychics was thought more intriguing than strange in a place like Manitou.

One day in 1890, Emma claimed her Indian spirit guide had enticed her to climb nearby Red Mountain, a feat she accomplished despite her illness. Evidence of the climb came in the form of Emma’s red scarf, which she tied to a tree at the top. She died that summer, just before she was to be married. Wanting to fulfill Emma’s dying wish to be buried on Red Mountain, her fiancé tried to buy some ground atop the mountain. Unable to do so, Hildebrand hired twelve friends to carry the casket up there anyway, and Emma was buried at her beloved spot. Soon, stories of Emma’s ghost wandering around Red Mountain began circulating, and her grave became such a popular attraction that fellow spiritualists wore a trail to get there.

Emma’s mother remained in Manitou after her daughter’s death. She was eventually joined by Emma’s younger sister Alice in 1908. Alice was a budding actress whose career had been interrupted by a marriage. Upon her arrival in Manitou, Alice sought comfort from her impending divorce from her husband, a man named Snow, by renting Redstone Castle on top of Iron Mountain. The remote mansion, located only a short distance from Emma’s grave, was just the ticket for getting one’s head together.

Or was it?

Redstone Castle was actually constructed in 1890 as a model home for the Manitou Terrace housing development. Built by brothers Robert and William A. Davis, the sons of developer Isaac Davis who first arrived in 1874, the castle was meant to draw real estate investors and residents to Manitou. The three-story exterior consisted of native red sandstone and included a beautiful turret with tiny gable windows in the top and two beautiful covered porches. Eighteen rooms with ten-foot ceilings and six-foot high windows allowed for a spacious and well lit interior. Nine tower windows provided breathtaking views of Manitou and Garden of the Gods. Woodcarver Sam Yarnell was commissioned to install the beautiful woodwork inside. It was a truly exquisite home.

Despite the grand prototype, however, no lots were ever sold at Manitou Terrace. Builder William Davis was probably the first occupant of the castle, but it was being leased out by the time Alice Crawford arrived. Despite her dead sister’s fame, nobody seems to have thought much about Alice and Redstone Castle. But when the eccentric divorcee began hosting seances, stories of eerie goings-on and ghosts at the castle became rampant. Some theorize that Alice’s acting abilities helped her stage her seances, which included mysterious sounds, odd lights and dancing furniture. One regular attendee was W.S. Cosby, one of the dozen men who had carried Emma Crawford’s casket to the top of Red Mountain. Cosby remembered “tables and chairs walking all over the place and all sorts of funny sounds coming from different places.” Alice’s mother also claimed to hear Emma playing the grand piano on numerous occasions, even though her daughter had never lived in the castle.

The wild tales about Alice Crawford and her dead sister did little to enhance the actress’ career. In 1910 the lonely lady tired of life and attempted suicide at the castle. It was a badly bungled attempt. Alice only succeeded in shooting herself in the knee and setting her bed on fire. The media jumped on the incident in typical dramatic fashion with a headline reading, “Woman in Flames and Shot in Bleak ‘House of Mystery.’” Not long afterwards Alice left Manitou forever, leaving behind a debt of nine months’ rent.

Incidentally, neither Alice or her mother appear in census records for 1900, nor 1910. Emma also fails to appear on record, although a 1969 newspaper article featured her photograph. The only clues to the Crawford ladies lie in a mysterious woman named Jennett Crawford, who appears in the 1900 census as a boarder with William and Emma Hooper. Curiously, the record neglects to give any information about her, including her age, birthplace or occupation. The first name of Mother Crawford remains unknown. There is no record of Alice’s divorce and where the women even came from is still a mystery.

In the wake of Alice’s departure, Emma’s grave once more gained notoriety when the Louisville & Nashville Railroad made a failed attempt to build an incline railroad to the summit of Red Mountain in 1912, complete with a casino. Emma’s burial spot was in its path, so her casket was exhumed and moved to the south slope of the mountain. Then in August of 1929, two boys found part of Emma’s skull exposed after a particularly rainy summer. Authorities gathered the remains and stored them at Manitou City Hall while trying in vain to find her mother or sister. In 1931, Emma was buried a third time—this time, in Manitou’s Crystal Valley Cemetery. The grave is unmarked and no trace of her sister or mother was ever found, adding to the mystery surrounding the Crawford girls and Redstone Castle.

