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.

A Quick Synopsis of Animas Forks, Colorado

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Animas Forks, now a highly popular ghost town, was officially founded in 1877. People had already built cabins on the site as early as 1873. Three years later there were thirty cabins, a general store and one saloon, and the postoffice had been operating for a year. Since hundreds of miners were already working silver claims in the area, the need for a town was more than welcome.

Animas Forks’ first newspaper, the Animas Forks Pioneer, began printing in 1882 and remained in business until 1886. The population in 1883 was 450. At the time, many residents lived in the town year round. Because the dwellings of Animas Forks were more modern than those occupied by typical miners cabins of the day, roughing out the winter wasn’t as harsh. Rather, many homes were made from milled lumber and featured such Victorian decor as gabled roofs and bay windows. But winters could be brutal, with twenty foot drifts and snowslides. After an 1884 blizzard lasting 23 days buried Animas Forks under 25 feet of snow, many residents began spending their winters in Silverton.

Earl mines included the Big Giant, Black Cross, Columbus, Eclipse, Iron Gap, Little Roy and Red Cloud. Two smelting and reduction works processed ores. Travelers could access the town from Silverton, but also Lake City. The latter route really began at Rose’s Cabin along Engineer Pass on what was called the Hensen Creek and Uncompahgre Toll Road. The fare was $3.00 per person for the twenty-two mile trip. In time, Otto Mears’ Silverton-Northern Railroad Company also reached the town.

Even at 11,584 feet in elevation, Animas Forks’ population soon grew to roughly 1500 people. Serving the miners, citizens and visitors were two assay offices, numerous shops, a hotel and several saloons. Beginning at the turn of 1900, mining profits began to decline. Investments lagged. In 1904, a last stab at profitable mining was made with the construction of the Gold Prince Mill. Unfortunately, the even the convenience of Mears’ railroad could not save the town. The mill closed in 1910.

For a time, Animas Forks became a popular stop on the railroad because of the many wildflowers blooming around town in summer. In 1911, Mears sponsored a special trip on his railroad, called the “Columbine Special”. The purpose of the trip was to gather a many of Colorado’s state flowers as possible for an upcoming convention in Denver. In all, passengers picked an amazing 25,000 flowers for the event.

In 1917, major pieces of the Gold Prince Mill were moved to Eureka. Mining waned further, and Animas Forks was a ghost town by the 1920’s. The Silverton-Northern Railroad tracks were removed in 1942, and the town settled into quiet desolation. In the decades since, ghost town tourists rediscovered the abandoned buildings, and Animas Forks remains a popular destination. The famed Duncan house, which survives with its beautiful bay window, has been repaired and restored in recent years, as have some of the remaining cabins around town. Animas Forks remains one of the most picturesque ghost towns Colorado has to offer.

 

 

Early Fur Trappers Around Huerfano Butte, Colorado

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in Backwoodsman magazine

Picture today’s Huerfano County in southern Colorado, circa 1700: the prairies roll out like a natural carpet over rolling hills, interrupted by the occasional rocky ridge or mountain range slicing through the plains. Strange and wonderful rock formations and patches of fauna, including a rainbow of colorful prairie flowers, enhance the landscape. Antelope, deer and smaller animals roam the hills at will. The skies are strikingly blue most days and pitch black at night as a million stars shine across the prairie grass. Wind and snow strike in winter, making travel and shelter difficult. The land is noticeably quiet, save for the occasional village built by Native Americans, and a few Spanish or Anglo explorers as they pass through.

There is water too, from creeks to streams to rivers. The Huerfano River, the largest in the county, winds its way nearly through the middle of the land. The river has been known by many names: “Chiopo” during the 1700’s, “Rio San Juan de Baptista” during General Juan de Ulibarri’s expedition in 1706, “San Antonio” when Spanish explorer Antonio Valverde traveled through in 1719, and “Rio Dolores”, so-named by Juan Bautista de Anza in 1779. Explorer Stephen H. Long called it “Wharf Creek” in 1823, and Thomas Farnham bastardized the name to “Rio Wolfano” in 1839. Soon after, the river officially became known by its present name.

The Huerfano River actually takes its name from a small volcanic hill of the same name located halfway between today’s Colorado City and Walsenburg. Spanish for “orphan”, Huerfano Butte was, and is, highly visible to travelers from all directions. Spanish explorers are said to have visited the area as early as 1594. Two Frenchmen, identified in history books only as the Mallett Brothers, may have been the first Anglo-Americans to pass through the area in 1739.

