I’m Rich! – Colorado Silver and Gold
The whisper of yesterday starts saying hello as we snake our way into the Colorado box canyon. The only thing that moves fluidly through this rugged landscape is the river that carved the walls. The rest of us are either creeping slowly in four wheel jeeps, worn-out hiking boots, or have hooves and fur and are cautiously taking one slow step at a time.
This land is as uninhabitable as you can ever imagine. The slopes surrounding us are more than a 70% grade at times. The soil holding it all in place is a fragile eroding combination of stone, clay, and gravel and with each rain drop, the mountain changes forever. I glance around and take in the remnants of a Silver mine some 500 feet above me and get lost in trying to reconstruct the mining town that somehow once surrounded it.
Gold and Silver. Silver and Gold. This was the call of the west and hundreds of thousands left their homes in the east and made their way to the Rockies to make a claim, start a new life, and be a part of this exciting chapter in America back in the 1880’s. Towns began as tents and soon carpenters would arrive and scrap lumber buildings were being put up in less than a day. There wasn’t a plan, no committees, no planning commission. It was a free for all explosion filled with endless possibilities. It was the internet boom of its day.
We hike up to the site of the once prosperous mining town and all that remains now are a few leaning structures, sage brush and a couple grown up foundations. I glance around at the scattered bones of steel and try to bring them back to life. The wood frame where they loaded the ore into carts and sent it down the valley in rail carts was surprisingly still in fair condition. I let my eyes glaze over a little, look around further and let yesterday come to life.
Mining towns were like a carnival or the once year county fair of its time. There was always the (under the breath) knowledge that things could change in an instant, but the excitement and energy of the moment kept everyone from thinking about the fact they had built a town that was on the side of a 11000 foot eroding mountain, hundreds of miles from anything that resembled civilization and would require a skin thicker than a grizzly to make it through just one winter. We’re not talking towns of a couple hundred folks, these mountain camps had thousands. Every trade you can imagine came to this .com of its day.
I walk through the ghost town street and can feel the energy. I close my eyes and can smell the coal burning the engines of the day. I hear explosions in the mine beside me. The piano is still playing in the saloon. Someone is peddling their wares. A roof is being put on the hardware store. Horses are clomping through the mud. A gun shot fires in the distance. The haze of morning fog, smoke and steam fill the entire valley. I open my eyes and see Bat Masterson riding through town. Silver is big money and Colorado is King!
This all happened in less than 13 years. Thousands of mines discovered and towns built around them in days. Populations migrating from every direction. It was wild. It had to be wonderful. The sun most likely never set and the trains keep running daily. Until 1893 when a panic caused by the Sherman Silver Purchase act caused the value of Silver to fall to the floor in one day. Within less than a year the stock market crashed, 500 banks closed, 15,000 businesses failed, and almost every land, home and business owner in a Colorado mining town put everything they could carry in a wagon and moved on.
The scars are still here. The piles upon piles of tilings and mining trash are still seen on many mountains. The erosion from the makeshift roads and railways still stand out when the sun hits them just right. I glance around again and try to imagine what it would be like today if Silver was still King and these towns would have continued to grow. Before we leave, I walk back down to the river that carved this canyon and listen to its song. I lean back and stick my toes in the water and can hear the faint sounds of the piano once again in the distance at the saloon. Colorado is still King and it’s not the gold rush, or the silver allure, or the buried treasure that we must unearth that still brings people by the thousands every year to these Rocky Mountains.
In 1890 probably every wagon you would pass on the roads heading into these Colorado mountain towns you would notice picks, large hammers and head gear with lamps. Today instead of wagons, just about every car you pass is either a Subaru, Jeep or an ATV of some kind. Every other car we pass on the way back to camp either has a bike, Kayak or ski rack on top, is pulling a trailer with an ATV, dirt bike or Canoe. If you walk through a great old mining town that has somehow survived like Creede Colorado, you’ll pass by hikers with full packs just off the trail. It isn’t uncommon to see men in waders walking down the street with fishing polls on their back just back from a float on the Rio Grand. ATV’s ride down main. There are stands for mountain bikes in front of every store front. A tavern on the corner has a laundry inside the bar.
It’s still the wild west, but it’s the wild of nature and the magnitude of this Colorado playground that continues to call to us. “Come to my sanctuary. Come rest in my valleys, push your limits and climb to the top of my 14’ers. Float my rivers and be a part of my changing current. Let my woods provide your food. Inhale the clean, crisp, thin air into your lungs. Stick your toes back into my water. This is real Silver and Gold”
There’s always been something about these mountains, carved by the rivers, changed by the rain, and appearing almost untouchable, that have caused men to search for new horizons, that beautiful morning when we lace up our boots, put what’s important on our back, say good bye to what we know and start walking into the wild woods.