In the years since, Redstone Castle has been the subject of ghost lore and high school dares while serving as a private residence and occasionally, a bed and breakfast. It is also amazingly well preserved, its various owners recognizing its beauty and significance. They say the ghost of Alice Crawford is still there, despite her unhappy experiences while living in the castle. As for Emma, she is remembered each Halloween when Manitou Springs hosts its annual Emma Crawford Coffin Races, a tradition since 1994.

Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County (Colorado), Introduction

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

This is an excerpt from Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County (History Press, 2016)

Introduction

   The great gold rushes which helped settle the West are ingrained in American history as some of the most exciting times our country would ever see. Beginning in 1848, the California gold rush set off a most spectacular run of booms and busts as more and more pioneers headed west. Other states—namely Oregon, Arizona, Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas—would follow suit as gold was discovered within their territories. Colorado also was a big contender, beginning with the Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859.

   Colorado’s initial rush was so-named because prospectors heading to the region used Pikes Peak, elevation 14,114′, as a landmark. The peak, which towers above Colorado Springs on one side and Teller County on the other, was named for explorer Zebulon Pike. As the so—called Pikes Peak Gold Rush unfolded throughout the 1860’s an ancient trail, used by local Ute Indians, wound up through a pass at the base of the peak.

   Eventually dubbed Ute Pass, this trail became known as one of the quickest ways for easterners wishing to access the western slope of Colorado. A few rest stops popped up over time, mostly ranches but one or two mail stops and supply outlets too. By the time El Paso County was formed as one of Colorado’s original counties in 1861, Ute Pass became known as the gateway from Colorado City (a supply town west of today’s Colorado Springs) to the western goldfields.

   Pioneers and early surveyors making their way up Ute Pass found some homesteads already settled by squatters. Legal homesteaders were allowed to settle on 160-acre tracts of land starting in 1873. Those who claimed land in the open, high-altitude parks at the top of Ute Pass primarily used it for ranching, but increased traffic also created a need for supplies, lodging and postal routes.

   Gold discoveries at the world—famous Cripple Creek District in 1891 altered the sleepy ranches and high plains on the back side of Pikes Peak dramatically. An extinct volcano, so large it actually imploded in on itself rather than erupting, had long ago created a most unique field of rich minerals that had melted, flowed into the cracks and crevices caused by the explosion, and hardened over time. Ranchers within this “caldera” included the Womacks, whose son Bob was sure there was gold in the area.

   When young Womack was finally able to convince everyone of the rich gold deposits, prospectors by the thousands flocked to the new boom as more towns were established both within and outside of the Cripple Creek District. The Cripple Creek District directory of 1894 perhaps described it best:

“Over the quiet hills and vales there came a change. Where once no sound was heard save the halloo of the herdsman, clatter of hoofs and horns and jingle of spur bells, there came the crushing, rending roar of dynamite, tearing the rocks asunder, the curnching and grinding and rattling of wheels, the shouting of mule drivers and feighters, with sounds of saw and axe and hammer. A town grew up like magic, prospectors thronged the hills,—and there was solitude no more.”

  Largely due to the gold boom, a series of other mining districts, camps, towns and cities sprang up throughout the western portion of El Paso County. Some of these places never evolved further than being small camps where miners lived and worked. Others were founded as whistlestops with the coming of the railroads. Still more bloomed into thriving metropolises which in time rivaled bigger cities in Colorado and beyond. A few were settled with high hopes of becoming large cities, only to fold within a few years or even months. Some towns never even made it off the ground.

   City directories for the Cripple Creek District began publishing in 1893, but due to the transient and ever—moving population, it was a limited effort at best. “The first edition of the Cripple Creek Directory is now placed in circulation,” announced the editors of the first directory, but added that “In the compilation of this book the publishers have been careful to exclude the names of non-residents. The general makeup of a new town is such as to make the work very difficult; however, we will say that neither labor nor expenses has been spared to make this directory complete and accurate, and we believe it will prove reliable.”

