Tag Archives: ghost towns

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.

Cameron & Pinnacle Park, the Playground of Colorado’s Cripple Creek District

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

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

In a high meadow between Victor and Cripple Creek, mining operations have obscured the ghost of a playground past.

During the 1890’s, when the Cripple Creek District emerged as the final winner in a series of gold booms throughout Colorado and the West, residents of the District’s 25 towns and mining camps worked hard for their money. Luxuries were few, with little time to relax and really enjoy life. So when the town of Cameron was born in a beautiful high meadow near Victor, the amusement center of Pinnacle Park was built to relieve the stress of everyday living. If only for a short time, Pinnacle Park served as an entertainment nucleus in Teller County.

It could be said that Cameron was technically one of the first cities in the District when it was formed in about February of 1892. Back then, however, the dream of Cameron and what it could become was just that: a dream conjured up by competing real estate investors. In the mad scramble to bring civilization to the former high country cow pasture, two towns—Hayden Placer and Fremont—were quickly established along the actual Cripple Creek itself. Soon, each fledgling community was battling for the strongest foothold, beginning with post office nominations. In the case of Hayden Placer, a post office established under the name Moreland was marketed to emphasize the community’s expansive property to prospective buyers.

In answer, Fremont founders and Denver real estate investors Horace Bennett and Julius Myers took the competition one step further. They filed a plat on the northeastern most section of the former Broken Box Ranch—actually the future site of Cameron—and called it Cripple Creek. The flat, expansive meadow would provide for the makings of a large metropolis, they reasoned, and those wishing to buy real estate would surely choose that over the steep hillside where Fremont and Hayden Placer were located some three miles away.

Alas, the endeavor was for naught. Within a short time Hayden Placer/Moreland and Fremont combined into one city anyway, and the name Cripple Creek was applied to them both. The original Cripple Creek faded so quickly that its funny little sidebar to the District’s history was forgotten almost immediately. It is interesting to speculate what could have happened had the original Cripple Creek remained in place. At the very least, the higher town would have been more easily accessible to the railroads who later served the area.

But in fact the “first” Cripple Creek remained empty until the Woods Investment Company from Victor purchased the land in 1899. By then the area was alternately known as Gassy, as well as Gassey and Grassy. The latter name fit best, since native grasses grew high along the meadows and rolling knolls of the area. With the Woods’ purchase of the land, folks began moving up to Grassy. A small, rural population merited mention in the 1900 Cripple Creek District Directory. By then, both the Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek District Railway (CS & CCDR) and the Midland Terminal Railroad (MTRR) skirted through the area, with offshoots to several other district towns.

Even as the Cripple Creek District was peaking in 1900, Grassy was first known only as a whistle stop on the railroads. But the Woods Investment Company was a veteran in the district. Headed by brothers Frank and Harry Woods, the company had already platted the city of Victor some years before and already owned the Gold Coin Mine, plus several other mines, in the district. Taking advantage of the gold boom, the Woods Brothers next founded the town of Cameron on the Grassy site. The origin of Cameron’s name is unknown, but it was a sure winner with two railroads chugging through it. A former stage stop was converted into the Midland Terminal Depot, and a new terminal was constructed for the CS & CCDR.

The latter railroad, alternately known as the Short Line, became known for its pragmatic efficiency. While the MTRR offered both freight and passenger service to Colorado Springs, the CS & CCDR offered riders a more scenic route that included ten tunnels and high mountain vistas. When Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took a ride on the Short Line in 1901, he expressed his satisfaction with the view by exclaiming, “This is the ride that bankrupts the English language!” No expense was spared on the railroad cars, which sported ornate club cars and jaunty yellow boxcars. Because Cameron had connecting trains to Cripple Creek and Victor, the place soon became a popular stopover for tourists wishing to rest or for miners going to and from their jobs.

