Tag Archives: Leadville Colorado

Hagerman Pass, Colorado Makes An Easy and Beautiful Trek

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article have appeared in the Colorado Gambler Magazine and Colorado Central Magazine.

Just one of the great things about living in Colorado are the striking views. Indeed, the state offers amazing mountain vistas quite unlike anywhere else on earth. And, where best to take in awe inspiring views than from a pleasing array of historic mountain passes? The pioneers of yesterday blazed their trails over rough and unforgiving terrain in search of gold, prosperity and new lives. Their efforts have resulted in numerous passes today that range from smooth and easy to challenging and dangerous. Hagerman Pass falls into the category of the former, offering a delightful mountain journey steeped in history.

Hagerman Pass is named for John J. Hagerman, builder of the Colorado Midland Railroad. The pass traverses the Continental Divide along the Sawatch Mountain Range west of Leadville. Here, the headwaters of the Arkansas River connect with the upper valley of the Frying Pan River above Basalt. In the years preceding Hagerman and his famous railroad, the pass was known as Frying Pan and had served as a foot trail between Leadville and the community of Basalt.

Hagerman himself hailed from Michigan and Wisconsin. In one of those places he contracted tuberculosis, high-tailing it to Colorado on his doctor’s advice in 1884. By then he had already amassed at least some of his fortune, and Colorado seemed like the right place to spend it. Using his forthright business knowledge, Hagerman invested in mines around Leadville and Aspen and soon had even more money. Before long he was building the Colorado Midland Railroad, intended to be the biggest and best standard gauge rails in Colorado.

With a peak elevation of 11,925 feet, the old Frying Pan Pass proved quite challenging when Hagerman decided to extend the Colorado Midland Railroad tracks over it in 1887. Ultimately the high-mountain trail proved impossible for railroad construction, so Hagerman decided to construct a tunnel underneath it instead. Many of the immigrants Hagerman hired to build the tunnel were Italians who settled at Douglass City, a shanty settlement that is still accessible along the Hagerman Hiking Trail. The town once hosted eight saloons, a dance hall and, allegedly, a post office—all clustered together on one main street.

For a time, Douglass City gained a reputation as being one of the rowdiest new towns in Colorado. There were no schools, churches, police or firemen. But there was a lot of wine and other libations. Soiled doves who were too jaded to work down in Leadville made their way to Douglass City, and shoot-outs and knife fights were common. According to author Marshall Sprague, the community met its end when the tunnel’s dynamite powder house blew up by accident.

On the other end of Hagerman Tunnel was Ivanhoe, an even more uncomfortable town in which to live. The small camp was named for nearby Lake Ivanhoe, so-named by a Scotsman who thought it resembled Loch Ivanhoe in Scotland. Ivanhoe’s post office was established on April 26, 1888 and ran until June 13, 1894 as a postal and passenger station along the railroad. By then there were several cabins and railroad buildings there, but not much else in the way of accommodations.

Paying his laborers at Douglass City and Ivanhoe was just a fraction of Hagerman’s expenses. Shipping oak railroad ties from Missouri, bringing materials from Chicago and freighting everything over the rough roads from Leadville cost plenty. Also, Colorado’s tough winters didn’t help. When finished, the tunnel ran 2,151 feet from its beginnings over to Lake Ivanhoe and was soon heralded as the highest railroad tunnel in the world. It had also cost roughly $80,000 per mile to build, making it the most expensive road built to date. Construction on the railroad included two trestles, one of which spanned 1,100 feet and was 84 feet high. When complete, however, the new addition made the record books as the first standard-gauge railroad to traverse the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

In spite of the initial accolades, Hagerman Tunnel’s fame was short-lived. The Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel had replaced it by 1893. This latter tunnel began construction in 1891. Admittedly, there were some advantages over the Hagerman: the Busk-Ivanhoe was lower in elevation, and thirteen snowsheds would help the trains travel through during heavy winters. A tiny working community, known as Busk, had established a post office in December of 1890 in anticipation of building the tunnel. But such an undertaking proved costly.

During construction of the tunnel, several workers died. Among them were John Carlson, killed by falling rock in April of 1891 and Morris Donahue and George Hoffman, killed by an explosion in May. A man named Moore Allen was considered fatally injured in another accident later that month. When yet another man was crushed by falling rock in February of 1892, newspapers began calling the Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel “the greatest life destroyer in the state.” Even more accidental deaths were reported through 1893, when the tunnel neared completion. During one ill-timed explosion in April, five men were killed at once.

The post office at Busk closed in 1894, shortly after the tunnel was completed. Hagerman had by then turned his attentions to Cripple Creek, where he had made several investments. His Isabella Gold Mine was coming under fire in the wake of Cripple Creek’s first labor wars, and Hagerman was called upon to represent other mine owners during negotiations. Soon the Santa Fe Railroad had become involved in the operations on Hagerman Pass. Promoters of the railroad were glad to announce that the new tunnel cut a full ten miles off of the trip to Salt Lake City, Utah—only a slight gain considering how many lives were lost building it.