The Malletts were thought to have traveled over Sangre de Cristo Pass along an ancient Indian trail. Ten years after the Malletts visited the area, a group of French traders told their Spanish captors in Taos that Comanches had guided them over the pass. The Spanish subsequently found Sangre de Cristo Pass (Spanish for “Blood of Christ”) and began using it alongside the Native Americans for the next seventy years as they continued exploring Colorado. Anglo and French pioneers also arrived, and the region became known as an excellent place to hunt and trade. Sangre de Cristo Pass soon gained the nickname of “Trapper’s Trail” as more men used it to travel between Huerfano Butte and Taos.

Huerfano Butte was also conveniently located near the Huerfano River, making it a prime landmark for those seeking any settlements in the region. The first of them was a small Spanish fort built along Trapper’s Trail at a place called Huerfano Canon. The fort was likely built near the place known today as Badito, in 1819. The fort was actually built in an effort to ward off attacks from Anglos and others. Within a few months, however, a band of 100 men “dressed like Indians” attacked the fort. Six Spaniards were killed; the survivors fled.

The desire of incoming pioneers to explore and settle the area, the abandonment of the fort, the growing popularity of Sangre de Cristo Pass and the dawn of the fur trade in Colorado brought many changes to the Huerfano Valley within a very short time. The area made for excellent hunting and trapping year round. Beaver, buffalo, venison and a host of other game was readily available. Trapper’s Trail provided a viable means to transport goods to Taos. Thus, between 1820 and 1835 many more forts were constructed in the region at which to conduct trade. They included Gantt’s Fort and Fort William (a.k.a. Bent’s Stockade), both built along the Arkansas River 1832.

When Gantt’s Fort folded in 1834, William Bent relocated Fort William some seventy miles east along the Arkansas in order to be closer to buffalo ranges and plains Indians. Regular trappers around Huerfano Butte had no problem making the trip to sell and trade their wares, especially since they could easily hunt, camp and trade along the way. In a short time, Bent’s New Fort was the hot spot for doing business. At the time, the fort was identified as being at what was then the Mexican border, and was the only place to trade between Missouri and Taos.

In time, many of the trappers and fur traders around Huerfano Butte were contracted to keep Bent’s Fort supplied with buffalo meat and robes. They included Bill New, Levin Mitchell, plus several others who camped along the Huerfano River, took trapping expeditions into the mountains and held their own smaller rendezvous’ in preparation to take their goods and money to the fort. In the meantime William Bent, along with his brothers Charles and George, plus trader Ceran St. Vrain, worked to improve the Bent’s Fort.

The fur trade began declining beginning about 1840 as Europe began favoring silk hats over those made of beaver. For traders around Huerfano Butte, however, trapping remained a staple of the economy for several more decades. During the 1840’s another, closer trading post was established at Badito between Huerfano Butte and Sangre de Cristo Pass. There was also Greenhorn near today’s Colorado City, favored because of its namesake creek and shady trees. Both Badito and Greenhorn were accessible within a day or so ride, depending on the goods being hauled. Both also persevered through constant Indian threats, especially throughout the 1840’s.

Ex-trapper John Brown deserves credit for officially establishing Greenhorn, although French-Canadian and American fur trappers had already long favored the place for camping and trading. Over the next decade, visitors and residents at Greenhorn included such historic characters as Archibald Metcalf, Marcelino Baca, Kit Carson, Jim Dickey, Jim Swannick, William Guerrier, Charles Kinney, Alexander Barclay and Bill New. Over at Bent’s Fort, no less than forty-four fur traders remained gainfully employed by 1842.

More and more explorers began looking for Huerfano Butte. Amongst them was a party comprised of John W. Gunnison, Lieutenant Edward Griffin Beckwith and Richard Kern. John C. Fremont also made frequent trips through the area. On his last expedition in December of 1853 Fremont’s daguerrotypist, Solomon Carvalho, captured what was surely the first photograph of Huerfano Butte. Carvalho actually suggested in his memoirs that an equestrian statue of Fremont should be placed on the butte. Senator Thomas Benton also suggested that the butte be carved into a giant statue of Christopher Columbus pointing West.

