Colorado has less than four hundred official towns and cities today. In the heyday of mining in the late 1800s there were actually a few thousand towns in our state. Most of these towns were in the mountains, although the eastern plains had their share. The mountain towns in Colorado mostly started from mineral discoveries, but they have evolved into much more. Some mining still occurs but tourism, outdoor recreation and summer residency are now the main draws. Others have faded into ghost town status (defined as having few, if any residents, and abandoned for economic reasons).
Silver mining was the reason most Colorado mountain towns came to be.
Visiting mountain towns
Part of the excitement of learning about these places is that we can visit many of them fairly easily. We’ll provide a few hints and cautions about visiting each. These are based on our travels and observations and, as with any activity that involves going off the main roads, you need to “go at your own risk.” None of the roads to these towns require 4WD during “decent weather” although some are rougher than others. Usually passenger cars are OK, we’ve seen them at all the towns. We drive a high clearance SUV just in case! Elevations are listed for each in case that’s of interest.
Located west and south of Colorado Springs in a sparsely populated area of forest and open meadows, Victor, Goldfield and Guffey are worth visiting.
The town of Victor is just southeast of the gaming halls of Cripple Creek. Victor was established in the early 1890’s and was primarily a gold mining town. It has produced the equivalent of $6 billion in gold in today’s value. (The Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mine, formerly and historically the Cresson Mine, is now owned by Newmont Mining.) Victor is very much alive as a tourist, antique, and art community, outdoor recreation site and home to a large, very active silver and gold mining operation. The mining area is laced with self-guided trails and drives around the older mines and mills. The Vindicator Valley Trail is one of the best, although it occasionally is closed due to mine shaft collapse concerns. The trailhead is on Highway 81 north and east of Victor. ( Trail Maps are available at: http://victorcolorado.com/hiking.htm ) Many of the old mining and mill structures are still standing and in pretty good shape. They present a real opportunity for photographers. The Gold Camp Bakery on 3rd Street is a great lunch spot.
Fall along the Chalk Creek
Guffey is a small town located between Cripple Creek and Canon City. Originally named Freshwater, it was founded in 1890. It’s mining history is somewhat unexciting. Between 1895 and 1902 it produced some copper, lead, zinc, mica, feldspar, and other minerals, including traces of gold and silver. Ranching and timber were more important to the local economy. Today the town survives on the tourist industry with lodging and restaurants. The Guffey Garage is no longer an active repair shop but more of a collection of memorabilia. The proprietor, Bill, does custom welding, sells propane and custom signs. There is also a large town hall with a very large collection of “stuff”. Bill can provide a key to the building if you ask and promise not to touch or disturb the “stuff”.
Local watering holes and a stuffed, "extinct fur trout"
Lots of interesting items for sale at the "antique" shop
Treaties with the Ute Indians had set the Roaring Fork/Crystal River area aside as Ute land as early as 1849. That all changed with the discovery of silver and lead in the 1860s. By 1880 the Utes had been forced to give up their land here. The area was never very profitable as a mineral source but what it did have were extensive coal deposits. These coal deposits were ideal to produce coke, a necessary product to make steel. In 1892 two competing coal companies merged and formed Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I).
Redstone was the result of CF&I bringing workers from Denver to work at the 250 coke ovens. It was based on a Company Town model inspired by similar ones in New England. The owners felt that the workers would be happier and work better if they had a decent place to live. Some of the coke ovens still remain and an effort is underway to preserve and restore them. The Redstone Inn was built in 1902 as a 40-room dormitory for the coke oven workers. Along with a number of cottages for families, as well as amenities, Redstone provided a decent place to live and most importantly to owner John Osgood, this staved off unionization. Today, The Redstone Inn is a very nice hotel with great service and several annual events, including at Christmastime. The small town serves the tourist and outdoor recreation industry. John Osgood’s home, known as Redstone Castle, was sold most recently in 2016. There are tours of this historic home and the new owners plan continued restoration/renovation and expanded use of the property.
