When you mention “ghost towns” to children you can see their eyes light up. It really fires up their imaginations. While almost every state has ghost towns, Colorado has more than most and many of these have fascinating histories.
During 1859, more than 100,000 people would leave behind the warmth and comfort of their homes in such places as Kentucky, New York, Missouri and as far away as England to embark on a journey west, to the Rocky Mountains. Gold — or should I say the promise of it — was the incredible lure. Word of the precious metal spread like wildfire and one prospector, George A. Jackson, from Glasgow, Missouri, struck it rich panning for gold along present-day West Chicago Creek. This event prompted the gold rush in the Rockies. “Pike’s Peak or Bust” became the slogan of the times.
RUSH TO ROCKIES
These wide-eyed gold seekers and dreamers, prospectors and miners, arrived, set up mining camps, panned for gold along creeks, dug into rugged mountainsides, established towns and then began naming them. Gold Hill, Wallstreet, Salina, Central City, Idaho Springs, Georgetown, and Silver Plume are just a few. Nearly 700 towns became populated, toll roads and railroads were established, and services such as saloons, churches, brothels, butchers and newspapers flourished.
After gold, came silver. Then, the Silver Crash of 1893 changed everything. The distraught folks moved on, leaving behind ghosts, legends and folklore.
Begin your adventure on Colorado’s Scenic Byway — the Peak-to-Peak Highway. Pick up the trail in Estes Park or Lyons at State Highway 7 south. Campgrounds are available along the way and within the Indian Peaks Wilderness area. Hiking the Buchanan Trail is a must-do with its cascading creeks, lovely wildflowers, aspens, ponderosa pines and unique wildlife waiting to delight your senses.
Although there are numerous ghost towns, sites and former mining towns along the Peak-to-Peak (Ward, Jamestown, Nederland, Eldora and Hessie, to name a few), I will highlight some of my favorites. Gold Hill ranks high on my list.
At Gold Hill you’ll discover the 1872 Wentworth House, a neat, two-story hewn-log lodge, and the historic Gold Hill Inn next door. Meander past the Gold Hill Museum and the 1873 white, two-room schoolhouse. Churches were a significant part of mining life, so don’t miss Gold Hill’s church with its separate bell tower. Be sure to stop into the historic Gold Hill Store, where local residents, mountain bikers and four-wheelers sip cups of coffee nestled next to the antique wood-burning stove.
Head on down the canyon toward the former mining camp of Wallstreet, financed by big Eastern U.S. bucks. All that exists of the gold extraction mill are the mill’s stone walls that resemble a rather scary fortress.
Next, return to the Peak-to-Peak Highway heading south toward Black Hawk and Central City. Fantastic views of the snow-capped Indian Peaks will astonish you along the way. Remote and unpopulated sites or ghost towns (such as Hessie, Rollinsville and Apex) can be reached from the Peak-to-Peak.
The famous Teller House Hotel and Central City Opera House are beautiful buildings to view amid the thriving and abundant gambling casinos. Also see Nevadaville if you have time — a true ghost town that once boasted a population of nearly 6000 persons — there are excellent structures of historic significance, including the Prize Mill among the ruins.
After departing Black Hawk and Central City, journey over to I-70 West to see other substantial mining towns such as Idaho Springs, Georgetown and Silver Plume. Although currently populated, these former mining towns offer a rich tapestry of mills, mines, hotels, saloons and mercantile stores intermingled with wonderful examples of 19th-century architecture.
In Idaho Springs, tour the Argo Mill, formerly the Newhouse Tunnel. The tunnel (4.2 miles long) was used for draining old mines, exposing new veins and getting the ore moved out. The Charley Tayler water wheel and Bridal Veil Falls are also nearby and worth seeing.
Georgetown was home to the mine owners and managers and was deemed the “Queen of the Silver Camps.” The exquisite Hotel de Paris is well worth your time, as is the Georgetown Loop Railroad.
Silver Plume is across the highway from the rail station. Over the years, I have sauntered through this lovely town many times. It’s a very special place with a creek running through it. You’ll find a stone jail, an excellent museum, a charming bandstand, several false-front buildings, a bakery that offers fresh bread daily, and mining remnants above the town. Legend has it that Clifford Griffin came to Silver Plume in the 1860s carrying his treasured violin. He soon discovered one of the richest mines in the area, the “7:30” mine. However, rumor also has it that Griffin had previously murdered his fiancée on the evening before his scheduled wedding, then fled to Colorado. He worked his mine by day, and played his violin at night. Sad melodies drifted down the canyon to the Silver Plume residents below. One night a shot was heard. Sure enough, Griffin was found sprawled within a freshly dug grave. Folklore has it that he couldn’t hide from the guilt residing within his heart.
These remote places offer the outdoor adventurer a true feeling for the times. However, before you go, consult your ghost town guidebooks for maps, seasonal weather and road conditions, and whether or not four-wheel-drive is required to reach them.
WHEN YOU GO
Along the Scenic Byway, the Peak-to-Peak Highway, numerous U.S. Forest Service campgrounds are available. For additional campground information, contact the National Recreation Reservation Service at www.recreation.gov or call 877/444-6777.