   The people who flocked to these places were an amazing bunch. Not only did they consist of prospectors and miners, but also builders, laborers, lawyers, merchants, doctors and dentists, teachers, stock brokers, laundresses, bartenders, prostitutes and many others. The population of the area swelled and shrunk accordingly as those who couldn’t gain good work or prosperity moved on. For every person who left the district, however, another one took their place.

   In 1899, after a long hard fight with El Paso County, city officials in Cripple Creek successfully formed Teller County. The new county was carefully carved from parts of El Paso, as well as the other surrounding counties of Park and Fremont. Teller County measures a mere 559 square miles, but within its boundaries dozens of camps, towns and cities were formed during the 1890’s and early 1900’s.

   The Teller County of the turn of the twenty-first century was rife with historic events, including two labor wars and a heated long—time battle against illegal gambling. Get-rich-quick schemes, insurance frauds, historic fires, murders and more have made for a most interesting history. More than a few honorable figures, including Colorado Governor Ralph Carr and a slew of celebrities also called Teller County home. For a time, the Cripple Creek District made Teller County known to folks worldwide.

   Because the giant caldera forming the Cripple Creek District is comprised of long-hardened minerals settled in fissures and cracks, hard-rock mining was primarily employed in Teller County. Placer mining, wherein a fellow with a pan scooped up river sand and shook out the gold, was far less common. Thus in time, digging, blasting and processing ore in the Cripple Creek District became harder and more expensive. Gold miners fell under the impression there was little more gold to be had that was worth digging for, and people began moving away from the Cripple Creek District. Subsequently, the rest of Teller County downsized as well.

   In an attempt to lessen the perils created by the Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Gold Reserve Act in 1934. Doing so raised the price of gold to $35 per ounce. Although there were still some working mines in the county, even these dwindled away in time. Times were changing; railroads were shutting down, wagon roads were falling out of use, historic ranches were changing hands and many of the towns established on behalf of the gold boom were being abandoned.

   By the 1950’s, not much was going on in Teller County, at least to the observant eye. As the towns and camps faded away, surviving places such as Woodland Park, Cripple Creek and Victor turned to tourism as a new industry. Museums were established as residents of Teller County looked for ways to draw visitors to the area. The cap on the price of gold was finally repealed in 1971 by President Richard Nixon. The repeal came about as new techniques to extract hard-rock gold were being employed.

   A renewed interest in mining, combined with increased tourism, kept Teller County alive. Of particular interest to many tourists was exploring the old ghost towns left behind. While the Cripple Creek District remained a key destination to see such places, others slowly faded away. A few were incorporated as part of local ranches or were subsequently purchased by private interests.

   It is only within the last twenty five years or so that many more ghost towns have fallen in the wake of modern mining operations and in the name of progress. Even so, history buffs, local residents and others who hold Teller County near and dear to their hearts have worked tirelessly to support the history of these places. While many of the towns may be gone, each place still has lots of stories to tell. 

Silver Plume, a Worthwhile Visit

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

As mining booms hit areas just west of Denver during the 1870’s, a number of satellite towns, communities and camps sprang up. The best known of these was Georgetown, surrounded by places such as Bakerville, Graymont, a stage stop turned railroad stop and later resort; another resort town called Green Lake; Lawson with its Six Mile House, Magnet with its Magnet Mine; Pomeroyville, Santiago, Sidneyville, another railroad stop on the Argentine Central Railroad upon its completion in 1905; Silver Dale with its Upper Dale and Lower Dale; Waldorf, site of the world’s highest steam railroad when the Argentine Central Railroad was built, and of course Silver Plume.

Established in 1870, Silver Plume quickly became a lively sister city to Georgetown with a population of 2,000 miners and their families. Tall-tale tellers used to claim the town was named for politician James G. Blaine, who in the 1890’s was known as the “Plumed Knight”. Given its date of birth and its silver production, however, the name Silver Plume likely was given for the many plume-like silver streaks from the rocks in the hills above town.

