c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins
There’s nothing quite so good as waking up on a sunny morning and hearing, “Wanna go 4-wheeling?” For me and my companion, whoever says it first, it’s nearly the same as hearing we just won a cruise. Except the only cruise we ever seem inclined to go on is the cruise we take over hundreds of miles of back roads. Yup, 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. In the 30+ years we have spent—together and separately—bumping over faded pathways and careening around rock slide corners, we’ve seen a lot of old towns come and go, but mostly go. 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 that make us sad, but also places that make us happy because they are still standing and well-preserved. But having watched some of our favorite towns fade away, we’ve 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.
Prior to moving back to my native state of Arizona from Colorado, I spent decades rambling over precarious mountain passes, barely passable roads and overgrown trails in search of Colorado’s past. Unfortunately, with each passing year more fences appeared. Roads were gated. New homes were built right next to, and sometimes even on, cemeteries where the graves of the very pioneers who got us here lay forgotten. In the last five years I was there, aghast at no longer being able to access a place or encountering some new property owner who was too greedy to even recognize the true treasure they had, I heard myself muttering, “This is not the Colorado I fell in love with.” Now, in Arizona, I am quickly learning that the state has been too slow in preserving what they have left. Lots of ghost towns are still highly accessible, but the search and the trip to find them often yields nothing more than an empty field.
Fortunately, there are several alternatives to fighting against our places of the past facing imminent destruction. Evidence of this is becoming clear and more common in Colorado. One idea is to have a caretaker on-site during the months the town is accessible. They do this at Ashcroft, located near Aspen. 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 by residents. Such is the case with places like Bonanza and Crestone, north of Alamosa. Both have been occupied in recent years 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. Take 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. 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 two 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 amongst the old ones.
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 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.
One place in particular that seems to have stood the test of time is Animas Forks, despite having no caretaker. 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. 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 house and 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 adult statues, 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 worked hard to raise funding to restore the statue, and a memorial event commemorated their efforts in 2005.
Thankfully, History Colorado (aka the Colorado Historical Society) continues to play a bigger part in preservation and stabilization efforts these days. Seems one can’t access any of the better known ghosts without seeing a sign regarding preservation efforts by the CHS. 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 just some of the places receiving funding from the state. 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 state has been working to slowly but surely renovate the buildings at Boggsville, and the project is nearly complete. At Empire, located north of I-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.”
So what to do? You can start by remembering the old adage about visiting ghost towns: Take only pictures, leave only footprints—unless the place is slated for demolition with no archeological digs or documentation planned. In that case, photograph what you find, carefully remove what artifacts you can with permission, document and photograph where you found them, and donate them to the nearest museum. There are indeed those wrapped in government bureaucracy who insist this last idea is wrong, and further submit that historic structures should never be moved in order to protect them from destruction. Better to know exactly where their history occurred, they say, than to move a building and confuse people as to the site of its original footprint. Let it fall. I disagree. After years of leaving something in place only to see it up for sale in a local shop or on EBay, I prefer being the rogue historian who saves a piece of history and assures it is preserved for all future generations to enjoy.
Better yet, joining local historical societies, History Colorado and Colorado Preservation Inc., the state’s leading preservation organization, will help keep you up to date and get you involved not only in finding ghost towns, but assisting in their preservation. Using a five-point criteria (significant events, significant persons, unique architectural points, geographic importance, and/or important discoveries related to prehistory or history), the History Colorado accepts nominations every year for everything from Indian campsites to trails to bridges and mountains to structures and even whole cities. To contact Colorado Preservation Inc., access their website at http://www.coloradopreservation.org. History Colorado can be accessed at http://www.coloradohistory.org.
In 2012 Anaconda, the last of over 20 abandoned towns in the famed Cripple Creek District of Colorado, was bulldozed and molded into the latest pit for a gold mine.