Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 21, 2012

Mining Town

One can’t travel far in the American west (or anywhere in the world except Antarctica, perhaps), without becoming aware of how many people now live — or have in the past — in remote, even hostile places. I’ll briefly mention here, before I explore the subject further in a later post, that “people” includes native populations, stretching back thousands of years, even though they may not currently be on the scene, having vacated the land through extinction, migration, extermination or displacement by invaders, and so forth. It’s important that when writing about the American west not to say something fatuous like, “the first person to see the Black Canyon was …” and  name some person of European descent; natives inhabited the area for 9,000 years before Columbus.

I started this account of our recent Colorado trip (CLICK HERE) with one of the most modern structures we encountered (CLICK HERE to see it), so I’ll continue in the same vein and review what we say in reverse chronological order through history, prehistory and finally, geology, paleontology and perhaps other -ologies.

Speaking of “veins,” one of the most compelling motives for the European settlement of Colorado (and the west in general) was mining. Vast deposits of silver and gold were discovered in Colorado from the 1850s into the 1890s, and a massive influx of fortune-hunters, prospectors, speculators and flim-flam artists flooded the mountains, ravines and forests of Colorado. European exploration of North America was heavily influenced by the acquisition of gold and silver, and, centuries later, the search for precious metal remained a prime reason for ambitious seekers to abandon their farms and limited prospects elsewhere in search of fortune.

As we wound through the mountains of Colorado, we encountered one after another picturesque mining towns. Although our primary goal was to see the state’s wild places, we repeatedly found ourselves strolling through these survivors of repeated cycles of boom and bust, some better, some more poorly preserved, all of them much diminished from the riotous, rollicking violent mining days described by Twain, Wallace Stegner (Angle of Repose) and Jack London.

I want to point out that there’s little that’s unique about the architecture of these places; they look — in most of their details — just like the towns one encounters across a wide swath of the U.S. Brick buildings shoulder-to-shoulder with tall false fronts, distinguished from one another by endless variations of window mouldings, cornices and real or faux stone pediments.

Cripple Creek CO Brad Nixon 9976 (640x480)

The example above, Cripple Creek, began in about 1890 with the discovery of gold. Gold is still mined there. Cripple Creek has features shared by many of these mining towns, and towns from that era all around America: the brick architecture, the wide main street (wide enough to turn a horse-drawn wagon). It also has a particular unity of architectural style, although every building varies in details. There’s a reason for this uniformity: fire. Many, many towns in rural America were built hurriedly from local lumber and then suffered catastrophic fires that quickly consumed most of the town’s structures. Cripple Creek had a fire in 1896 that destroyed most of the town, then rebuilt in brick. That pattern is evident in many of towns we saw. While we’re in Cripple Creek, I’ll point out another pattern: population. At its peak during the gold boom, Cripple Creek had a population of approximately 35,000. By the middle of the 20th Century, it was mostly a ghost town, with a few hundred residents. Then, a new breed of wealth-seekers came to Cripple Creek.

Cripple Creek Casinos Brad Nixon 9981 (640x480)

Gamblers. Colorado approved casino gambling for Cripple Creek in 1991. Now, nearly every structure along Bennett Ave., the main street, is restored and occupied by a casino. Tour buses full of treasure-seekers roll in every day, and the sound of slot machines fills the air.

It’s also worth mentioning that Cripple Creek, like Telluride, Ouray and other Colorado mining towns was a literal battleground over the unionization of labor in the 1890s and 1900s. There were terrible acts of violence by mine operators resisting the nascent unions. Originally, the state brought in the national guard to protect miners, but changed course at about the turn of the century and participated in repression and killings that now are referred to as the Colorado Labor Wars.

Another town “saved” by casino gambling is Central City, on the eastern slope of the Rockies, an hour west of Denver.

Central City CO Brad Nixon 9428 (640x480)

Central City is older than Cripple Creek, originating in the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of 1859. It’s wedged into a narrow valley and lacks the broad streets afforded to Cripple Creek and other towns by more spacious locations. It has a slightly older 1860s architectural vibe, but warrants a look, even if one isn’t inclined to gamble. It swelled to about 10,000 inhabitants in its heyday, declined to a few hundred by the 1950s, and then revived with the advent of gambling in 1990. See it now, because, in a move to compete with the more successful nearby gambling town of Black Hawk, the city fathers and mothers have removed height restrictions on new construction, and it may change its appearance quickly.

Not too far from Central City, spurred  by the same 1859 gold rush and also from rich deposits of silver, is Georgetown. What’s fascinating about this place is that the inhabitants took steps early in the town’s history to establish fire departments, so it escaped large-scale fire; scores of the town’s original structures are extant. I could post an entire album of photos from this place, wilder and less homogeneous than Cripple Creek. First, a fire department, Alpine Hose.