Thankfully, nobody ever came back to carve up Huerfano Butte. Trappers and traders continued living in the area, sometimes venturing as far as Hardscrabble some 50 miles northwest. Maurice Le Duc had a store there in 1853, and most of the occupants were French and American traders, Mexicans and fur trappers with their Indian wives. The next year, following a smallpox outbreak amongst the Utes, the Indians attacked both Hardscrabble and Fort Pueblo. They believed goods traded to them by Anglos were contaminated with smallpox germs on purpose.

Following the battles, things settled down and fur traders and trappers continued working to live peacefully amongst Native Americans. In 1859, a community called Huerfano was identified as being approximately fifteen miles south of Alexander Hicklin’s ranch near today’s Colorado City. Hicklin’s, the only Anglo hostelry between Pueblo and Taos, was located just over the hill from Greenhorn. A good friend of Alexander Hicklin’s, Boanerges “Bo” Boyce (more correctly identified amongst historians as a Frenchman named Beaubois), homesteaded just a short distance from Huerfano Butte. Between them, Hicklin and Beaubois were able to establish an even better network amongst traders and trappers.

Together, Beaubois and Hicklin also influenced area settlers. As the Civil War loomed on the horizon Colorado, which was not yet a state, was claimed by the Union. Beaubois and Hicklin, the latter of whom hailed from Missouri, were southern sympathizers. In 1862 Leander and Norbert Berard, Louis Joseph Clothier, Leon Constantine, French Pete and Antoine Labrie—all former employees of Bent, St. Vrain & Company—helped found Butte Valley along with a John Brown (it should be noted that this John Brown was not the same John Brown who established Greenhorn). The community as a whole decided, probably at the urging of Hicklin and Beaubois, to side with the south.

Furthermore, Alexander Hicklin was harboring rebel fugitives and secretly fighting against the union by posing as a mail station to gain information. The clever farmer would sell beef to Union troops who were heading south. However, the cattle always seemed to scatter in the dead of night near Butte Valley, and most of them found their way back to the Hicklin Ranch. Residents of Butte Valley also knew to direct southern rebels to the ranch, where Hicklin would send them up into a mountain hideout near Beulah to receive training and arms.

Union troops largely ignored Butte Valley until the summer of 1864, when Jim Reynolds’ notorious Reynolds Gang began robbing stagecoaches in southern Colorado. After a skirmish near Canon City, one gang member was killed and another arrested. The prisoner revealed the gang was headed for Butte Valley. Lt. George Shoup of the First Colorado Cavalry later claimed he had sent word to Butte Valley for the men to be detained should they appear. But residents of the community were either unaware of or chose to ignore Shoup’s command when only two gang members passed through. The men purchased supplies and went on their way without incident. When it was learned that the bandits had been allowed to leave Butte Valley, Shoup had the entire population arrested. Only John Brown later returned to the area and later ran a grocery store in Walsenburg (founded circa 1870). The other residents fled and were never heard from again.

Butte Valley was replaced in about 1864 by Huerfano Canon, also known as Huerfano Crossing, at the site of Badito. The community had two general stores, a post office and a teacher. Beaubois sold his ranch to Ceran St. Vrain in 1865 and moved to Greenhorn, where he was killed within a year by an irate sharecropper. A post office, named Little Orphan after Huerfano Butte, was established at Badito on May 1, 1865. Four months later the post office was renamed Badito and in 1866 became the county seat of Huerfano County.

Dozens of settlements continued to pop up in Huerfano County over the next hundred years. Some, such as Walsenburg, Cucharas, La Veta and Gardner (established as Huerfano Canyon circa 1871), still exist as small and charming communities. Others went through a series of names and changes before becoming ghosts. They included Spanish Peak and Fort Francisco (both now part of LaVeta); Malachite and Tom Sharp’s Trading Post, Huerfano Crossing (later Farisita), Quebec (later called Scissors and Capps, circa 1880), Rouse, Apache, Santa Clara, Maitland, Pryor, Muriel, Orlando, Winchell, Mayne, McGuire, Larimer, and many others after the turn of the century. All lived amazing short lives and have been virtually forgotten.