A bit of creative scuplting
Silverton is a poster child for the silver mining story in Colorado. The discovery of gold in 1858 near Denver caused a flood of prospectors into the Colorado mountains. They found very rich silver veins in the area around Silverton and a pretty substantial number of small settlements rose up in the area with Silverton as the hub. (Its name came from a saying – “silver by the ton”). The most well known of these are: Gladstone, Eureka, Animas Forks, Howardsville, Red Mountain and Chattanooga. A lot of these can still be visited today. Access varies from paved to 4WD roads. Most of these towns dwindled after the repeal of the Sherman Silver Cat in 1893. Silverton experienced boom and bust cycles after 1893 with the last mine (Sunnyside) shutting down in 1991. Today the town exists on tourist and outdoor recreation dollars with the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge RR being one of the biggest reasons. Eating and drinking establishments flourish during late spring to fall. There are running, bike and other festivals as well as 4WD tours and lots of outdoor opportunities. There are some winter activities if you can get there. Highway 550 is sometimes closed due to heavy snow. There are many remnants of the past that have been restored and repurposed! The San Juan County building remains one of the more impressive structures in town.
The San Luis Valley is one of Colorado’s most historic locations. Ute Indians came through here many hundreds of years ago. The Spanish and Mexican people settled here as far back as the late 1500’s. Anglos came through on and off since the early 1800s. Two interesting and accessible towns are Bonanza and Creede.
Bonanza is a small community located in the far north end of the San Luis Valley. It has been described as a real Colorado boom town by some. In 1880 a very rich silver deposit was discovered in the mountains west of Villa Grove. Legend has it that one of the prospectors cried “it’s a Bonanza, boys” and the name stuck. Between 1880 and 1881, tens of thousands of people passed through Bonanza and the surrounding area. The hordes of people included Ulysses S Grant (former president by then). In the 1880s Bonanza had its share of saloons and dance halls, as well as a school, town hall, stores and shops, daily stage service, a baseball team and a newspaper. The high-grade silver ore from nearly 1500 prospect digs and mines was processed in several mills. After 1890 the high-grade silver ore was exhausted and the remaining deposit had more lead, zinc and copper, which was much harder to mine. By 1893 when the government stopped buying silver, Bonanza’s mining continued as a shadow of its glory days until the 1930’s. The town was nearly destroyed by fire in 1937. Today Bonanza is a collection of old and newer seasonal homes and a few relics of the past. It is also the jumping off place for 4WD recreational vehicles heading to explore Saguache County’s backcountry. It is the smallest incorporated town in Colorado with a population in the single digits. On occasion, the state has attempted to de-list it as a town.
A short walk up the road brings you to Exchequer. The town site is identified by only a sign but the small cemetery is the final resting place for an extraordinary woman named Anne Ellis, author of several books about life in Colorado’ s mining towns. Most notable is The Life of an Ordinary Woman.
Renovated City Hall
All photographs on this site are copyrighted by the photographers and carry liability if copied, downloaded, reproduced or manipulated in any way without prior consent
The Guffey Garage
Memorabilia in Bill's collection
Mines and mills along the trails and roads
Many of the mining and ghost towns in the San Juan Mountains are accessible only by 4WD; however, Durango, Silverton and Ouray are easily accessible off main highways.
Durango’s earliest residents were the Ancestral Puebloans about 2500 years ago. They first settled here living in pit houses and rock shelters before expanding their territory and building cliff dwellings. They moved on in the 1300’s and a couple of centuries later the Ute Indians lived in the area. The discovery of gold in 1860 in the San Juan Mountains north of Durango caused a flood of prospectors, miners, and those who support the mining industry to come to the Animas River Valley. Durango’s livelihood came from supplying the mining camps to the north with their necessities. The Civil War did slow grow here but the coming of the Denver and Rio Grande railroad in 1881 really brought a growth spurt to Durango. The downtown area grew and many businesses sprouted up. One that has lasted is the Strater Hotel, built in the late 1880’s as Durango’s finest Victorian building and first-class hotel. It still is a wonderful place to stay! In addition to the main street, several residential streets east of the main street were laid out and many magnificent homes were built. A substantial amount of them on 2nd through 4th streets are still in use. Durango’s life blood was the railroad. In 1882, a spur was extended 45 miles to Silverton. The line was built in 8 months during winter and spring. This spur is in use today by the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The railroad is a tourist destination that provides the local economy with a real source of income (restaurants, hotels and shops as well as the train). In addition to the rail trips, the railroad has a great museum in Durango and a smaller one in Silverton. The Durango RR museum is adjacent to the rail yard which has a roundhouse, shops and a working turntable. Side note, the machine shop here can and does make all parts needed to maintain the locomotives and rolling stock of the railroad.