Silver Plume’s biggest dilemma of the 1870’s was when it was discovered that two mines, the Pelican and the Dives, were located on the same vein of silver. Both mines ended up in court and the Pelican eventually won. The suddenly unemployed miners of the Dives may have had the last laugh, however, absconding with six coffins filled with high grade ore and disguised as dead miners.

Other mines around Silver Plume produced such valuable minerals as gold, lead, zinc, copper and granite. There was a theater, two churches, a school and several stores at Silver Plume. When the railroad came in 1877, Silver Plume enjoyed even more success. The town finally incorporated in 1880. Immediately, such state of the art structures as the New Windsor Hotel, Ma Buckley=s House with rooms to rent, and a jailhouse arose. These buildings luckily survived an 1884 fire that consumed over 50 buildings in and around the business district.

Nearby suburbs such as Bakerville and Brownsville utilized Silver Plume as their main supply town. Brownsville in particular was subject to rock slides and avalanches, succumbing to a final rockslide in 1912.

Silver Plume boasted 1,500 people in 1890. Following the Silver Crash of 1893, both Georgetown and Silver Plume began their decline. During Colorado’s tourism boom during the late 20th century, both towns saw a revival in their economies as visitors flocked to the historic towns and explored the area. While Georgetown remains larger and more often visited today, Silver Plume is a must-see destination almost directly across Interstate 70.

Idaho Springs, Colorado: Always on the Main Trail

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine in 2006.

Cars whizzing up and down Interstate 70 in Colorado today just might miss Idaho Springs. They don’t know what they’re missing, for Idaho Springs offers history, taverns and restaurants (don’t miss Beau Jo’s Pizza), cool old hotels, museums, natural hot vapor caves and much, much more. The town also serves as the perfect hub while visiting numerous historic sites, not to mention slots and other games of chance in nearby Central City and Black Hawk.

In its very early days, Idaho Springs went by many other names: Idaho, Idahoe, Idaho Bar, Idaho City, Jackson Bar, Payne’s Bar and Sacramento. The earliest name was Jackson’s Diggings, so-called for 32-year old George Jackson’s gold discoveries along Chicago Creek in 1858. Jackson’s diggings coincided with the discovery of a natural hot springs at Idaho Springs, an attraction very much alive and well today.

During its stint as Idaho, the original town was established in 1860 and quickly grew to include thousands of residents. It was said that Idaho is an Indian word for “A Gem of the Rockies”. Within a year there was at least one saloon and gambling house, and two hotels including the Bebee House with its substantial menu, run by F.W. Bebee. There also were about 40 homes in town. The first post office, established in 1862, was a wooden box kept in the living room of Mrs. R.B. Griswold.

In time, the budding camp became so popular that the name Idaho was considered for the new name of Colorado Territory in 1876. The ploy didn’t work, since by then new discoveries in Virginia Canyon (known locally as Oh My God Road) above town had overshadowed the findings at Idaho. A toll road was built through Virginia Canyon to Central City, and Idaho Springs realized additional commerce by becoming a supply town.

In addition, the natural hot springs in town drew people for their health. Like much of Colorado, invalids, tuberculosis patients and tourists in general sought out the healing mineral springs at Idaho Springs. In 1863 Dr. E.S. Cummings erected the first bath house there. Although the early resort was only in use about three years, it was the first of many such spas to come. The year 1868 saw an even bigger bath house as stage coach service was made available to Idaho Springs. The following year, William Hunter built a large log theater and called it Rock Island House. Idaho Springs’ first newspaper premiered in 1873.

The Colorado Central Railroad reached town in 1877. The post office name was changed to Idaho Springs in April of that year, and the town incorporated in 1878. Eventually, Idaho Springs became County Seat of Clear Creek County and was considered an important town in the central mining belt. A Mining Exchange was built in 1879. Castle Eyrie, one of the town’s most prominent homes at 1828 Illinois Street, was completed in 1881, as well as the elite Club Hotel.

Idaho Springs had spent nearly twenty years building up a substantial reputation in Colorado. By 1885, however, the town’s population was inexplicably shrinking. Only 2,000 people were recorded there in 1887. The Placer Inn, now known as the Tommyknocker Brewery & Pub, was built in 1898. The gorgeous Buffalo Bar, still a mainstay of Idaho Springs, opened in 1899. Through 1900, the population was staying steady at 1,900 souls.

