It started with a Gold Rush. Zebulon Pike heard the first rumors in 1807, shortly after spotting the mountain that would eventually bear his name, but it wasn’t until more than 40 years later that settlers bound for California would find a creek that fairly gleamed with gold. A man could earn a week’s wage with a single dip of a strainer pan. In the years that followed, hundreds of tons’ worth of the metal would be extracted from sites around Colorado. Fortunes were won, and lives were lost, by means that ranged from the perfectly legitimate to the outright murderous.
The miners had often found silver during their operations, but the value of the metal didn’t justify the effort of extraction. In 1878, however, Congress passed the Bland-Allison Act which directed the Treasury to begin minting silver dollars—and the Colorado Silver Boom began in earnest. Tens of thousands of miners worked in remote locations around the state to satisfy the ever-increasing demand. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 mandated the purchase of a further 4.5 million ounces per month.
Three years later, the market collapsed in the Panic of 1893. The value of silver, which had been propped up by government action, quickly halved. The U.S. Mint at Carson City closed permanently. The silver boom was finished.
Overnight, hundreds of communities became ghost towns as miners left Colorado in search of employment. Schools and businesses closed their doors. Railroad spurs stopped their service. There is no complete list of these places, nor will there ever be. Some settlements were wiped off the land by avalanches, weather, or erosion. Others were simply wiped off the map, forgotten by their previous inhabitants and isolated permanently by distance and altitude. No doubt some of them will be discovered in the future, by adventurous souls or lost travelers.
Plenty of ghost towns have survived to the present day that are in serviceable condition. Some have become trendy “glamping” destinations. A few have even returned from the spirit world, so to speak, revitalized by an influx of money from the West Coast in a land rush that has raised home prices nearly ten percent in the last year alone. You can choose what kind of ghost town you want to see.
We’re taking the Mazda CX-5 to three of Colorado’s most famous ghost towns to see what the future holds for these newly fashionable relics of the past. For 2017, this five-seat crossover offers a unique blend of capability, comfort, and sporting intent. It’s a 100-mile jaunt from downtown Denver to Leadville, which sits nearly two miles above sea level, but the CX-5 makes short work of the trip. This is a quiet vehicle that fairly bristles with luxury features from the class above it. There’s a power tailgate, French-stitched dashboard padding, and rear seats that offer three levels of heat and two reclining angles.
After Leadville, there’s a road that narrows, yields tarmac to gravel, then becomes just a plain dirt path. There are wide fields of flattened trees where a series of late snows have caused massive avalanches from the mountains above to Clear Creek below. We’re headed for the first of our ghost towns.
Winfield once boasted 1,500 residents, but after 1893 most of them left the 50 x 100-foot lots they’d been given for free by the town’s founders during the height of the silver boom. The post office closed in 1912. A few buildings remain standing a few hundred yards from the creek, including the one-room schoolhouse built in 1889. It is a sparse, square-fronted affair, one story tall, and about 12 feet wide, with just two windows and a single door; no bigger than it needs to be, built the hard way with the materials at hand, with room for perhaps ten students.
From here, you can take the Continental Divide Trail, hiking to either Canada or Mexico. A variety of privately owned cabins have been built on the wide, flat meadow to the west. You are surrounded by a wall of stone on three sides, white-capped peaks stretching beyond the timberline to 14,000 feet and above. The climb to La Plata Peak, the fifth-highest mountain in Colorado, begins here, a path blazed by Winfield’s miners on their way to dig for the silver that gave the peak its Spanish name.
We return the way we’ve come and then head further south to St. Elmo. Having received a series of six-figure renovations from various foundations and historical societies after a fire in 2002, this town survives in exceptional condition. St. Elmo was a stop on the railroad line and a hub for supply delivery to more remote mining towns, but by the time the railroad ceased operations in 1922 there was virtually nobody left to notice. The Stark family operated a small hotel and the post office until 1958.
Today, St. Elmo is once again a hub, this time for a thriving tourism business. Across the river from the old town there are plenty of rental cabins. From there, you can take a snowmobile or ATV into the high passes through the mountains beyond. The streets are lined with 4x4s and expensive, neon-colored powersports vehicles. It’s all very hip; this seems like a ghost town tailor-made for the Instagram generation, complete with massive vinyl banners encouraging visitors to visit various websites to find out more about what they’ve just seen. Still, St. Elmo is not exactly on the beaten path just yet. An upper-story window has a mannequin situated in such a manner as to frighten casual visitors who happen to look up at what they expect to be an abandoned building. And a refrigerator outside the general store has a sign telling visitors to take what they want and pay on the honor system.
Our final destination is going to require a little more effort. The last 20 miles of the road to Tincup is subject to closure in the event of weather. On the way there, we pass a series of campgrounds and a part-time, one-pump gas station before coming face-to-face with what looks like a ten-mile drive in reasonably deep snow. It’s slow going, but the CX-5 remains remarkably unflustered, even when the road gets steeper and winding.
There was plenty of money to be made in Tincup, thanks to rich seams of gold that were discovered in 1879. There was also plenty of danger. The weather was extreme. The town was attacked by Native American tribes in the early years. The town marshall was killed in a gunfight in 1882; his replacement was shot to death in 1883. When the local mines finally ran out, the town slowly depopulated. The last local election was held in 1918. Yet the area did not remain abandoned for long. A commercial camping operation opened just after World War II, and the town acquired a reputation as a summer vacation spot. Tincup is now settled year-round by hardy souls who don’t mind the difficulties of returning to civilization. We see a couple of cabins for sale at prices that would shock a Midwesterner, but probably seem very reasonable to retirees who have cashed out their homes in a Los Angeles suburb or the Bay Area. And the few residents we see around town conform very well to a particular archetype: retired at 50, affably affluent, enjoying a second life at 10,157 feet. Unlike the people who built Tincup, these folks haven’t come here to seek a fortune. They’re here to seek something else. Something that seems easier to reach when you’re close to the timberline; something that they might be able to see better with the big and bright night sky that only serious elevation and clear weather can provide.
One resident, a white-haired, sprightly woman walking two very expensive purebred dogs, confesses to us that there’s still a bit of that old Tincup spirit around town. “In the summer, the ATV riders come from all around. The town goes crazy.” We’d seen a sign on the way in telling us that “This is God’s Country—please don’t drive through it like hell!” Patting her puffy ski jacket, our impromptu tour guide tells us: “I bought myself a gun a few years back. You never know when you’ll need it. There’s not much civilization up here.” She waves as we drive off. She might be a bit worried, but she isn’t going anywhere. That’s the thing about the Wild West. Once you’re here it gets into your blood. A certain kind of excitement. A feeling of adventure. The mining may be long gone, but the rush remains.