In my last blog on my road trip through the Colorado Rockies, I talked about Independence Pass and its close connection with the discovery of gold. Gold in this part of Colorado was discovered on 4th July 1879 at Roaring Fork River about four miles from the top of the Independence Pass and a town soon sprung upon the banks of the river and in the shadow of Mt Independence. It started as a tent city and one year later there were 300 people living in the camp. The following year a single company, Farwell Mining Company, had acquired the leading mines such as Independence No 1, 2 and 3, Last Dollar, Legal Tender, Mammoth, Mount Hope, Champion, Sheba, Friday, and Dolly Varden.
Various competing interests battled over the name of the town. During its short life it was variously known as Belden, Chipeta, Sidney, Farwell, Sparkhill and in its fading days optimistically Mammoth City and Mount Hope. Ironically though and for obvious reasons, it was widely known as Independence though there was never a post office of that name.
By summer of 1881 there were 500 people and many permanent buildings including grocery stores, boarding houses and three saloons. It reached its peak in 1882 when there were 90 buildings containing 40 businesses and a population of 1,500.
As with most mining booms, the bust followed quickly when the gold ran out and by 1888 there were only 100 citizens eking out an existence at an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet and under a blanket of snow from October to the end of May. The worst storm in Colorado’s history hit in 1899 and those residents still there were completely cut off for months. Running out of food, they dismantled their houses to make skis and 75 residents skied their way to Aspen. Only one resident remained after this. Jack Williams was caretaker of the stamper battery and treatment plant. In 1912 Jack finally left and that was the end of the town of Belden-Independence-Chipeta-Sidney-Farewell-Sparkhill-Mammoth City-Mount Hope.
Incredibly a number of buildings have survived to varying degrees in this spectacular location. Some remain relatively intact and have been restored and some are piles of timber or just depressions in the ground. Ted Ackerman’s Hotel was one of five during its hey-day. Little remains of this establishment where miners could find a room for $2 a day.
A general store stands proud, restored in the 1980s and a remarkable testament to the courage of these men (and a few women) and the lure of gold.
As a geologist with a strong interest in the company history and social history of gold mining in my home country I have seen many Australian ‘ghost towns’ from the gold rush days. They were much more transient and rarely does any structure survive as here. Australians built with hessian and stone and corrugated iron, rather than timber, which is so abundant here, and material was transported to the next town following abandonment. You’d have to say that heat was more of a problem than cold generally. Its hard not to be impressed though by the simplicity of construction of the log cabin and its durability. 140 years later the v-notch joints still hold the structures together.
Just downstream from the town is the timber framework of a large stamper battery and on the slopes above there is a bit more mine infrastructure, the head of a mine shaft and a patch of Aspen covering what was obviously a spoil dump. I would love to have had time to explore more.
Preservation of these sites is essential. They are one of the few tangible links to a hugely important part of the development of countries such as USA and Australia. As in Australia, mining was responsible for opening up large tracts of the country and for the beginnings of many towns, some gone like Independence, some still surviving like Aspen, Leadville or Cañon City. I’ll come back to this in a later blog.
Great article Bob. Butchers Crossing by John Williams is a novel set partly in a place like this, at that time. Although not for gold but buffalo. Your pictures and descriptions greatly reminds me of it.
Wonderful! Being a history hound I love the stories behind the places. Cheers!