Badito contined serving as a rest stop along stage routes and Trapper’s Trail until about 1873. The community of Huerfano no longer exists and many historians are confused as to its exact whereabouts. Huerfano County slowly moved into a new era as a farming and ranching area supplemented by the railroad. The area as a whole began experiencing a population decline in the late 1950’s. But the region does still uphold its historic roots with several museums and no less than an amazing twenty or so burial grounds in the vicinity. The burials are testimonials to all of the pioneers of the area, including the fur traders and trappers that once inhabited this area.

Ashcroft: A Premiere Colorado Ghost Town

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

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

High up in the hills near Aspen lies Ashcroft, one of the best preserved ghost towns in Colorado. During summer, Ashcroft fairly comes alive with visitors who love to walk along the old roads and explore the nine buildings comprising what is left of the town. Although it is still highly accessible during winter, the snowy months drive away tourists as Ashcroft—altitude 9500’— settles into slumber and waits for spring thaw.

Ashcroft had its beginnings during the winter of 1879-80, when miner Thomas E. Ashcraft joined 22 other prospectors in Castle Creek Valley. Named for the castle-like spires on nearby Castle Peak, the valley was identified by the Hayden geological survey as having valuable silver deposits. Despite threats from Ute Indians, Ashcraft stuck it out and soon laid out a small settlement called Highland. A short time later, Ashcraft and his fellow miners moved a short distance from Highland and named their new camp Castle Forks City, a name they also assigned to their placer mine. Highland flourished for a short time before succumbing to the popularity of Ashcroft.

A Miner’s Protective Association was soon formed, with each of the 97 members having an equal say in Castle Forks’ future. Eight hundred and sixty four lots were sold at $5 each. The idea of renaming the picturesque little town soon came under fire. According to postal records, Castle Fork’s post office was first known as Ashcroft as of August 12, 1880 (the census taker called it Ashcraft when he came around a week later). Even at that early date, there were 130 people living there. Their numbers included several miners, but also an assayer, a mason, a merchant, a restaurant owner, a saloon keeper, a surveyor and two blacksmiths. A surprising five entrepreneurs, a news reporter and even a government scout were included in the eclectic total. And, there was nary a woman around.

The following year, the postmaster general assigned the name of Chloride. But local miners were calling the place Ashcroft by the time that name was reassigned in January of 1882. John R. Nelson was the first postmaster. As was the case with so many mining camps, the town grew quickly. Initially Ashcroft was only accessible via Taylor Pass, an extremely rough road that was closed through winter. Wagons traversing the pass were required to stop, disassemble the vehicle, raise or lower it over 40-foot cliffs, and reassemble it before moving on.

The Carson Brothers Stage Line made its debut in 1881 and charged travelers $2 for a ride to Buena Vista and points in between via Cottonwood Pass or Independence Pass. Two other stage lines eventually served Ashcroft as well. Easier access made Ashcroft a gateway to Aspen, while telegraph poles along Taylor Pass enhanced communications. Famous visitors to Ashcroft included Bob Ford, the killer of outlaw Jesse James, and silver magnates Horace and Baby Doe Tabor. In fact, Tabor purchased interests in the Tam O’Shanter and Montezuma mines and built a lavish home at Ashcroft that included gold-encrusted wallpaper. Whenever Baby Doe visited, Tabor declared a holiday and bought drinks for everyone.

By 1882 the $5 lots were selling for as much as $400 and by 1883 Ashcroft had outgrown the nearby town of Aspen. Some historians place the population of 1,000 and others 2,500. The residency consisted mostly of miners and was served by two newspapers the Herald and the Journal. There were also two sawmills, a school, a courthouse and jail, a theater and an amazing 20 saloons. There were also four hotels: the Farrell, Fifth Avenue, Riverside and St. Cloud. Main and Castle were the two main streets.

Unfortunately, much of the silver ore mined around Ashcroft was low grade. The town of Aspen began to grow. Aspen’s mines also excelled where Ashcroft’s did not, and local mining strikes also affected the town. Sealing its doom was the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s decision not to extend their tracks to Ashcroft. Very quickly, Aspen came into the limelight while Ashcroft faded into the past.

Ashcroft’s population had dwindled to 100 souls by 1885 with a mere $5.60 left in the city treasury. Many of Ashcroft’s citizens moved to Aspen, often lifting their cabins right off the foundations and moving them as well. There were 75 residents in 1900, but the number still only included three women. Ashcroft’s population was nearly depleted by 1906 when the town was sold to a New York syndicate. When the population was reduced to nine residents, the post office finally closed in 1912.

