Across Colorado, there are reminders of a colorful past when precious metals were scraped, pulled, dug, and washed from the earth, where boomtowns sprung up overnight and just as quickly disappeared. Here, huge fortunes could be instantly made, but for most who came driven by such dreams, the rush to find riches turned out to be just that, a dream.
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Many arrived on foot, packing what they needed on their backs. Some came with a mule loaded down with picks, shovels, and canvas shelters tethered to these beasts of burden. On the heels of these miners came those who provided various kinds of support systems (saloons, merchants, women offering companionship for a price, dentists) and a wide assortment of other kinds of riffraff. Some mother lodes played out quickly, while others continue to be mined to this day. Several of these old mining towns have taken on new life and experienced a gold rush or boom of a different kind. Like magnets, they draw tourists from around the globe because of the fun stuff they offer, while others have vanished or been nearly forgotten but where remnants of a rich and colorful past still sit waiting to be discovered.
Poke around the nooks and crannies that are hidden in the Centennial State and you still find evidence of those once heady boom/bust days. And even though these mining towns are located in the heart of the Rockies, some are well off the beaten path.
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The gold rush that took place here was the last big one in the United States. Between 1900 and the 1920s, more gold was pulled from Cripple Creek mines than was taken out of California or Alaska during both of those gold rushes combined. Secluded on the backside of Pikes Peak, this historic town is once again booming. For the mining history buff, places like the Mollie Kathleen Mine is both a museum and working mine. Step aboard the elevator and travel down a thousand feet into the bowels of the earth, where veins of gold are still being extracted.
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The San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado are among the most beautiful in the world. High above timberline, mining for gold and silver began in the 1870s and continued up through the 1980s. Twenty-five miles of graded gravel road leads you south from the town of Del Norte, which is the last place to get supplies of any kind (food, water, fuel). Because the elevation is 11,000 feet above sea level, unexpected squalls of snow are possible, even in the summer months. During the World War II, the Federal Government halted the extraction of gold. It was directed that metals be mined that would support the war effort. Back then, for many who lived in the San Luis Valley to the east, the jobs these mines provided lifted the starving, struggling families in the valley out from the shadow of poverty that had been cast over the country by the Great Depression.
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As the name of this (now nearly vanished) mining town implies, huge amounts of wealth were removed from the mines that once surrounded Bonanza. Located in the Saguache Mountains, when removed from the earth, the ore was either trucked to Salida for processing or carried over the mountains in cable cars and buckets. This aerial cable transport system spanned a distance of more than 7 miles. As with so many mining towns across the West, because the structures were wood and because only wood and coal stoves were used to heat, Bonanza burned to the ground a couple of times. After the boom went bust, nature healed many of the scars that were left by mining.
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A richer story about the history of silver and gold mining than the one about Horace and “Baby Doe” Tabor does not exist. A mining-camp merchant, Horace grubstaked miners (provided them with items needed to prospect for gold and silver, and in exchange, he would receive a share of any wealth discovered). He became a multi-millionaire overnight when one of his grubstakes proved to be a mother lode. A married man, his instant wealth led him to leave his wife and marry Baby Doe, a woman 35 years his junior. When the Federal Government stopped using silver to back U.S currency and went strictly to the gold standard, Horace Tabor lost everything. On his deathbed, he told Baby Doe to “hang on to the Matchless Mine, for one day silver would again rein king.” This never happened, and for decades, Baby Doe lived in a shack at the Matchless Mine just east of Leadville.
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Crestone: A Touch of Tibet
With a modest discovery of precious metals along the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, as the 19th century turned into the 20th, the small town of Crestone in this northeast corner of the San Luis Valley came to life. Following this rush to riches, it would be ranchers who, for the next several decades, would graze and push cows on the vast stretches of sagebrush that carpet this landscape. Today, little remains of those mining efforts, but in their place another kind of bonanza has taken place. Below the pinnacled peaks that poke at the stratosphere above, Crestone might very well be mistaken for Tibet or Nepal; below these mountain peaks, this remote community has become a spiritual magnet. Found here are various forms of Buddhism and new age religions that have anchored themselves into the base of the granite spires that rise 14,000 plus feet above sea level.