Cameron’s status quickly grew to be that of a semi resort town. Learning from the devastating fires that destroyed the downtown sections of Cripple Creek in 1896 and Victor in 1899, Cameron built its small business district of brick. The well-known architect M. Lockwood McBird, whose designs the Woods used for many of the businesses in Victor, was also employed at Cameron. Most business houses were located along Cameron Avenue, including three saloons to appease thirsty miners. A newspaper, the Golden Crescent, was published for a short time at Cameron.

Not far from town, the Woods Brothers next built a giant amusement area, Pinnacle Park, for the families of the Cripple Creek District. The park spanned thirty acres and cost $32,000 to create. The amenities of any great amusement park of the day were there: a large wooden dance pavilion with a bandstand, a picnic area, restaurants, and arcade area for throwing balls at “rag babies”, and an athletic field with seating for up to a thousand spectators. Football and baseball games were the main attraction. Nearby, a zoo exhibited animals native to the area, including bears. There was also a children’s playground with swings and other attractions. Visitors could access Pinnacle Park by rail, horseback, carriage and on foot. Even the occasional automobile made an appearance at the elaborate log-framed entrance.

Labor Day of 1900 appears to have been the record breaker for attendance at Pinnacle Park, when an astounding nine thousand people attended for a day of festivities. Admission was ten cents per head, yielding $900 for the day. For a few glorious years, thousands of visitors came to Pinnacle Park every weekend and holiday during the summer. But despite Pinnacle Park’s popularity, Cameron’s resident population never exceeded over 700 people including the nearby suburb of Spinney Mills. Aside from Pinnacle Park, the town was just too far away from the District’s mines and other communities. Unable to make a profit, Pinnacle Park eventually closed. Soon after, the mines around Cameron began playing out and the rumor spread that the Woods boys were in financial trouble. Lot sales at Cameron dwindled considerably, a sure sign of death in the gold boom era.

By 1903, the population of Cameron was visibly shrinking as the Cripple Creek District was launched into the second of two notorious labor wars. Cameron was located dangerously close to the violent strikes taking place at nearby Altman and Bull Hill above Victor. Even after the strike was settled in 1904, Cameron continued suffering a slow death as residents drifted off to other communities. As of 1910, the population had diminished considerably and few people made their way to what was left of Pinnacle Park. The remnants of Cameron receded quietly into the tall grass and scattered pines.

The fancy log fence around Pinnacle Park, along with the pavilion, and accompanying amusements, was finally dismantled. For years a pile of the former natural log pillars were still visible below the undergrowth and the pine and aspen which grew to surround much of the site. Over the next century the meadow sat empty again, with only a few mining buildings scattered throughout the area. The city streets were no more, the business district and homes long gone. In the trees, several rounded brick and rock enclosures, once used to contain bears and wildcats at the zoo, could be found if one knew where to look. These were dismantled and moved by the City of Cripple Creek in 2010 with the plan to reconstruct them, as modern mining endeavors did away with the high grassy meadow. Today, no other clues exist of Cameron and its once popular Pinnacle Park.

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The legendary bear caves at Pinnacle Park before they were moved in 2009.

The Towns We Love to Love

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.

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Blackhawk Sports Early Colorado History

Copyright 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins. Portions of this article first appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine in 2006.

     Blackhawk has been called the “Mill City of the Rockies”, earning its nickname from an early mill. The Black Hawk Quartz Mill was built in 1860 by a company in Illinois, and was allegedly named for an Indian leader from the Sauk and Fox tribes from that state, as well as Wisconsin. Colorado was just a territory, and from 1862 to 1871, Black Hawk was known to the post office as Black Hawk Point.