Idaho Springs remained unique in that it served many purposes. Vapor Caves, still in operation today, continued to make the place a popular health resort. Nearby mines and a smelter kept the town up with Colorado’s economy. Given its location, Idaho Springs also continued to serve as a supply town and final stopover before prospectors headed further west to Colorado’s goldfields – as well as broke miners returning East.

Lots of towns depended on Idaho Springs. Nearby Masonville was founded in 1859 and named for pioneer Alonzo Mason. Another town, called Ofer or Ophir City, was established in 1860.  Spanish Bar, named for its Mexican miners, lasted for about a year beginning in 1860. The quartz camp of Freeland was established in 1880. That same year, Fall River with its mills and early silver discoveries popped up near the junction of Clear Creek. In 1884, Bonito with it Bullion Smelter appeared on maps. All of these places regarded Idaho Springs as the “big city” where supplies, comfortable hotels and restaurants could be found.

And there were more, such as the milling center that was first called Mill City and later Dumont. There were stage stops, such as Downeyville, and in time several railroad stops also materialized along the railroad running  by Idaho Springs. They included the original stage stop of Floyd’s Hill. Fork’s Creek became a key railroad station with branches to both Black Hawk and Idaho Springs. There were even nearby resort towns, including Silver Creek for Denver socialites (one time, a formal dance was actually held underground in the newly excavated O’Connell Tunnel).

Other wide spots on the trails to Idaho Springs included the tiny camp of Bard Creek; Conqueror with its large boarding house; Empire and North Empire where lawyers were actually forbidden to practice by law; the braggart town of Gilson Gulch located between Idaho Springs and Central City; Lamartine high in the hills above town; Red Elephant, and Virginia City. Most of these towns no longer exist today, with the exception of Empire and its 1862 Peck House, Colorado’s oldest continuously operating hotel.

In 1892 the 5-mile long Argo Tunnel, originally named the Newhouse, was built from Idaho Springs to Central City. The cost was $10 million. Idaho Springs soon became a catch-all for surrounding towns that were dying out. Beginning about 1900, school children were brought in from the nearby town of Alice, which had experienced moderate success when the Alice Mine sold for $250,000 in 1897, but was quickly becoming a ghost. Nearby towns, such as Ninety Four (founded in 1894) and Silver City met a similar fate.

By 1949, due to Interstate 70 cutting directly through town, author Muriel Sybil Wolle claimed the population had swelled to 12,000. In 1958, Interstate 70 was redirected, but the change was hardly detrimental to Idaho Springs. By the 1970’s Idaho Springs’ many historic watering holes had become legendary. Some of them have gone to the wayside, but the town now offers everything from family dining to night life. Although parts of it have been paved, Virginia Canyon Road still offers a breathtaking trip to Central City. Idaho Springs has always, and remains, a perfect stop over for travelers heading east or west.

Alpine, Colorado: the Town That Wouldn’t Die

Portions of this article first appeared in Colorado Central magazine.

c 2017 by Jan MacKell Collins

There is much to say about Colorado ghost towns that have found new life in more recent years. While some places have simply vanished, others have been regenerated in one form or another. One such place is Alpine, located about twelve miles from Nathrop on Highway 162.

One hundred and forty years ago, Alpine began as a supply stop on the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railway. Although the first house was supposedly built in 1877 by B.L. Riggins, Alpine’s post office actually opened in October of 1874. A Colonel Chapman, whose first name appears lost to history, was the first mayor.

Alpine chugged along nicely as a whistlestop on the railroad until May of 1880, when the town incorporated. The area was growing as minerals were discovered. In time the Black Crook, the Britenstein, the Livingston, the Mary Murphy and the Tilden would be amongst the many mines around Alpine. Chapman would soon build the Tilden Smelting & Sampling Works, employing roughly 40 men to process up to 30 tons of ore daily. Alpine’s cemetery had already been established with the death of James W. Couch in January.