The Guffey town website mentions rustic cabins available for rent, not sure if this is one of them but it sure is rustic.
The Animas River
The Strater Hotel
Vicksburg, along with several other mining towns, blossomed to 40 plus buildings along the Clear Creek drainage in the 1880’s, although the mining district dates to the 1860’s. Vicksburg is west of US 24 on Chaffee County Road 390 (access road for Clear Creek Reservoir). What makes Vicksburg unique among Colorado mining towns is the shade trees along the main street. The residents, who wanted shade, paid for two rows of Balm of Gilead trees and two irrigation ditches along the main street. Today the small number of remaining buildings are private. Access to the main street and the small museum is via a short path from the road. There is a large parking lot for the Missouri Gulch Trailhead across the road.
The General Store
Leadville’s roots date back to the 1859 gold rush when placer gold was discovered in California Gulch. In 1874 placer mining was becoming too difficult because the heavy black sand was clogging sluice boxes. It turns out this sand was high in silver which the miners traced back to the source, present day Leadville. Horace Tabor and his first wife, Augusta, were among the first prospectors in the area and they moved on from just mining to develop the town. As with most mining towns, the commercial endeavors were the real money makers. Gambling, drinking and other pleasures formed the basis of the town’s economy. Tabor was a giant of the community, became a U. S. Senator and amassed a fortune. He dumped Augusta, married Baby Doe (half his age) and really hit the skids. The repeal of the Sherman Act wiped him out and he died destitute. Baby Doe sold the mine in 1927 and was allowed to live in an old cabin at the Matchless Mine, as legend has it still believing what Horace had told her - that silver would rebound. She died in 1935 in the cabin. Seasonal tours of her cabin at the Matchless Mine are available. It’s east of town on East 7th street, about 1 ¼ miles. Leadville had a significant number of famous and infamous characters besides the Tabors. Its lawless reputation (several town marshals were either run out of town or just plain shot) attracted the likes of Doc Holliday and gunfighter Luke Short. Molly Brown moved here and married a mining engineer twice her age in 1886. They successfully earned and kept a fortune. Today Leadville has become a tourist destination with outdoor activities and 4WD trips to the old mines and scenic areas.
Leadville from in front of the Healy House
Views of Nature Photography
On the north end of town is the Healy house, a restored Greek Revival clapboard house built in 1878 by August Meyer. Today it is run by History Colorado as a museum with many lavish Victorian furnishings from Leadville pioneers. This is one of the real hidden treasures of Leadville. On the property is a rather plush cabin built by James Dexter. Dexter was a mining investor and businessman. He was one of Leadville’s early millionaires. He often entertained informally in his cabin but did get the reputation of having the most exclusive poker club in Leadville.
Colorado Ghost and Mining Towns
The Healy House and Dexter's Cabin
There are many old mining towns up the various drainages that flow into the Arkansas River. St Elmo is up the Chalk Creek drainage, Vicksburg and Winfield are up Clear Creek and Leadville is just beyond the headwaters of the Arkansas River.
