The forgotten history of Colorado’s ghost towns

From the foothills of Douglas County to the cliffs of Battle Mountain, history abounds in Colorado’s uninhabited towns

Rylee Dunn
rdunn@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 4/4/22

“There’s nothing abandoned in Colorado,” proclaims Melanie Roth from a set of wooden steps outside a cabin in St. Elmo — a ghost town in Chaffee County.

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The forgotten history of Colorado’s ghost towns

From the foothills of Douglas County to the cliffs of Battle Mountain, history abounds in Colorado’s uninhabited towns

Posted

“There’s nothing abandoned in Colorado,” proclaims Melanie Roth from a set of wooden steps outside a cabin in St. Elmo — a ghost town in Chaffee County.

Roth’s assertion is a bold one considering the setting — a dead-silent main street consisting of 150-year-old buildings that haven’t been inhabited since the 1950s gives way to the towering foothills of Mount Princeton and the Collegiate Peaks.

Here, over a hundred miles from the bustling cityscape of metro Denver, it’s easy to feel isolated — yet not entirely alone.

St. Elmo is perhaps the most well preserved of Colorado’s many ghost towns — remnants of a bygone era when mining, agriculture and railroad routes largely governed where people lived.

While many of these settlements have been decimated by years of weathering — and in some cases, vandalism — a small group of dedicated historians have worked to preserve them as markers of Colorado’s history.

“Two things make Colorado ghost towns different than any other state,” said Lee Dahl, a member of the Ghost Town Club of Colorado. “First of all, the setting; a lot of them are up in the mountains, that kind of makes them a little remote, off the beaten path, not a lot of people knew about it for a long time.

“The other thing is that a lot of those ghost towns had a huge infrastructure where you’d have a mine shaft, and a milling building, some rather large structures that were built rather stoutly for the industry. That made them interesting, also made them sturdy, so they’d withstand time,” Dahl continued.

At a 1958 meeting of Colorado historians in Golden, a man named John Farr stood up after a presentation on ghost towns and said, ‘We ought to start a club.’ The Ghost Town Club of Colorado was formed shortly thereafter and remains active in educating and preserving Colorado’s towns of yesteryear.  

Ethan Knightchilde, a documentary filmmaker and member of the Ghost Town Club, said that many of Colorado’s ghost towns followed a similar trajectory; a discovery was made, followed by a boom, then a bust — then, the town went "ghost."

“When a town no longer had a reason to exist, it ceased to exist, in short. And so, a lot of the mining towns were built around a single commodity, whatever ore was in the ground. It’s a limited resource; when it ran out, the people left,” Knightchilde said.

Joan Fields, a member of the Ghost Town Club since 1979, explained the difference between the two main types of ghost towns commonly found in Colorado.

“It depends on where the ghost towns are. Because there are ghost towns out on the Eastern Plains, and a lot of those were based upon agriculture. The mountain towns, of course, if the minerals ran out or it wasn’t a particularly prosperous mine, oftentimes the towns would disappear,” Fields said.

In the roughshod days of the American West, settlers moved like locusts across the country, building up towns around a single commodity with little regard for maintaining anything for the next generation, according to Knightchilde. Most of the settlers were men looking for work in mines or on farms, which begat a largely nomadic population, according to Fields.

“A lot of communities didn’t have families. A lot of women didn’t move out west until they knew things were going to be settled, or there weren’t children involved. So, you’d pack your frying pan and your mule, you’d pack your things, and you’d just go,” Fields said.

Sometimes, according to Knightchilde, the difficulty of moving an entire household’s worth of possessions down a treacherous mountain pass made the task insurmountable, and settlers would simply move to the next town and start over.

The St. Elmo General Store, which still operates during the summer months.
The St. Elmo General Store, which still operates during the summer months.

Sometimes, the towns would become something else entirely.

“They’d become what we call 'ghosts of their former selves,’” Dahl said.

Ghosts you see, ghosts you don’t

“Technically, towns like Georgetown and Silverton are ghosts,” Knightchilde said. “You’d never want to say that to a resident — they will take offense. But they are shadows of their former selves in terms of size, and their continued existence is because they no longer make a living off of what started them.”

