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So we found ourselves at the Peerless Mine in my last post after we decided to turn around at the North London Mine, below, instead of driving over Mosquito Pass whose extremely narrow and rocky trail clinging to the cliff-side got the better of our nerves. The Mosquito Pass Wagon Road company extended the road past the London Mine over the pass to Leadville in 1878-1879. Gold and silver fever were at a pitch in Leadville and South Park. Mining in London Mountain began in 1874 and over 100 miles of tunnels eventually wound through the mountain. As for a brief history of the pass, which crests at about 13,200 feet, the forest service brochure says, "By the summer of 1879 more than a hundred wagons, freighters and coaches traveled the pass daily. Traffic jams on the steep switchbacks, travelers lost in blinding storms and the summit's spectacular vistas passed into the parlance of memory when the railroad lines reached Leadville by other routes in the summer of 1880. Mosquito Pass was abandoned to the ravages of wind and erosion. After WWII, local residents reopened the road, the highest drivable pass in the country, for a burro race from Fairplay to Leadville. That tradition survives as an annual event to this day." All that work to make the wagon road pass only to have it be obsolete in about a year!
These are remains of the North London Mine. Like the Dauntless and Hilltop Mines, a tramway once spanned from the London Mine down to the mill in the valley below, carrying the ore to be processed. Every time I look at a mine entrance I'm stunned to think that's the only humble indication that a massive system of tunnels, representing countless man-hours of toil, lies beyond and right beneath my feet, unseen.
Not too far from Mosquito Pass near present-day Alma, the town of Buckskin Joe, named for "an eccentric fellow" who wore buckskin clothes, thrived in the 1860s, supported by the Phillips Mine. It was the Park County seat for several years and had its own newspaper, post office, two banks, three hotels, many saloons, dance halls and gambling houses, and of course an assay office. A brass band played nightly on the street corner. Horace Tabor, one of Colorado's mining icons who eventually made his fortune in Leadville, owned a store with his first wife, Augusta, in Buckskin Joe, where Horace was also the postmaster. The original Park County courthouse from Buckskin Joe, built in 1862, now sits in the South Park City museum (which we'll visit in a minute).
I found this photo online, I don't know the original source of it, claiming this is the Buckskin Joe the town was named after. Whether or not it's really him (doesn't really look like buckskin clothing) it's still a good representation of what early miners looked like, hundreds of them lining the creeks and rivers panning for gold or sluice-boxing.
Several thousand people lived in Buckskin Joe in the 1860s but you would never know it now, no buildings remain on the site. But it wasn't time or weather or fire that took them. Many, including the Tabor's grocery store, were dismantled and reassembled as a tourist attraction and movie set some miles away. In 2011 the entire set of buildings was sold to a private collector who disassembled them again and moved them to his private ranch. Today the only thing that remains of the original town site is the old cemetery, which is still used today by the nearby town of Alma.
I discovered the cemetery a few years ago when I was on a solo trip in Breckenridge for my birthday. I went for a drive one afternoon and discovered the Fairplay visitor's center where I picked up a bunch of brochures that inspired me to come back in September of this year with Erik to check out a bunch of the roads featured in the brochures. As it was still winter then and I was in my Subaru passenger vehicle, I couldn't drive much of anywhere off the main highway, but I did manage to get up to the Buckskin Cemetery and have an interesting walk around.
The forest service brochure writes of the cemetery: " ... its silence the stone speaks volumes about life of the town and the people who populated it. A walk among the gravesites reveals much about struggles of the miners and settlers against weather, terrain and time. The stone grave of young Thomas Fahey records that on a blustery February day he left his cabin to go to his mine and did not return. His body was found the following June. Many of the miners were immigrants from Europe. Images of home and echoes of their languages can be seen on some stones. The stones and gravesites with their ornate rails and gates exhibit a craft and workmanship that has outlasted the modest cabins and other structures in the town." Here are some of the gravesites I photographed. I was mostly drawn to the very old and the very humble.
Having read about him in several sources in print, online and at the South Park City museum (coming up next), it seems one of the more famous characters of the area who lived in Buckskin Joe was an "itinerant preacher," Father John L. Dyer, a Methodist from Ohio. He trekked weekly with his messages of salvation from Buckskin Joe over Mosquito Pass to Leadville as well as over Hoosier Pass to Breckenridge. (!!) This is quite a lot of mileage to cover on foot, let alone over such high and brutal passes which in winter he covered on 10-foot long skis. He eventually began delivering the mail as well, trekking these routes with 30 pounds of mail on his back. That is one hardcore dude. But he exemplifies the lifestyle and character of the early miners and homesteaders who were made of far sterner stuff than most of us today.
This old building was also along the road to the cemetery.
Coming back through Fairplay from one of our outings, Erik decided to stop by an attraction that we'd both seen the signs for and wondered about every time we passed through Fairplay. We had even talked about it and wondered if it was a kid's attraction. I might not have taken the effort to find out, but fortunately Erik did, stopping into "South Park City" historical museum. We arrived at 4:00 pm, it started closing at 5:00 pm (but it takes them awhile to close all the buildings), so we actually had to hurry through what really could take a person several hours if they didn't know anything already about the Colorado mining era or wanted to read every plaque or take note of every detail. I'm not quite that person, but I definitely would have used another half hour or hour if I'd had it.
