It is not uncommon to stumble on a Colorado town, ranch or mining settlement while hiking through the area. Especially when you consider that Colorado had 1,500 settlements and today only 600 of these are known and 300 still stand. Of those, only a fraction have been preserved or documented. Most are lost to time, absent from maps, and are returning to nature. But, these structures still offer us historic insights and a glance into the lives of the American Pioneer and the people of the early 20th century.
In this article, I would like to tour you through one such settlement and discuss how the architecture that we found came to be. However; finding these locations requires a certain amount of preparation, navigation, and experience with backwoods hiking. This trip (and journeys like it) are not to be taken lightly as you could lose your bearings quickly in the woods.
With that said; even with proper preparation, you will need to use your senses when you feel that you are generally close to a ghost town. The biggest indicator of a nearby ghost town is debris and rubbish on the ground. As you approach an abandoned area you will begin to see pieces of tin, glass, and wood fragments scattered about. Modern Colorado is very clean and seeing debris of any variety is out of place. This makes it easier to distinguish from modern rubbish and historic debris. Most ghost towns have a designated garbage pile or rubbish area. If you’ve found such a pile you are typically 50-100 yards from a ghost town. However, you will begin to see debris as far away as 1,000 yards from the center of the site.
The site that I explored is a hybrid of two architectural styles that are native to Colorado; “Rustic” and “Pioneer-Log”. Both of these styles are characterized by their use of stones, logs, and the natural materials. They are intended to blend in with the environment around them and because of this can be very difficult to spot. These buildings are often vacant homesteads or hunting lodges. Some are used to this day as tourist-facilities or dude ranches.
The building techniques used emphasized craftsmanship and were typically built by hand. The vast majority of these buildings were constructed between 1900 and 1940. The Rustic style is often categorized by its stone foundations, projecting roofs, battered (sloped) walls, small-paned windows, and stone chimneys. Rustic buildings used more commercially manufactured hardware and materials; for instance, wood paneling, window frames, and interior doors. The roofs often featured “Hip-Roofs” and have space for storage or additional living space
The differences between the Pioneer-Log and Rustic style are subtle but reflect the time in which they were built. Pioneer-Log cabins; as their name implies, were built during the initial U.S. settlement period. They exhibit a quick and crude form of construction. In contrast to the stone chimneys found on the rustic cabin, the Pioneer-Log building used metal flues attached to iron stoves. The roofs were simple structures with soft pitches.
The buildings that we came across are mostly Pioneer-Log style, but the main structure is a mixture of both styles. This is because it uses manufactured wood and has a hip-roof. However, it doesn't have a stone chimney or foundation. This experimentation and hybrid style is likely a contributing factor to the buildings' partial-collapse.
The land was a homestead built in the early 1900s. In the warm months, they used the land to harvest potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables that were shipped by truck or rail to Denver. Throughout the year they raised livestock; such as cattle and bison. In the winter months, most of the ranchers worked for a privately owned ice packing company. This company helped to bridge the wintertime gap in income for many of the area ranchers. The company would cut large blocks of ice from Lake George and ship them to the Pikes' Peak region via the Colorado-Midland Railway.
This region was flush with agricultural work year-round. These ranchers' lifestyle was the petri-dish for mountain-farming and subsistence agriculture in the west. This is especially significant because Colorado wasn’t exactly considered a “Garden of Eden” at that time. Early explorer John C. Fremont wrote:
“The impression of the country traveled over today was one of dry and barren sands” and the next day he said; “The same dreary barrenness, except that a hard, marly clay had replaced the sandy soil…”
Fremonts’ expeditions/reports combined with a perceived threat of Native American attack gave the nation the perception that Colorado was an untamable, barren wasteland. At this time it was referred to as the “Great American Desert”. This was the true “wild-west”.
Regardless, a group of hearty Colorado Natives was already well-practiced in subsistence agriculture. The Ancestral Puebloans, from the Mesa Verde region, planted crops and used shared irrigation for centuries prior to U.S. settlement. Eventually, Hispanic migrants moved from New Mexico to the San Luis Valley. They transplanted their crops and shared irrigation traditions that are used in the region to this day.
It was thanks to a man named Alvin Steinel who saw potential in Colorado agriculture. In 1926 he wrote:
“To the practiced eye of the grazier, it was clear that these western grasses differed in character from the varieties to which he had been accustomed in the States...It was a discovery confirmed by later experience that grasses cured by Nature on the ground not only maintained stock in good flesh, but that animals actually increased in weight during the winter”.
Eventually, the barren landscape and unnavigable rivers that Fremont saw gave way to lush valleys and healthy livestock. The land was being irrigated and water laws were rapidly developed throughout Colorado. Once derelict farmland; such as the one we explored, were some of the earliest settlers to harvest well-watered Colorado land. In fact, it was the loss of water to a nearby ranch that eventually doomed the farm that we explored.
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Photos from the day:
Idarado & Red Mountain Town are a bit of an enigma and is a hard townsite to identify. The final resting place of Red Mountain Town is equal distance between Oury and Silverton Colorado off of U.S. Highway 550. However; the town was moved once and burnt twice. Meaning you can find a few versions of Red Mountain Town. The Denver Times described the town by saying “Red Mountain was the mecca for all who were allured into the San Juan by the fickle goddess of fortune.”
The original town was settled in 1879 when a group of silver deposits were found nearby. At that time it was a small mining camp and went by the name of Sky City. The camp was below the National Belle Mine; however, it would later be relocated. This is because the residents of Sky City first built their camp in wintertime when the ground was frozen solid. Once spring came around the townsite became swampy, fly-infested, and messy.