St Elmo is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in Colorado. It is west of the small town of Nathrop about 16 miles, on Chaffee County Road 162 (Chalk Creek Drive). This is the road to Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort. The road is graded gravel after a few miles. St Elmo came into existence in the early 1880’s as a town developed around a ranch built by William Campbell. The town supported many gold and silver mines along Chalk Creek, the largest of which was the Mary Murphy mine, started in 1875. St Elmo did not depend entirely on mining as it was at the junction of a group of toll roads. A railroad also was built through St Elmo, up to the Alpine Tunnel and eventually over to Gunnison. Today there is a general store, open in the summer, as well as several private seasonal homes. There are a few buildings with descriptive signage that you can explore. Many of the original buildings, now abandoned, remain.
Privies seem to have lasted in most of the ghost towns
Baby Doe Tabor's Cabin
Ouray was incorporated in 1876. Its population rose to over 2600 by 1880. There were numerous mines around the town with Ironton, about 10 miles south, being the richest. Ouray became the shipping site and logistics center for these mines. The railroad finally reached Ouray in December of 1887. It came up from Montrose and was competition for the Silverton railroad to support the northern San Juan County mining. Ouray today is vibrant with hot springs, outdoor activities and a blossoming arts community. Many of the buildings in Ouray are original as it has never had a devastating fire like most other mining towns.
In the Museum is a painting of Bob Ford's murder
Five images of "Downtown" Victor
Images of Nature - Instruction - Workshops
Post Office building remains but service was discontinued many years ago
Creede was a bit late to join the silver boom. A high-grade silver vein was discovered in 1890 by Nicholas Creede. The area population grew quickly to around 10,000 people. In 1891 a railroad, built by William Palmer (Colorado Springs tycoon) reached the Creede townsite (which was originally called Jimtown). Creede made it through the financial panic of 1893 after the repeal of the Sherman Act, mainly because of the very high-grade silver ore in the vein. The last silver mine closed in 1985. Creede made up for its late arrival by hosting some of the west’s most notorious people. Among them were Bob Ford, the man who shot Jesse James. Bob was shot and killed in his own saloon in Creede. Soapy Smith, who moved up from Denver to continue his crooked and violent ways, declared himself boss of Creede and, with his gang, ran the underworld. He would later move to Skagway Alaska, where he’d meet his end. Other famous and infamous residents included Bat Masterson, Frank James and Calamity Jane. After a devastating fire in 1892 a lot of new buildings, made of brick were built. Other fires in 1902 and 1936 caused a lot of damage but the town has survived and prospered. (Due to a very bad fire in 1865, Denver passed a similar ordinance.) Today Creede is a tourist and outdoor recreation center with shops, restaurants, an interesting museum and a renowned repertory theater. There are a number of interesting buildings, including the local fire department, located in a tunnel/cave. Creede’s winter population is around 300 but that swells in spring to fall with tourists, sportsman, theatre patrons and the actors that perform at the repertory theatre. The theatre was opened in 1966 and remains one of the biggest draws for Creede today.
Goldfield is just up the road from Victor. It was a company town founded in 1895. It was built as a residential town to support the Portland Gold Mine, one of the best producers in the Cripple Creek district. It was primarily a family town where miners and supervisors lived. Established in a relatively flat area, it became the processing location for most of the ore from the surrounding mines. During its peak, it had nearly 3500 residents, multiple rail lines and an electric trolley. Since it came into its own later than many towns, it didn’t have a rowdy element; however, it was the center of mine union activity (Western Federation of Miners). During a 1903-04 conflict, National Guard troops set up their encampment in Goldfield. Today, most of the town structures are gone but several, including the city hall, have been restored. Goldfield is now home to a few people, not enough to rate a post office or any services.
Winfield is about 4 miles further up Road 390 from Vicksburg. The town reached its peak in 1890 with multiple saloons, stores and hotels. It also had a mill and smelter. Winfield was pretty much abandoned in 1893 when the sliver boom went bust. Today a few of the old buildings remain and several newer seasonal homes have sprung up.
•Books and Internet
–Ken Jessen’s Series on Colorado Ghost Towns- Colorado Style (4 books, 3 on the mountain towns and 1 on the plains) plus Colorado’s Best Ghost Towns
–ghosttowns.com/states/co/co.htm is a start but there are many great sites
Vicksburg's tree lined
One of the private cabins