Most references to Alpine claim there were over 500 people there during 1880. Locals interviewed during the 1940’s put the number at two thousand or more. Their estimates, however, may have included those who lived outside the city limits, for the actual 1880 census shows only 335 people in Alpine proper.

Most of the men in town were employed in mining. Over a dozen stores, including general merchandise and drugstores, were in business. Bakeries and restaurants fed the people. Several hotels were open, including the Arcade and the Badger. There were at least two barbers, four or more blacksmiths, and several attorneys. A lumberyard sold timber. There was even a real estate office and three banks. A stage company took travelers to nearby St. Elmo and beyond.

Some of Alpine’s residents commuted to work elsewhere, for in 1880 construction began on the Alpine Tunnel a few miles away. The purpose of the tunnel, which was largely financed by Colorado Governor John Evans, was to extend the rails of the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad to Gunnison. At over 11,500′ in elevation, Alpine Tunnel was no place for the weak. The railroad ended up offering free transportation to any man who came to work on the tunnel. Over 10,000 men took the job over time, but many subsequently quit due to the altitude.

Workers at the tunnel were housed in six cabins on the west end, and there was also a settlement called Atlantic on the east end. There is little doubt, however, that at least some of the laborers chose the cozier quarters at Alpine, and history has sometimes confused the town with the tunnel, as well as Alpine Station not far from town. But only Alpine had any real entertainment. There were between two and 23 saloons depending on the source. A two story dance hall also provided a place for the only two musicians in town to play.  

The rough environment at Alpine was proven, at least in part, by the shooting of G.W. McIlhany in August. The census does, however, record Police Judge C.R. Fitch and at least three police officers, including a city marshal. Even so, life at Alpine could be quite gritty; in July, Patrick Dempsey had been dead nearly three months when his body was found in nearby Grizzly Gulch, his head crushed by a boulder.

Alpine’s rough reputation was furthered by the lack of many churches in town, although the site of at least one house of worship remains. There was also a Sunday school run by one of the ladies in town. Perhaps a lack of any other proper culture was what inspired the owner of Alpine’s newspaper, the True Fissure, to pick up his printing press and move to St. Elmo.

In 1881 a school was at last provided by George Knox, although the town was yet so wild that it was said Knox declined to bring his own wife and seven children to Alpine. But there were families, as illustrated by the 1880 census, as well as the death of three-year-old Mattie Pitts in 1882. By then, however, St. Elmo was growing so fast that it quickly usurped Alpine as a place of importance.

Folks remained at Alpine longer than most believe. Burials continued at Alpine’s little cemetery, and it was not until 1904 that the post office closed. The Alpine Tunnel collapsed in 1910, killing some men who were overcome by coal smoke. The tunnel was never rebuilt since several area mines, including the Mary Murphy, were shutting down for good. Alpine’s fate as a ghost town was sealed. Or was it?

Over time, some buildings blew over while others were moved. But at least a few homes remained occupied by itinerants well into the 1920’s. Two of them, notably, were Pearline “Princess” Zabriskie and her friend, Napoleon Jones. Zabriskie in particular was interesting because she claimed to be a Polish princess and wrote a paper on the value of molybdenum and uranium in the region.

In reality, according to the 1920 census when both Zabriskie and Jones lived in St. Elmo, “Lady Zabriskie” was born in Nebraska. She also moved around a lot, taking up in empty homes not just at Alpine, but also St. Elmo and other area towns including Romley and Hancock. In 1924 she was found frozen to death and buried in Salida. Likewise for Jones, who lived mostly at St. Elmo from 1900 until he too died in 1928. His obituary claimed he was the last official resident of Alpine.

When historian Muriel Sibell Wolle visited Alpine in 1949, there were still a few buildings standing, and the area was becoming a popular recreation area. People began building summer homes and fixed up some of the remaining buildings. Today it is difficult to discern the old from the new, but some of the original Alpine remains to an extent. The Alpine Cemetery also remains as a testament to the original town, even if the graveyard is located next to a newer home. Of the 39 graves, only a few markers remained as late as 1986 and the grounds may be on private property. Even so, a visit to the area is still worth the trip.