Alpine Hose Georgetown CO Brad Nixon 9447 (640x447)

And the structures the Alpine Hosers and several other fire companies protected:

Georgetown CO Brad Nixon 9448 (640x472)

Allow yourself several hours to poke around this avatar from the Colorado of 150 years ago.

Farther west, along the spectacular drive through mountains called the “million dollar highway,” are other towns, notably Ouray (yoo-RAY), founded in the 1870s. Again, once home to thousands, the town has declined, but is still a lively place and the seat of Ouray County.

Ouray CO Brad Nixon 9714 (640x480)

Continuing south through the mountains on that million dollar highway brings one to Silverton, the seat of San Juan County. Here’s a town whose decline is evident. It’s in a stunningly beautiful, wide valley ringed by mountains, served by the popular Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, but the town is a fascinating shadow of its former wild and woolly boom town. How wild is San Juan County? Silverton is its only incorporated municipality. We didn’t allow enough time to poke around this fascinating old place, now designated a National Historic Landmark District.

Silverton station Brad Nixon 9726 (640x480)

Of all the mining towns we saw, our favorite was Victor, just a few miles from Cripple Creek, founded in 1891 during the same gold rush that built Cripple Creek. Perched on the side of a mountain, Victor hasn’t had Cripple Creek’s resurgence. Its single paved street, Victor Avenue, is lined by period buildings in a variety of conditions, from wonderfully restored to derelict. Here’s Victor Avenue:

Representing the wealth and success Victor once boasted, is the Victor Hotel (still open with accommodations at victorhotelcolorado.com).

Victor Hotel Brad Nixon 0012 (640x480)

Noted journalist, Lowell Thomas grew up in Victor, and got his start at the Victor Record, but the town today, alas, has no newspaper. Its houses sprawl over the surrounding mountainside, and the buildings of its single commercial street await the town’s resurgence. Will it come? Will it require casinos, or, what seems to be happening on a small scale, an influx of artists and craftspeople? Time will tell. We’ll leave our mining towns, one of the unexpected pleasures we discovered on our trip, under the western sky.

Victor Colorado Brad Nixon 0037 (640x480)

Victor Colorado Brad Nixon 0006 (640x480)

© Brad Nixon 2013, 2017

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Responses

  1. Brad, you and your dad chose a wonderful state in Colorado. I lived above the town of Central City at the old sheriffs boys ranchhouse for about two years in 1975-77. The ranchhouse was originally part of the massive Glory Hole Mine complex. It was unused when I rented it but it attracted tourists because it was located on the only road that led down to Idaho Springs. This was long before casinos invaded Central City (the former state capitol) and Blackhawk. These were rowdy times and the Marshall was about seventy and wore two Buntline Colt revolvers and a ten gallon beaver hat. Every bar and restaurant had a rack to check your guns on entry and we obliged mostly because it made it more comfortable to sit. Blackhawk had twenty houses the post office and a three star German restaurant. I ate there usually dressed in cammys and a Vietnam era flak jacket because I got around on an old Triumph Bonneville from the barn and the jacket protected my ribs when I dropped the bike. I’m a long time rock climber and my elbows to palms are scarred. This segues into why I stayed so long. A hundred years of people whom successfully mined or starved taught me that I needed a new approach to get the gold. I found my edge with a metal detector. No beep, no digging. I shot nuggets very well. The exposed portion of the Glory Hole is a 150 meter square pit @100 meters deep with ramps to bring the ore out. I tied myself to the treeline above the wall and lowered down to traverse and scan the wall. When I got a beep I dropped all the material and put it in one of the ball crusher’s and separated it on a shaker table. As I recall the price of gold was @$300oz.. I was living in high cotton. I would drive down the mountain to Idaho Springs and spend a day or so in Indian Springs hot springs “resort”. It was primitive with communal tubs of varying temperatures and a shelf for your bottle.
    I don’t think I like the idea of casinos in the Central City area. But hell, we were also opposed to the filming of “The Dutchess and the Dirtwater Fox” @1976 when they covered the main street…our only paved street, with dirt, the only cinematic concession to make us look correct. When they needed extras not much costuming changes was needed. Damn, we were a bunch of hicks. I hated to move on. I think I explored all of the Glory Hole complex, most of which was underground. There were areas down long shafts where crusher’s and machinery had been reassembled by Chinese workers. Clive Cussler used a reference in one of his books to mining equipment marked made in Central City Colorado. I suspect that was provided by a research writer with other tidbits after a visit. I wonder if any of the old Central City spirit…or spirits are left. Perhaps I’ll park this sailboat in the Keys and take a look for the old bucket list.

    Like

  2. Thanks for the direction here: Victor looks much as I imagined. The closest I came was a visit to Durango, arriving from the north via Grand Junction. I recall it being quite a nice drive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Million Dollar Highway. A wonderful route. Glad you’ve seen it.

      Liked by 1 person


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