Then in February of 1896, residents at Ivanhoe were witness to a train wreck. On the way from Leadville to Basalt, the train struck a rock in the track during a wild blizzard and the engine overturned. Engineer John Mead was crushed to death under the engine and the train was forced to return to Leadville until the tracks could be cleared. Despite the tragedy, an assessment of the company in June of 1896 valued the railroad at $6,000 per mile.

In 1897 the Colorado Midland took over operations of the Busk-Ivanhoe. Again, it was an expensive endeavor. At a cost of $1,250,000, questions were raised over repayment options on the loans needed to build the tunnel. For a time the old Hagerman Tunnel was brought back into use until negotiations could be settled. And in 1899, severe snows stopped traffic over the pass altogether from January 27 until late April.

By then Hagerman, whose investments in his Cripple Creek mines, property throughout Teller and El Paso Counties and even business dabblings New Mexico had brought him even more wealth, had sold almost all of his business interests to his son, Percy. John Hagerman died in Italy in 1909. Despite troubles with ownership and the expenses involved, the Colorado Midland continued chugging from Leadville to Basalt for a few more years. Ivanhoe’s post office reopened again in July of 1899 and lasted until 1912. Then it opened a third time in 1913, this time lasting until 1918 when the railroad was abandoned.

When the Colorado Midland Railroad abandoned its tracks over Hagerman Pass, Cripple Creek millionaire Albert E. Carlton stepped in. Carlton’s wealth first came from freighting and later from his many mine investments in the Cripple Creek District, and he had long ago become president of Cripple Creek’s First National Bank. The capitalist purchased the failed Colorado Midland shortly after it closed, took up the rails along Hagerman Pass and converted the rail bed into a wagon road at a cost of $25,000.

The road was next designated an official state automobile route and the Busk-Ivanhoe Tunnel was renamed the Carlton (spelled Carleton) in about 1924. The road ultimately fell into disuse when easier roads were built over the Continental Divide. In 1943, the tunnel was closed for good, but the old trail over Hagerman Pass had been sufficiently widened enough for continued access from Leadville to Basalt.

Today, Hagerman Pass is still highly accessible from Turquoise Lake near Leadville. The road follows the former Colorado Midland tracks as far as Hagerman Tunnel before veering off. Hikers can also still access the original railroad bed. Skinner Hut and Betty Bear Hut, built as part of the 10th Mountain Division Trail System, are available for use in both summer and winter. In Colorado Springs, the 1885 Hagerman Mansion on Cascade Avenue has been an apartment house since 1927, but is still exemplary of the grandiose projects Hagerman so struggled to complete.

The fantastic views from Hagerman Pass are complimented by remnants from its days as a railroad. Photo by Jan MacKell Collins.

The fantastic views from Hagerman Pass are complimented by remnants from its days as a railroad. Photo by Jan MacKell Collins.

Nighthawk Colorado: A Fallen Resort Town

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

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

 Long before the appearance of prospectors and white settlers, Indians had long enjoyed the virtues of the South Platte River, a gentle but wide waterway that cuts through the central and northeastern portion of Colorado. When Anglo Americans discovered the river as early as the 1830’s, they too enjoyed its ample fishing holes, scented pines, picturesque valleys and fresh mountain air.

By 1876 the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad was laying its rails along the South Platte. From Denver, the railroad traveled south through Buffalo Creek, Pine and eventually to Leadville. The South Platte branch of the area in Jefferson County soon blossomed to include a number of small communities. Among them was the actual hamlet of South Platte, landmarked by the South Platte Hotel. The hotel sat just 11 miles east of Buffalo Creek and 16 miles north of Deckers. It was a two-story wood frame affair with an upper balcony skirting the front of the building. Along the top, visible for some distance, was the sign reading “South Platte Hotel”.

Both the hotel and a tiny depot were located at the confluence of the north and south forks of the South Platte River. For unknown reasons, South Platte was alternately known as Symes. A post office under that name opened February 9, 1887. By May of 1896, there were no less than 500 mining claims around South Platte as more communities came into existence. One of these was Nighthawk. The small town with the intriguing name was located in such a beautiful area that promoters soon envisioned it as a prominent tourist resort.

 At an elevation of 6,200′, Nighthawk was located in Douglas County on the banks of the south section of the South Platte River. Most historical annals identify Nighthawk as a mining camp, although in reality the community was meant to become one of many premier resorts Colorado was so famous for. Located just 33 miles from Denver by train or 40 miles by wagon road, the place offered a unique getaway for city dwellers. Nighthawk’s only newspaper, the Mountain Echo, premiered on July 10, 1897. The paper was published each Saturday under the direction of editor T.C. Knowles and business manager H.C. Wood. During its short lifetime, the paper was the only periodical within a 25 mile radius. Subscriptions to the paper were initially $1 per year.

By 1897, the Nighthawk Town, Mining & Improvement Company was already in place with an office in Denver. One F. Alley was employed as general manager. Douglas Avenue appears to have been the main drag. From the South Platte depot, along what was alternately known as the South Park Road, stages met the trains and took passengers the remaining 4 ½ miles to Nighthawk. The fare from Denver cost between $1.25 and $1.70.

