9 Ghost Towns in Colorado You Can Visit
Colorado is blessed with one of the highest numbers of ghost towns in the US, although most states have a few sites like these. But unlike many other states, it wasn’t just the vagaries of the Western Gold Rush that created these ghost towns. Both natural forces and economic shifts can cause a boomtown filled with people and hotels to become an empty monument in only a few generations. In Colorado, thousands of gold and silver mining camps were founded, swelled with people, and then faded as the ore deposits ran out.
Now, only the remnants of these towns are left and some are ripe for a tourist to visit. Some are accessible only by off-road vehicles and are only for the hardiest of travelers. Others are more easily accessible to anyone and make a great day trip as a complement to visiting better-known destinations. Many of these ghost towns are on or near main roads and are actually experiencing a bit of rebirth from the tourist trade.
Conversely, there are hundreds of others that are devoid of people and filled with unoccupied buildings that better convey the true sense of abandonment that comes to mind when you think of ghost towns. If you’re a true gold rush history buff, you won’t want to miss these extinct boomtowns.
Buckskin Joe Colorado
Buckskin Joe Colorado, or what is left of it, lies between the towns of Leadville and Alma in the mountains of central Colorado in the South Park.
During the Colorado gold rush, many towns came to life quickly due to the flow of miners converging on the Rockies in search of wealth. The town was originally named Laurette. Fact and fancy make it hard to tell what the real story is behind the renaming.
The tale of Joseph Higginbottom, who preferred wearing Native American clothing, is the most popular. It is said that Laurette was the name of his sweetheart and he named the town for her. He was nicknamed Buckskin Joe by the miners and this became the official name of the town in 1861.
This was one of Colorado’s earliest mining camps. The most spectacular gold find was the Phillips Lode, along the banks of Buckskin Creek. The town became official with the opening of a post office run by another Colorado legend, Horace Tabor and his wife Augusta.
As with any mining town, businesses sprang up to support the miners. Most important of these, of course, were saloons. The opening of saloons attracted the gamblers, ladies of the evening, and others of ill repute. Billard parlors, dance halls, and other establishments in the red light district outside of town prospered.
The first stamp mill was built by two enterprising men named Harris and Stansell. They also set up the first bank in Buckskin Joe. By the early 1860s, the town consisted of two hotels, fourteen stores, and the bank. The first courthouse was built in 1861 and became the county seat for Park County.
A stagecoach station was built and the newly formed Dan McLaughlin Stage Line transported passengers and gold to Denver. In 1863, as legend tells, the stage was robbed by a band of Confederate soldiers who were stealing gold to support the south. They were pursued by a posse, the gang scattered and the stolen gold was never found.
A smallpox epidemic in the mid-1860s wiped out most of the town. Mining ceased, stores closed up and many people died. Evidence of the disease can be seen by the many headstones outside of the remains of the town.
By 1866, the town was empty and the county seat was moved to the town of Fairplay in Park County. This was the fate of many towns during the gold rush days. When mines closed down, due to the gold being exhausted, people moved on leaving the once-booming towns to die.
You can still see traces of the town by traveling out of Fairplay to Hwy. 9 heading toward the town of Alma. In the center of town, turn left onto a dirt road for two miles. The spot of the town is located in a meadow to the right of the road to the cemetery. The remains of the Phillips mine is to the left of the dirt road.
All that is left of the earliest gold rush town are foundations overgrown with weeds and trees, a few structures that are falling down and the cemetery. And, of course, the ghosts of history past.
One great boomtown to check out is the town of Animas Forks, located deep in the San Juan Mountains, which is only accessible in the summer and only by a good four-wheel-drive vehicle. You’re in the high country here, make no mistake about it. You can get there by going through Silverton or taking the harder path over either Engineer Pass or Cinnamon Pass. Getting there is a bit of a challenge, but the sights are definitely worth the effort.
The small town of Elkton Colorado, became famous during the Cripple Creek gold find in the Pikes Peak region.
In 1893, Colorado was in the throes of economic failure. President Gover Cleveland had instituted the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and mining ground to a halt. Many would-be miners made their way to the Cripple Creek area to make their fortune.