In a way, Knightchilde has a point — Georgetown today largely subsists as a tourist destination, far from its roots as a silver mining camp. When faced with the prospect of going ghost or reinventing themselves, towns of their ilk have been forced to find new ways to get by.

Other historic settlements haven’t been as lucky as the roadside mountain towns.

“In the old days, you’re traveling by horse and wagon, to travel 10 miles a day was a good trip,” said Ed Bathke, a member of the Ghost Town Club since 1961. “So, there were a lot of little towns that were about 10 miles apart.

“Today, you can go much greater distances in an auto pretty quickly, so therefore a lot of these little towns that were really supply points, business centers for their surrounding community, are now essentially ghost towns because people don’t need a supply point that close,” Bathke said.

“What would happen to Georgetown if I-70 wasn’t there, or had not gone through? Or before that, (Route) 40?” Knightchild wonders.

Towns that can’t reinvent themselves run the risk of falling by the wayside entirely.

Cotopaxi was a community established along the Arkansas river by primarily Russian-Jewish settlers in the 1880s. When the colony failed, most of its residents scattered to other parts of the country, leaving little of the original settlement in place, according to Bathke.

Uravan was a uranium mining town in Montrose County that went bust in the 1980s as the United States began sourcing uranium elsewhere. Due to radioactive contamination, the town’s buildings were burned, and everything else was thrown in a pit and buried there, according to Fields and Dahl. Nevertheless, the town’s history isn’t entirely forgotten.

“The people of that area have an annual reunion — they still get together, the people who worked there, especially the descendants of those people,” Bathke said.

Some places don’t receive the same treatment. Dakan, a short-lived mining camp in Douglas County, is largely invisible to the naked eye.

“If you go out there today and look, you’ll see a pasture. There is no sign of it whatsoever,” said Larry Schlupp, president of the Larkspur Historical Society. “There were numerous mines out there at one time — it was a gold town. “

Despite the many challenges surrounding the task, efforts to preserve ghost towns have gained steam in recent years.

A building in Dearfield, Weld County slated for historic preservation.
A building in Dearfield, Weld County slated for historic preservation.

Dearfield, a historically Black settlement in Weld County, was in danger of seeing its few remaining buildings disintegrate before Colorado’s Most Endangered Places — an initiative of Colorado Preservation, Inc. — stepped in and listed the site on its "priority saves" list in an effort to raise funds and organize preservation efforts.

In doing so, one of the state’s earliest markers of Black independence will live on for future generations to learn from and experience.

“(Dearfield) was a colony founded by pioneering Black settlers who understood that having some independence and owning land and maybe farming and building a town was a greater way to achieve independence — freedom — in society,” said Kim Grant, director of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places.

“They actually prospered there for 20 years, and then the Dust Bowl came, and climatic factors intervened that nobody really foresaw and it just ruined the farm economy for nearly everybody. And the town just died away,” Grant continued.

While the town largely died off with its founder, Oliver Toussaint Jackson, in 1948, a few buildings — including a gas station, a diner and Jackson’s homestead — remain in rough shape. Now, with the help of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places, the buildings will be restored as tangible historical artifacts.

A modern-day ghost

The morning after the 1899 fire in Gilman, which destroyed approximately half of the town. The Fleck Clothing Store is at the left of the photo and is marked with an "X". People standing survey the damage.
The morning after the 1899 fire in Gilman, which destroyed approximately half of the town. The Fleck Clothing Store is at the left of the photo and …

Unique even among the colorful history of Colorado ghost towns is Gilman, a modern-day ghost that couldn’t survive its own reinvention.

Early settlers arrived in Gilman around 1879, as overcrowding in Leadville forced miners to try their luck elsewhere. The town was formally settled in 1886 amid the Colorado silver boom. Gilman was initially named "Clinton" after John Clinton, a judge and speculator from nearby Red Cliff, but was later renamed in honor of Henry Gilman, a foreman of the Iron Mask Mine.

Like many towns on Battle Mountain, life in Gilman revolved around mining. By 1890, the town had growing population and a newspaper, the Gilman Enterprise. Then, the silver crash hit.