Eventually only two residents remained at Ashcroft: poet and former postmaster Dan McArthur and former saloon owner John “Jack” Leahy, who had helped form a union during the strikes. A resident of Ashcroft for some 57 years, Leahy also offered legal advice and served as a justice of the peace. Interestingly, his services were never required in an official court of law, and in later years he became known as the Hermit of Ashcroft. When Leahy died in 1939, he was the last official resident of the town.

Ashcroft next caught the attention of sports figure Theodore Ryan and Olympic gold medalist Billy Fiske, who wanted to turn it into a ski resort. The pair built the Highland-Bavarian Lodge in anticipation of constructing an aerial tramway to the top of Mount Hayden. World War II put a stop to the plans when Fiske died in action. Ryan was also drafted and but offered to lease Ashcroft to the 10th Mountain Division for only a dollar per year. But the army was already using Camp Hale near Leadville and while some training exercises took place at Ashcroft, the small town never reached its full potential as a base camp. A decision to move the ski resort to Aspen was Ashcroft’s final undoing.

After the war, dogsled operator Stuart Mace became a caretaker at Ashcroft in exchange for using the land for his sleds. Mace, his huskies and Ashcroft were all featured in the 1950’s television series “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.” Stuart and his wife also ran the Toklat Restaurant at Ashcroft, and their descendants have turned the building into an exclusive gallery with crafts from all over the world. The Mace’s also saved the town from land developers by donating its 15 acres to the Forest Service in 1953. The Aspen Historical Society began working in 1974 to preserve what was left of the town.

Today, Ashcroft is a great place to snow shoe in a quiet mountain valley. There is a caretaker nearby and a fee of $3.00. From Aspen, take Highway 82 west. At the roundabout, take Castle Creek Road for approximately 11 miles. The road is paved all the way to Ashcroft, but the ancient streets of the town will remind you of how it must have looked over a century ago.

 

 

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.

The Woman Who Dressed as a Man

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Colorado Gamber and the Ute Pass Vacation Guide.

It was a hot, dusty and dry Colorado August day in 1899 as the Colorado Midland Railroad chugged into the one horse town of Florissant. As the train came to a stop at the depot, the restless population looked on as passengers disembarked from the train. In such a sleepy town, the coming of the train was always an event to look forward to. New faces bearing news from Colorado Springs were always welcome, and residents yearned for anything fresh to break up the monotony of everyday life.

One woman in particular seemed to stand out from the crowd on the depot platform. For one thing, she was alone and no one was there to greet her—a most unusual circumstance in those times. Furthermore, the gal hardly seemed lost or lonely. Rather, she bore a determined look on her face as she gazed up and down the street. Upon spying the nearest hotel, the woman gathered her bags up and made for the lodge as if she had a mission in mind.

Once the lone traveler had disappeared within the depths of the hotel, the folks watching the train forgot all about her. The exception may have been a reporter for the Cripple Creek Times, who was in town skulking around for fresh news. Alas, there just plain wasn’t much going on. So when the mysterious femme was next seen leaving the hotel dressed in men’s clothing, she became front page news.

In 1899, cross dressing—as most state and city ordinances referred to it—was most inappropriate, as well as downright illegal. Notorious western corset-busters such as Calamity Jane and Pearl Hart were one thing. But this woman had actually appeared quite refined before her change from a ladies’ dress to men’s pantaloons. To make matters worse, the seeming suffragette refused to even acknowledge the odd looks coming her way as she walked with purpose out of town. According the newspaper she was next seen headed toward Guffey in the Freshwater Mining District, that determined look still sparkling in her eye.

For three days, the Cripple Creek Times continued to speculate on the woman’s activities. The hotel front desk yielded little information, except that the lady was from somewhere back east. She had spoken very little, paid cash, and left her room without checking at the desk. As the girl presumably continued her journey to Guffey, newsmongers scrambled for some clues as to her motives and interviewed witnesses as to her whereabouts.

The mystery was finally solved on the third day, when the Times published the rest of the story. Apparently, the woman’s fiancé had suddenly abandoned her in the east, and subsequent inquiries revealed he had taken up with another woman whose expansive ranch was located nearby. The lone traveler had disguised herself in men’s clothing in order to spy on the two and see just what they were up to.