One such person was William Shemwell, a blacksmith from Colorado Springs. Mr. Shemwell had no idea how to mine for gold. Making his way up Raven Hill, he just started digging and, to his surprise, found some gold.
He immediately went to register his claim and when asked for the name, he remembered a set of antlers lying close to where he started digging and the Elkton mine was born. Little did William know that his strike would be the second richest in the history of Cripple Creek mining.
He needed grubstake money, so he traveled to Colorado Springs and offered grocers Sam and George Bernard a half interest in his find. Eventually, the Bernard brothers bought out Shemwell’s half of the claim and started to manage the Elkton mine.
With more miners converging on the Cripple Creek area, tents and rough huts were springing up along the mine and the town was established. Transportation was a big issue in the mining district. However, Elkton had three railroad lines going through town, the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad, the Midland Terminal Line and the Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek District Railway.
Other new discoveries were put in place. Electric tracks, a streetcar line, and roads made travel around the goldfields and in town a pleasant experience. Communication in and out of the Cripple Creek basin was easier with the installation of a telegraph line.
In 1904, Elkton became one of the military camps set up to restore peace during the labor wars that threatened the mining district. As with other gold towns, Elkton gradually faded away, only a few old buildings can be seen. However, in its booming times, some now famous people worked the mines in the Cripple Creek District.
Tom Mix, the silent film cowboy, worked as a cowboy and bouncer; Groucho Marx drove a grocery wagon in Victor; Lowell Thomas was born in Victor; Ralph Carr grew up in Victor and worked on the newspaper. Brothers Bill and Jack Dempsey worked the Bull Hill mine. Jack was killed in a mine collapse and brother Bill took his name and became the World’s Heavyweight Boxing Champion.
It is easy to get to what is left of the town of Elkton. Take Hwy. 67 to Cripple Creek. Follow the signs to Victor and follow the paved road around Raven Hill. A dirt road leads up to the remains of the once-booming town of Elkton.
In addition, check out the gold town called Ohio City which was formed in the 1860s and abandoned as the gold began to run out. However, Ohio City is unique in that it had a bit of a second life when silver was discovered there in 1879. But that, too, played out and the town was abandoned again. The gold mine was again reopened just before 1900, but by 1915, the mine was closed and the town was again left to the ghosts.
Mountain City Colorado
Mountain City Colorado was the first established town of the many settlements known as the Central City group. The person responsible for this settlement was John Gregory, of Georgia, who struck the Gregory Lode in the late 1850’s.
Gregory was a driver for the mule train at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. He was making his way west to California to the Sutter goldfields. During a long winter in 1858, he kept hearing rumors that gold was discovered at the South Platte River in the Colorado territory.
Abandoning his plans for California, Gregory made a tour of the profitable mining areas around Pikes Peak. Staying close to the creeks and streams, he eventually found a promising area which is known today as Clear Creek. Gregory came to a fork in the creek of, again what is today, Idaho Springs and Central City. He followed the north branch and wound up in a gulch that carries his name.
Here he started prospecting and found gold strewn around the creek bank. He determined this was the richest find of all he had been examining. After spending a winter at his strike, he returned to the town of Golden for supplies. He met up with two other men, Wilkes Defrees and William Ziegler, who he encouraged to go with him to his find.
Arriving back at the Gregory Lode, the men continued to pan for gold along the creek. As Gregory was sifting sand, he suddenly saw a layer of gold in the bottom of the pan. Defrees and Gregory jumped into the creek and between them, it is said, pulled out about 40 pans of gold. It is noted by a local newspaper man who was covering gold strikes in the area, that Gregory was quite bewildered by his discovery. He didn’t sleep, convinced someone was going to jump his claim.
Gregory put up a log and brush hut for shelter, and this became the first building in the town of Mountain City. Word of the find in Clear Creek Canyon spread like wildfire and people flocked to the area from Denver. Some found gold, others weren’t so lucky.
Tents, huts and other shelters grew up around Gregory Gulch. Eventually, it was difficult to tell where one settlement ended and the other began. Black Hawk was established with its many refineries and mills. Then Mountain City became a town, with Central City above it. Mountain City Colorado was platted by Richard Sopris, who laid it out halfway between Black Hawk and Central City.