“With the silver crash of 1893, a lot of the town was abandoned,” said Matthew Mickelson, the local history librarian for Eagle County. “It went from a population of well over 1,000 down to 400 at that point. Soon after that was when they started mining for zinc.”

Faced with similar prospects of other boomtowns of the era — reinvention or abandonment — Gilman chose the former and became a profitable zinc mining outfit that was purchased by the New Jersey Zinc Company in 1912 with designs of turning the settlement into a company town.

“It was considered a model company town — a good one,” said Kathy Heicher, president of the Eagle County Historical Society and local history author.

Heicher added that during this time, Gilman had a hospital, a store and even a bowling alley. New Jersey Zinc had a reputation for taking care of their workers, and wages and accommodations in Gilman were good throughout much of the 20th century.

The population of Gilman hovered between 300-500 residents, with booms occurring around both world wars as demand for zinc increased. By the 1980s, however, natural resources in the mines were becoming depleted, and the town was growing less profitable.

On April 11, 1985, residents of Gilman received a letter from the Battle Mountain Corporation — the name of the company that owned and operated the town at the time — stating that they would need to vacate the premises by June 30.

The terms of the departure notice were severe.

“We would like to offer rent-free living until your departure from the premises. In addition, we would like to offer Joe Trujillo’s assistance with packing your belongings, if necessary,” stated the letter from Battle Mountain Corporation.

In an instant, Gilman — a mountain town which had prospered for almost a century — was gone. However, its story as a ghost town was just beginning.

Gilman taken from the other side of the Eagle River Canyon, circa 1950. The main mine shaft is at right of center.
Gilman taken from the other side of the Eagle River Canyon, circa 1950. The main mine shaft is at right of center.
A present-day photo of Gilman, Colorado; a ghost town in Eagle County which became uninhabited in 1985.
A present-day photo of Gilman, Colorado; a ghost town in Eagle County which became uninhabited in 1985.

When the Battle Mountain Corporation abandoned the town, the property was completely abandoned, and the water pumps were shut off. Battle Mountain — which Heicher describes as a catacomb of mines — soon felt the impact of Gilman’s abandonment.

“They shut off the electricity that had been pumping the wastewater out of the mines, and the mines started filling up with water and it got decades of toxic waste in there,” Heicher said. “The water started flowing out into the Eagle River. The Eagle River was flowing orange. You wouldn’t, in the 1980s, eat a fish that you caught in the Eagle River.”

In 1986, the mine was declared an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site and work began on quelling the contamination from the runoff. Cleanup work on the site was declared completed in 2001, but spikes in pollutants occur to this day, making the decontamination process ongoing.

The pollution at the site has put a damper on plans to revive the area. Various proposals to make Gilman into a ski resort or additional housing for Vail workers have stalled because of the contamination.

The town was annexed into nearby Minturn in 2008 with the hopes of bringing a ski resort plan to fruition, but the developer backed out shortly thereafter in 2009.

Today, Crave Real Estate Ventures owns the townsite, which has become victimized by vandalism in recent years. Trespassers on the property are frequently cited.

Nevertheless, remnants of Gilman’s heyday can still be found at the site.

“They left in such a hurry, the people who have snuck into town say they went into the doctor’s office and there were X-rays lying around. One woman, whose dad had worked at the mine, was able to find his old paystub in the mine offices. That’s why people are really intrigued by it,” Heicher said.

Heicher added that the "boom or bust" nature of Gilman’s history is representative of larger trends in Colorado history.

“It was once a thriving, kind of utopian community, and people liked living there. Colorado is a boom and bust place. Whether it’s oil or whatever, it’s like a classic example of boom and bust,” Heicher said.

‘Take only photos, leave only footprints’

According to Knightchilde, the biggest threat to ghost towns isn’t time, or weather, or even pollutants — it’s people.

“A century and a half of weathering can bring a building down, but people have had a disastrous effect on what remains of these towns.” Knightchilde said.

Knightchilde and his Ghost Town Club compatriots rattle off examples of this problem — Lamartine was robbed of its wood, the Lee Mansion in Capitol City was dismantled for its bricks, Carson has nary a plank of wood without someone’s initials carved into it, Caribou’s buildings have been tagged heavily with graffiti.