At the same time, several other settlements and tent cities were also being established in the Red Mountain Pass, including Barilla and Rogersville. Which were also situated below the National Belle Mine.
A surveyor from Silverton Colorado made his way to Rogersville and plotted out the first town plat. It was comprised of four streets and one business. Around this time the people from Sky City decided it was time to get out of the swamp. They packed up and relocated directly next to the Rogersville townsite. This was only a move of a few hundred yards, but it made all the difference for the miners of Red Mountain Town. They were closer to Otto Mears’ toll road (the million-dollar highway) and the National Belle Mine. Not to mention away from the increasingly swampy conditions of the then defunct Sky City.
They had established a town company and petitioned for a post office. The post office was established in January 1883; despite the fact that it was primarily made of tents and had few permanent wooden structures. When the post office was established, it was the first settlement to dawn the name “Red Mountain Town”. In short order, the town had two newspapers, numerous homes, a hotel (The Hudson House), and a multiple story Saloon called the “Assembly Club”. By this time the town of Red Mountain had incorporated the surrounding communities of, Sky City, Sweetville, and Rogersville.
Meanwhile back in Barilla; a competitive townsite had quietly been building up a little further north and today rests on the north side of the Million Dollar Highway (U.S. Highway 550). This town was less than a mile away and decided to take the name “Red Mountain City”. This was controversial and was intentionally designed to irritate the residents of “Red Mountain Town”. Keep in mind that all of the communities in the Red Mountain Mining District were competitive, but the proximity and similar names made the rivalry even more bitter between these two camps.
Almost immediately there was confusion between the two settlements. Shipments of supplies would be incorrectly delivered and seldom were returned. Several disputes were recorded concerning misunderstood deeds and bank transactions. To exacerbate the confusion, both newspapers referred to their town as “Red Mountain”. Acting as though “Town” or “City” were never a part of either town's name. The editors of each newspaper would exchange weekly barbs through open letters, editorials, and occasionally direct accusations.
The entire Red Mountain Mining district was talking about this rivalry. The naming dispute was finally put to an end when Red Mountain City petitioned for a post office. The U.S. Postal Service chooses to call the town “Congress”. Because the town was closest to the “Congress Mine”. The newly coined town of Congress was the loser in more ways than one. This is due to the fact that most of the silver deposits were on the south side of the Million Dollar Highway. By 1887; just 8 years after the feud began, only a few residents remained in Congress and Red Mountain City was a thing of the past.
It seemed as though the miners of Red Mountain Town and the National Belle Mine had a limitless supply of luck. Especially, when in 1887 they found a massive cavern filled with gold and silver. The lucrative find was reported across the United States. Overnight international investors began to pour money into the town and mine. By 1888 the Silverton Railroad was connected to Red Mountain Town. They were happily boasting as having “an escape-proof jail”. Basically; they had come a long way from their humble ad swampy beginnings.
Despite all of the civic improvements it only had a population of 598, by 1890. The town had a reputation as one of the roughest towns in the Red Mountain District. However; at its peak it hit 1,000 citizens and had numerous saloons and a theater.
In the summer of 1892 a fire began in the kitchen of the Red Mountain Hotel. It quickly spread through the wood structures, in spite of the brave efforts of the volunteer firemen and residents. The fire destroyed the majority of the town. By the time it stopped burning all 15 buildings along Main Street were gone. In-fact only the depot and the jail survived. The gritty group of residents that remained soon rebuilt the town. The town suffered its second fire in 1899, at that time, only 12 citizens remained in the town.
Red Mountain Town saw a brief resurgence in 1901. Along with most of the towns in the Red Mountain District. Many people predicted that the town and the mines would thrive again but they never did. At this time, several of the area mines were consolidated into the Idarado Mining Company (later to be acquired by The Newmont Gold Company). The National Belle, Guson, Terusry, Congress, and dozens of other mines were all consolidated. The new mining operation eventually created 100s of miles of tunnels. So extensive that they still connect below the city of Telluride and the remains of Red Mountain Town.
The town limped by until the Idarado mines and mill closed in 1978. At this point, Red Mountain Town was primarily used for seasonal and short-term housing for the miners. In 1983 the State of Colorado filed suit against the Idarado Mining Co. for natural resource damages and the subsequent lead poisoning. A few people remained in Red Mountain Town until 1986, when a study (financed by the Idarado Mining Co.) found 7% of the children tested in the area had above average lead levels, in 1993 the Centers for Disease Control concluded that the lead levels were 3% higher than previously thought and reported.
Today, the Newmont Mining Company (formerly the Newmont Gold Company) and the State of Colorado are working to remove lead, acids, zinc, and heavy metals from the region and its water supply. They are pioneering new methods of revegetation that will one day; hopefully, cover the tailing piles that litter the valley.
The remains of Red Mountain Town can be seen from the top of Red Mountain Pass, 13 miles South of Ouray. For a closer look, the Red Mountain District can be accessed with an ATV or high clearance vehicle on County Road 31; 12.8 miles south of Ouray.
Map of the Area:
Learn More About Idarado and Red Mountain Town:
“Their architecture and construction are not significant for their artistic value or skilled craftsmanship,” the report states. But, it goes on to argue: “Together, these houses form a fine example of company housing in an isolated mining setting — a story important to the history of the region.” ~Samantha Tisdel Wright
Read More of her article in this link
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