To show how quickly these towns grew, by the summer of 1859, Mountain City had a hotel and log theater along with the various structures housing the miners. It took only six weeks for the town to be established where there once was nothing. Two newspapers in the mountain area were opened, the Rocky Mountain Gold Reporter and the Mountain City Herald.
A Masonic hall and a saloon were built and in June 1859, the first church service was held in the new town of Mountain City. John Gregory sold his land for around $25,000 and moved back to Georgia. In 1860, Mountain City was all but empty with the new gold find at California Gulch.
The Civil War brought miners back to the town, rich with fissures of gold, and mining resumed a fever pitch for years. Both the Union and the Confederacy needed gold to support themselves. With the end of the war, the bottom fell out of gold mining and the people of Mountain City moved on.
In 1880, Mountain City was incorporated into the eastern part of the town of Central City. Today, new riches found in the area are casinos and grand hotels.
To visit Mountain City, take Hwy. 119 to Black Hawk, then head east toward Central City. You will find a bronze marker locating where the town once stood.
As you might expect, it was marble – not gold – that brought the people to the town of Marble, Colorado. Strictly speaking, this is still an occupied town, although many of the 19th-century buildings are still standing and ready to be visited. The town of Marble Colorado began much like any gold rush town. Gold and silver were discovered along the Crystal River, prospectors arrived and erected tents and log huts.
In the late 1870s, a group of men in search of riches reached the Crystal River area and started placer mining. The settlement was first named Yule Creek, Clarence and then Marble City. With minerals being very limited, the first quarry of the world’s finest marble was discovered.
The marble deposit was found in 1882 by William Wood and W.D. Parry two miles from the town and named Whitehouse Mountain. In 1900, the Colorado Yule Marble Company set up the largest marble finishing plant. Experienced stone cutters were imported from Italy to ensure the highest quality of the material.
In the beginning, transporting these massive blocks was a daunting endeavor. Forty-plus donkeys were fitted together in a “pack train” and the marble was moved down the mountain. During the winter, sleighs would move the slabs down the same path the pack train had used during dry months.
As the marble chunks became bigger, wagon roads were built so that heavy freight wagons could haul the stone. The first wagon road was built in 1905 up the Yule Creek to the quarries. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad started hauling the marble chunks from Carbondale to destinations east. This was a costly operation.
In 1906, the Colorado Yule Marble Company built the Crystal River and San Juan Railroad from Placita to Marble. The rail line existed until 1942. The early 1900s showed prosperity in the town of Marble. Around 2,000 people lived in the town which had electricity, churches, schools, general stores, pool halls, saloons, and an early movie theater.
The new city had a water system, fire department, a newspaper and, on Sunday, the town instituted band concerts for the enjoyment of all. The marble quarried from the Colorado mine was in demand all over the country. The Lincoln Memorial was completely carved from the white mineral. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery was carved from a 100-ton block of Colorado marble. This was the best monument quality marble block that has ever come from a quarry.
By 1912, the production of marble began to wane. High shipping costs and use of veneers and marble substitutes put the use of real marble out of the spotlight. Then in August of 1941, a massive mudslide almost buried the town of Marble. Main Street businesses were washed away, the bridge over Carbon Creek was smashed to bits.
The slide moved north to south and every street was filled with debris and mud. The mill was destroyed and the quarry closed not long after the flood, never to reopen. The trek to Marble is easy to visit. Take Hwy. 133 from Carbondale, following the Crystal River, to the remains of the town of Marble.
Next up, the short life of Independence, Colorado has left us with a great ghost town to visit. Just be warned – the summers are short and the winters are long and cold – the same factors that doomed this mining town in the first place. Still, it makes a wonderful place to visit if you’ll be in Colorado in the summer.
Finally, another victim of the harsh Colorado winters was the ghost town of Carson. The town lies almost right on the Continental Divide. At an elevation of almost 12,000 feet, the miners were subjected to some brutal conditions, but today, there are several empty buildings that are only accessible by 4X4. But despite the challenge involved, this town is – like most of the Colorado ghost towns – well worth the trip for true history buffs.
