Posts Tagged With: Independence

The Colorado Rockies 4. Independence – a Ghost Town.

Independence ghost town

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.

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The ghost town of Independence at the foot of Mt Independence in the valley of the Roaring Fork River

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.

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A restored miner’s cabin now used as a summer residence.

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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.

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Ruins of Ted Ackerman’s Hotel

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.

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Restored general store

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.

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Remains of a  large stamper battery.  The treatment plant would have been on the flat area below.

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An old mine site.  The mound in the distance was the head of a shaft and the patch of aspen covers a spoil dump.

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.

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The Colorado Rockies 3. Independence Pass.

Independence Pass

This is the third in a series of blogs on the Colorado Rockies following my visit during September 2018.  In an earlier blog I looked at Twin Lakes.  If you continue driving west from here along Highway 82 towards Aspen you cross the Independence Pass.  That’s where we will go today.

Independence Pass is the highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide in the USA.  The Divide runs like a spine through North and South America from the Beering Straits to the Straits of Magellan and marks the hydrological divide between rivers that drain into the Atlantic to the east and the Pacific to the west.  Independence Pass reaches an elevation of 12,095 feet (3,687m) in the Sawatch Range.  It is closed for much of the year, from October, due to extreme snowfalls.  But this September day, clear blue skies greeted me and not a trace of snow.

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An incredible drive up, switchbacks snake through forests of pine, spruce, fir and aspen and past lakes surrounded by soaring peaks many reaching as high as 14,000 feet (14ers as they call them in Colorado), luckily with a few pull-offs to admire and photograph the views.

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A typical Colorado mountain scene on the way up Independence Pass

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A huge switchback takes you from the valley floor to the top.

Near the top though there is a dramatic change as you enter the treeless alpine tundra environment of open grassland, low shrubbery, bare exposed rock and ephemeral pools.

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Wild landscape at the top of Independence Pass

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This ephemeral lake has dried up during the summer

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The car park under an ‘exploding hill’ at the top of Independence Pass

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arctic tundra

Everywhere you look you see the results of glacial action, the land being smoothed out during the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.  The rocks of course are much older and comprise gneiss dating back 1,700 million years and younger intrusive granites.

The Pass has an interesting history.  Spotted by Zebulon Pike in 1806, during his mapping of the southern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase, it wasn’t fully surveyed until 1873.  It was the limit of European settlement at the time.  West, the land was reserved for the Ute people and travel was prohibited but prospectors defied this and on July 4th 1879 discovered gold 4 miles from the pass on the Roaring Fork River, at a place which naturally became known as Independence.  Eventually the mountain, lake and pass itself were given that name.  Independence started a massive gold and silver rush and is now a fascinating ghost town.  I will have more to say in an upcoming blog.

The original path over the pass was suitable only for horses but as Independence became a more permanent settlement, in 1881 the pass was improved so that stagecoaches could cross. A toll was charged and this paid for a team of men who shoveled snow through the winter to keep the road open.  They were successful at doing this for five years but on occasions sleighs had to be used. A typical voyage over the pass required 10–25 hours and five changes of horses. A new road was built in 1927 and the current paved road in 1967.  I took a little time to ponder the different obstacles and tribulations that the prospectors of Colorado had to deal with, compared with those in the Australian gold rushes.  all incredibly hardy folk.

From the viewpoint at the top which looks east you can see a number of peaks including from left to right 1 Casco Peak (13,908 ft, which hides the highest mountain in Colorado, Mt Elbert at 14,433 ft),  2 Lackawanna Peak (13,661 ft). 3 Rinker Peak  (13,783 ft), 4 La Plata (14,343 ft), 5 Star Mountain (12,941 ft) and 6 Ouray Peak (12,947 ft).

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View looking east from Independence Pass showing major peaks.

An awesome feeling standing at the top of the world.  Imagine the scene before me draped in snow.  I didn’t want to leave, but when I did the view from the western side on the way down towards Aspen was just as good.

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Over the pass and down the western side.  A classic glacial valley.

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Heading back beneath the tree line towards Aspen

 

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