The couple were not at the ranch when the she-man arrived, but a ranch hand remembered her visit. He said it was mighty curious that the young “man” was willingly greeted by the family dog. Also, he said, he began asking questions and leaning towards the cowpoke for closer look at his face. That was when the strange visitor took “his” leave.

That was the end of the story, at least as far as the Times was concerned, although there was some chatter in the paper about the fiance’s mother, who apparently had disapproved of the mysterious femme. Whether the lady reconciled with her unrequited lover remains unknown. But at the very least, she did make history as the first woman daring enough to walk the streets of Florissant dressed as the opposite sex.

The Mysterious Disappearance of Melinda Brolin

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Parts of this article originally appeared in the Ute Pass Vacation Guide in 2002.

Today’s “Old Colorado City”, located due west of Colorado Springs, Colorado, is filled with kitschy shops, great restaurants and comfy pubs. Most of them are housed in beautiful historic buildings, some dating back to the late 1800’s. From the time it was founded in 1859 to its annexation to Colorado Springs in the early 1900’s, Colorado City fairly howled with history in the way of saloons, gambling and giddy girls.

When Colorado Springs was founded as the elite “Saratoga of the West” in 1874, there was naturally an uproar over the goings-on in bawdy Colorado City. Liquor, gambling houses and prostitution was outlawed in the new town, but in the old town the owners of such places found plenty of ways to carry on business out of the prying eyes of newspapers and the law. One system employed involved an underground tunnel system, whereby one could enter a respectable store or restaurant, access a tunnel, and come out at a tavern, gambling den or brothel.

In time, everyone knew about the tunnels. And although some of the old tunnels survive even today, not much has been found to document what actually went on inside of them. There is one tale, largely folklore in nature, that tells of a young lady who went into one of these tunnels-and never came back out. Her name was Melinda Brolin.

At the time, there was a new rush to the Cripple Creek District, just on the other side of Pikes Peak from Colorado City. Miners were flooding into Colorado City on their way to the goldfields. One of them was Ben Kelly, who left his Chicago home to find his riches in 1899. As was common Kelly left behind the love of his life—our heroine—with the promise to send for her as soon as his prospects looked good.

Six months after Kelly’s departure, Melinda grew impatient and came west herself. She landed in Colorado City, securing a waitress job in a restaurant at today’s 2625 West Colorado Avenue, until she could afford the trek up Ute Pass to Cripple Creek. Colorado City proved to be a friendly place full of friendly people. As months went by, Melinda thought less and less of the beau who had not bothered to send for her. Eventually she found another man and made Colorado City her permanent home.

Back then, Colorado City was practically a sister city to Cripple Creek. The Golden Cycle Mill along today’s Highway 24 processed Cripple Creek ore, and thousands of people divided their time between the two cities. In time, Ben Kelly heard that Melinda was in Colorado City. He also heard about her new lover. A fit of jealousy overtook him and he hopped on the next train for Colorado City, intent on finding his cheating gal and exacting revenge.

By then, Melinda’s dedicated customers, as well as her new beau, were as loyal to Melinda as though she had lived in Colorado City all her life. When they heard Kelly was in town and looking for blood, they lost no time in informing Miss Melinda. The Irish lass quickly took refuge in the basement, disappearing into one of many tunnels underneath Colorado Avenue.

Kelly looked in vain for Melinda all over Colorado City, but nobody ever saw hide nor hair of her—ever again. Even after Kelly gave up and departed for Cripple Creek, Melinda failed to surface from the tunnel. A thorough search turned up nothing, and nobody recalled seeing a woman of her description emerge from either end.  No one ever knew what became of her, and some weeks after her disappearance the tunnel collapsed.

Melissa’s disappearance was the beginning of several strange happenstances. Local legend alleges that a week after the tunnel collapsed, Melinda’s former place of employment caught fire. Melinda’s forlorn lover in Colorado City died a mysterious death and his body was found in Fountain Creek. Shortly after that, even Ben Kelly met his end in a mine at Cripple Creek. If Melinda was around to hear of these fateful events, she never made herself known.

For decades following Melinda’s disappearance, her old workplace pretty much remained the site of generations of other restaurants and cafes. In about 1952 it was known as Baskett’s Cafe, and in 2002 was Gertrude’s Restaurant. These days, the place is an Irish pub called Alchemy. No matter the business, various owners dating as far back as 1900 have claimed there is a ghost. Perhaps in the end, Melinda never left her beloved workplace at all.