Crystal City Colorado
Crystal City Colorado was named for the Crystal River which flowed nearby. Here this boom town consisted of hotels, a general store, saloon, two newspaper offices and a pool hall.
The first prospectors arrived in the valley around 1860. They followed a trail that led from Crested Butte across Scofield Pass. It was not until twenty years later, that mineral deposits were discovered by a geologist, John Hallowell, in 1883.
What he found was not gold or silver, but zinc, iron and copper. Many flocked to the town when they heard of the discovery of these minerals. Roads to and from the camp were only trails over and around the mountains. The area was famous for snow and rock slides.
In 1900, the town became buried in snow. The stage road was under thirty feet of snow. Mines had to close up because there was no way to get the ore out or supplies in. Eventually, a railroad spur was built by the Crystal River and San Juan Railway. However, heavy snow and drifts made it impossible for the train to run until the spring thaw.
Any communication out of Crystal City was on snowshoes. Drifts reached roof high and some residents said it was the worst storm in the Elk Mountains they had ever seen. Even the postman, who would always deliver the mail, only visited once a week during winter months with the use of snowshoes.
When the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1893 was passed, there was widespread panic and Crystal City was abandoned. Today, the spot where Crystal City stood consists of a handful of summer cabins that are enjoyed between June and October.
Driving to Crystal City is easy on paved Hwy. 133 from Carbondale to Marble, then take the old stage road from Marble to Crystal City.
Colorado Ghost Towns
Were Once Colorful and Famous Places
Colorado ghost towns. When you think of the old west lots of things come to mind. The most common are ghost towns. Unfortunately, there are no “towns” like you see in other parts of the west or on TV. Here in Colorado, you may find bits and pieces of the booming towns that use to be.
Many towns were established when the gold rush came about. They all, but a few, retreated into Colorado lore. Some of the most colorful histories of these towns are listed for you to enjoy.
The majority are in the Pikes Peak area of the gold rush days. Gold was discovered here in 1859 and tent camps then towns sprung up as quickly as people could arrive.
One such town in the Cripple Creek mining district was Elkton.
Mountain City, in the Central City group, was the predominant town of the Gregory Gulch area of present-day Idaho Springs and Central City.
You can also find remains of towns all over the state. It didn’t necessarily have to be the waning of the gold rush or silver boom that doomed a town. Virginia Dale is one of those towns. Marble is another.
Diseases spread, people die and that left move on. Some tent cities were wiped out by gangs of claim jumpers or Indian attacks.
Others were incorporated into the towns you know today in Colorado; Denver, Golden, Aspen, etc. One of these is Crystal City on the western slope.
But, yes, the gold rush was the main reason ghost towns or what is left of them, exist. Buckskin Joe, the earliest gold rush town, was wiped out by smallpox and the depletion of the gold source. As soon as the gold was mined out, the towns were abandoned and people moved on. There are very few remains of these towns.
An old building, a marker, an old wagon is all that is visible from these once booming towns. Historic preservation in Colorado is active in keeping these sites from being destroyed.
South Park City outside of Fairplay, is a historic museum dedicated to the Colorado ghost towns that once were real towns. It has been historically restored and mining equipment, buildings, railroad cars, etc. from the 1800s are there for you to enjoy. My husband and I have been there many times and it is truly a fascinating exhibit.
Living in an area where there are quite a few remains of old towns, I become nostalgic over a time that was. Almost every day I drive by the site of where a town or railroad stop use to be.
As you travel across Colorado, you can find where these pieces of ghost towns are located by checking out the local historical societies. These societies have loads of information about the ghost towns as well as pieces that have been found where the towns were built, and historic photographs.
Many places will be off the beaten path and you may have to hike to find them. Also, if the artifacts are on private property, you must get the owners permission to search for them. It’s common courtesy.
So next time you are in Colorado for a ski trip or passing through, stop long enough at some of the historic sites. Think back, not that long ago, to a time that was a lot slower but more rugged, and the people who worked and lived at the spot on which you are standing.