Human interference is not a new phenomenon — as Colorado’s even best-preserved ghost town can attest.

By 1957, St. Elmo’s population had dwindled to just two residents — siblings Tony and Annabelle Stark. Urban legends detailing the Starks' decent into madness became fodder for campfire circles, but their true fate was far more insidious.

“They weren’t (mentally incompetent) at all — they weren’t,” Roth said on the cabin steps. “They might have been up here by themselves and they had a neighbor telling everybody they were loony tunes, and so they were declared mentally incompetent and removed.

“Before the ambulance reached Nathrop, all of their valuable possessions were stolen by the person who promoted their insanity and commitment,” Roth continued.

The town eventually was bequeathed to Marie Skogsberg, a family friend of the Starks, who passed down the legacy of preserving St. Elmo to her granddaughter — and Annabelle Stark’s goddaughter — Melanie Roth.

Roth’s efforts have preserved St. Elmo as a snapshot of Colorado’s history, replete with sturdy buildings, historical exhibits and a general store that operates in the summertime. Organizations like the Ghost Town Club and Colorado’s Most Endangered Places have worked to preserve similar sites throughout the state.

“We formed a preservation committee; we raise funds throughout the year and then at the end of each year we will present grants to deserving historical organizations in the state,” Bathke said of the Ghost Town Club. “Typically, they have to be 501(c)(3), so we avoid giving to an individual and we avoid any tax problems.”

Knightchilde said that preservation efforts have galvanized recently, spurred in part by damage incurred by urban development in the late 20th century.

“Preservation efforts have strengthened over the years. It’s not just ghost towns. During America’s love affair with urban renewal during the '60s, '70s and '80s, we lost a lot. And that probably was galvanizing for preservation movements of all kinds,” Kightchilde said.

“You have beautiful historic theatres that were bulldozed for parking lots. And you have people that love those types of buildings that can only see so much of that before they band together to do something about it,” Kightchilde continued.

Members of the Ghost Town Club said that part of their mission is to educate people on the history of ghost towns, which they hope will in turn instill a respect among visitors for the historic sites they go to. Fields said that one of the taglines of the Ghost Town Club is "Take only photos, leave only footprints."

“One of our challenges is getting the word out. We get so many people that come into our mountain towns on their ATVs and all they want to do is run up and down the road as fast as they can,” Fields said.

Knightchilde said that traffic at ghost towns has been on the rise.

“The signs are there that they are increasingly being visited. If you are that interested, you will do some research, the way I did, the way everyone I’ve spoken to who has a love for these places did. And in doing so, you’ll gain a respect for them. My hope is that once you’ve done that, you’re jazzed to go see the place in person, you know something about its history, and you have a respect for it. You’re not going to run roughshod over it,” Knightchilde said.

The allure of ghost towns varies from person to person. Some are drawn to the sites because they represent a beacon of a bygone era. Some, like Knightchilde, feel an intrinsic pull to their history.

“There is that haunting feeling that the building is looking back at you. It’s almost like it’s beckoning you to know its history. People came under unbelievable odds to get to this place and they brought their hopes, their dreams, their fears. They lived and died in these places. There’s this weight of history surrounding you,” Knightchilde said.

“It’s part of our history. Many of us like to preserve our history,” Bathke added. “They say, ‘If you ignore your history, you’re only going to repeat the mistakes that were made in the past.’ There’s always that longing to go back to our roots, and that’s all part of it.”

A store and post office in St. Elmo that doubled as the home of Annabelle and Tony Stark, the town's last original residents.
A store and post office in St. Elmo that doubled as the home of Annabelle and Tony Stark, the town's last original residents.

Members of the Ghost Town Club understandably bristled at the mention of vandalism.

“Vandalism makes my blood boil because that just shows someone that’s completely lacking in any kind of sensitivity,” Kngihtchilde said.

“You need tangible things to remind you of where you’ve been, who you’ve been, as a society,” Kngihtchilde continued.

For Coloradans of nearly all backgrounds, ghost towns are exactly that.

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