 Although advertisements fairly screamed for folks to come to Nighthawk for pleasure (Tell Your Friends About Nighthawk!”), there were still a few mines. The Caledonia Gold Mine was among the most prominent, owned and operated by the Nighthawk Mining and Milling Company, Inc. with E.T. Hanna serving as its authorized agent. Other mines included the Agnes and the Kitty Clyde. Although Nighthawk never had a government post office, daily mail service from South Platte was available by July 17, 1897. Hanna distributed mail from a small postal station and sold camping supplies.

 Promoters at Nighthawk certainly worked fast. Editorials promoting the new town talked lovingly about the “towering and craggy mountains” and “tall and stately pines” surrounding the area. Ample fishing, hordes of berry bushes, abundant wildflowers and even the nearby Strontia Mineral Springs completed the picturesque description of Nighthawk.

By August of 1897 one could find accommodations at the Craggie View Hotel or the local boarding house at Nighthawk. A.J. Dugger was offering general blacksmithing and wagon work at Douglas Avenue and Pine Creek Street. A month later C.B. Derby opened a store with “groceries and provisions at Denver prices.” A carnival was held in October, followed by the premier of the Nighthawk General Merchandise Co. and Miss Annie Vermillion’s Post Office Store with confections and stationery. Interestingly, most residents did not live in Nighthawk proper, but rather along Sugar Creek just south of town.

Nighthawk continued to blossom. In November I.P. Cleary opened a feed and livery stable and a Miss Harger began teaching school there. Sunday School children also could catch services in nearby Trumball. Residents celebrated with a turkey shoot. The Mountain Echo also reported on railroad tycoon David H. Moffat and Eben Smith’s plans to construct an electric power plant at Goldfield in the Cripple Creek Mining District some 60 miles away. Doing so would require building a dam on the South Platte near Nighthawk. Such an endeavor would not only be a feat for the 19th century; it would also bring Nighthawk into the limelight even more.

In February of 1898 mining prospects must have been looking better, judging by the appearance of Mining Engineer A.F. Polhamus at the nearby community of Daffodil some nine miles from Nighthawk. Nearly next door at Trumbull, miners could party the night away at the Miner’s Home Saloon run by C.P. Combs or another tavern operated by J.S. Gardner, or get a .25 cent meal and a room at Mrs. M.M. Smith’s Half Way Restaurant. Fatty Miller also opened the Palace Saloon at West Creek, offering keg beer and lunches. By April, Charles F. Denison was selling Hercules powder, fuse and caps at Nighthawk.

Cripple Creek was mentioned in conjunction with Nighthawk again in April of 1898 when it was announced that any new rails from Cripple Creek to Denver would surely pass through Nighthawk. Then in 1899, the Denver, Cripple Creek & Southwestern Railroad purchased right of ways for a “Nighthawk Branch” and began constructing a spur.

By January of 1899, Mrs. J.E. Pitts was running Trumball’s Half Way Restaurant and directing travelers to Nighthawk. Then on January 31, the Symes post office finally changed its name to South Platte. Such small changes were early signs of a developing metropolis, but it was never to be. The last issue of the Mountain Echo was published in February of 1899. By then, ads reading “Come to Nighthawk” almost seemed like pleas. Town promoters switched their ads, asking folks to “buy lots in Nighthawk” to the West Creek Mining News.

Nighthawk did continue to experience limited success for the next several years. In October 1899 W.H. McMahon opened yet another general merchandise store there, and in 1900 James Kelly was running a huge boarding house on Sugar Creek with 38 lodgers. More communities, such as the resort of Bethesda, popped up near Nighthawk as the Nighthawk Branch of the railroad began service in 1902.

In spite of all efforts to turn Nighthawk into a vacationer’s dream, for some reason the town just failed to catch on. By about 1910 only a few structures were left at Nighthawk. Photographs of the community show two frame structures identified as the post office and a dance hall, with a tent reposing on the site of the Craggie View Hotel. A stable that once serviced the hotel was also still standing. A few broken down cabins and a gabled home are also depicted. By then only a few residents were left, among them mail carrier J.C. MacDonald and sawmill laborer Hugh Kendall. Roughly 70 people were living along Sugar Creek.

Railroad service to Nighthawk ceased in 1916. By 1920 there were only 35 people left at Nighthawk, most of them farmers. Both Nighthawk and Bethesda appeared on 1923 maps, though merely as place names. Only 26 residents lived at Nighthawk in 1930, including school teacher Minnie Norman. The South Platte post office closed September 15, 1937. A year later, the railroad through South Platte ceased operations.

 Soon the remaining cabins in and around Nighthawk became nothing more than summer homes. Today the road through South Platte is a part of the Colorado Trail. At Nighthawk, a few occupied buildings are visible in the trees above the road. Many areas along the river still serve as ideal camping and picnic spots. In their own small way, Nighthawk and South Platte still survive as the resort areas they were meant to be.


While summer homes accommodate part time residents at Nighthawk, almost all of the original buildings are now gone. One exception is the schoolhouse which is now a private home. Only an interpretive sign at the townsite informs travelers as to what was once there.