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.