Although it's not made as a kid's attraction, children would definitely love it with 43 old buildings to walk through ... actual old buildings that have been restored, not recreations. Most of them were disassembled at their original location, moved and reassembled in South Park City, but they are all the original materials, and some are even in situ, exactly where they were when they were built. Over 60,000 items are displayed, many of which were donated by local families to the museum, making each building an authentic presentation of how it once looked. All the buildings in South Park City have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This is a stamp and crushing mill, exhibiting equipment used to extract gold from ore. This was interesting to us because we find this type of equipment sitting out rusting in the open air around a lot of the abandoned mines, both in our own 'hood and exploring around Fairplay. So here we could see what it looks like in working condition as opposed to weathered, rusted condition in the open forest out of context.
Burros were essential to the building of mines, railroads and townsites in the mountains. They are amazing creatures and hauled vast amounts of heavy materials up valleys and over mountains. They also were the original source of power behind a lot of mill and mine equipment.
The original tiny houses! Houses on wheels. A covered wagon and a shepherd's wagon. I was quite astounded at how roomy they really were on the inside, it doesn't seem like it from the outside but they had nice sized beds and wood burning stoves and space to sit, cook, etc. I really liked these. If society collapses and we're reduced to living in wagons again, I think I could hack it if I had one of these. The uncovered wagon, third photo below, is a chuck wagon.
Here is the caboose of a train. I actually had no idea what one might look like inside, I guess primarily because I never realized what they were used for! I just thought of it as the tail end of the train, almost like an accessory, but in fact (you may already know) it served as the traveling home and office and lookout tower for the train crew. There were bunk beds and fold-down tables to cook and eat and do paperwork. It would be a bit cramped for several people to be living in it together, but rather more spacious and comfortable than one might expect from a caboose. The narrow gage train was built in 1914.
My two favorite buildings were the homesteader's house and the train station. I didn't take any pictures inside the house for some reason, though it was interesting and reminded us of historical houses we toured in Andorra. As the museum brochure says, it "shows the self-sufficiency of the early pioneer family." As a big fan of the "Little House on the Prairie" series of books and the TV show, it sparked the memory of childhood imagination, as I was somewhat obsessed with what it would be like to live those pioneering lives. The train station really struck a chord with me, as I imagined waiting in there on a wooden bench having spent all my money on a ticket to a place I'd never been with no idea of the hardships that might await me as I hoped to improve my fortune, a big steamer trunk sitting beside me with all my belongings to start a new life.
Unless your destination happened to be a town with a train station, you would then have to transfer to a stage coach to reach your final destination, often boarding overnight at a stage coach inn. I tried to imagine myself laying down to sleep after a long day's journey in a tiny room like this one. Downstairs was the dining table where boarders would eat and socialize. The stairs were hilariously creaky. Between the creaks and the noise that would have been going on downstairs, I wonder if ear plugs had been invented yet.
The blacksmith shop. I've always stood a little in awe of blacksmiths, how they toiled over such heat, pounding metal with such strength. I can't imagine spending all day next to the forge. A blacksmith shod horses, oxen and burros, and repaired mining equipment, wagons and sleighs.
We had a great time perusing the old drug store, J.A. Merriam Drug Store, and all the remedies and tonics and elixirs of the day -- some were funny, some were mysterious, some were downright odd. There was also a good ol' soda fountain.
The most interesting thing in the school house was a display of papers written by children who had attended that school (or one of the same time period anyway). Wowee, the penmanship of children was amazing. Their math skills pretty good, too, judging from a paper of fraction calculations.
Rachel's Place was a bustling saloon and gambling house operated in Alma. Erik had entered it first and yelled out to me still on the sidewalk, "Come in here! You're going to love this!" I didn't know if he was being sarcastic, that there was something disturbing inside, for I couldn't think what would be so lovable inside a saloon. But he was completely serious as he pointed out the kitty cat lounging on top of a poker table. Kitty was super friendly, and as we hadn't seen our kitties in almost a week, we relished the petting time. His little mittens are so cute.
So I have to recommend this museum if you're passing through Fairplay. If you have any imagination at all, you can really put yourself back in time and live a bunch of different lives in an afternoon. Considering how much time and work must go into maintaining all of the buildings and collections, I thought the admission price was extremely reasonable. If you go to their website, there's a coupon for a dollar off. We actually left more money in the "tip jar."
And now you can go to bed tonight and dream of living in a Colorado mining town in the 1800s. Maybe you win a cat for having three aces at the poker table and then buy it a soda at the fountain in the drug store.
I found these episodes of the PBS show Colorado Experience to be entertaining if you're interested in learning and seeing more from this 1800s mining era:
"Ladies of the Mines" details the lives and unique hardships for women living in these rough conditions, but in talking about that, a lot is revealed about the mines, miners and mining towns in general.
Baby Doe Tabor, second wife to Horace Tabor, is a well-known local character. This show, "The Tabors," is about Horace, who made a fortune in Leadville, and his first wife Augusta (mentioned above living in Buckskin Joe), and the fate of Baby Doe as she tenaciously held on to the Matchless Mine.