      By 1863, Black Hawk Point featured a fine Presbyterian church, a school and at least nine hotels, including one later owned by silver king H.A.W. Tabor. One of Colorado Territory’s first cemeteries was located on Dory Hill. Both Black Hawk and Central City were incorporated on March 11, 1864. In its early years, however, Black Hawk was fraught with struggles to survive, despite some 13 saloons and three breweries. The town received a reprieve in the form of Nathaniel P. Hill, who built the town’s first smelter. Completed in 1867, the Boston and Colorado Smelting Works utilized a new process from Wales that melted gold ore. By Hill’s actions, Black Hawk Point’s dwindling population sprang back to life. In appreciation, a town near Silver Plume, located along today’s Interstate 70, was named for Hill.

     Over 25 smelters and mills proved to be Black Hawk Point’s mainstay throughout its early life. Since a number of mines surrounded the city, it was logical enough for the town to become a refining center in the middle of what locals called “The Little Kingdom of Gilpin”, which included many mines and mining camps. In time, upwards of 60 refineries lined the two-mile stretch along Black Hawk Point’s narrow canyon. Their employees made their homes along Main Street, Gregory Street and Chase Gulch.

     In 1871 the post office dropped the “Point”, shortening the name to Black Hawk. Soon there were 2,000 people calling the place home. Amenities included a skating rink, blacksmith shop, wagon shop, two banks, two theatres, four clothing stores and a good number of saloons. It was a gritty little town whose laws closely followed the code of the West. An ordinance against shooting proclaimed that “Any person shooting…another, except in self defense, shall be fined $500 and receive as many stripes on his bare back as a jury of six may direct.” Weekends featured dances for local miners and included entertainment by area prostitutes.

     The Colorado Central Railroad reached Black Hawk in 1872, and a two-mile long switchback railroad was built over Bob Tail Hill to Central City. Central was only a mile away, but 540′ higher in altitude. Due to the rough terrain and steep climb, the railroad cost an amazing $65,000 by the time it was finished in 1878. Black Hawk also weathered a diptheria epidemic in 1879, but managed to prevail. J.E. Scobey’s Billiard Saloon, known as the Knight of Pythias Hall after 1885, was located where Bullwhacker’s Casino now is. In 1886, J.H. Phillip Rohling opened the “largest dry goods store in the county.” The National Biscuit Company, now known as Nabisco, also got its start in Black Hawk. W.L. Douglas, a local shoemaker, was later elected Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. There were also no less than three newspapers in Black Hawk, some of which were said to publish from the Gilpin Hotel. By 1887 Black Hawk had settled its transportation problems once and for all by constructing the Gilpin Tram, a miniature railroad that reached not only Central City, but also the farther out communities of Nevadaville and Russell Gulch. The Tram was in use until 1917.

      In 1895, postal authorities once more downsized the name of Black Hawk to just one word. For some time by then, Blackhawk had been victim to the occasional flood due to its close proximity to Clear Creek. The worst of the floods happened on July 30, 1895. In the aftermath, the town raised $32,000 to build a rock flume, or water ditch, to prevent further flooding. Five years later the population hung steady at 1,200. Miners were enjoying their libations at places like Tom Crook’s Palace, a rock-walled saloon that allegedly had been dismantled and brought by wagon from Missouri and once the alleged favored drinking spot of Jessie James.

     There were lots of towns surrounding Blackhawk, including the railroad stop of Cottonwood, Hughesville with its Hard Money Mine; Lake Gulch with its famous hermit who lived between there and Caribou before dying in 1944; the railroad stop of Smith Hill, and Yankee Bar above town. During prohibition, bootleggers ran amuck and at least one of their cabins remains standing today in Golden Gate Canyon State Park.

      Time marched on, however, and in 1941 the last Colorado Central train left Blackhawk. The town melded into a fun and easily accessible tourist spot along State Highway 119. It was also home to the only gas station in Gilpin County for literally decades. The post office closed in 1950. Only 227 people lived there in 1990, but in 1991, the post office reopened when gambling was legalized at Blackhawk. Today, Blackhawk offers some of the best gaming money can buy, with modern casinos mixed among several historic buildings that include the 1863 Lace House.Image Photo courtesy of the City of Blackhawk website.