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THE GHOST TOWNS OF CLEAR CREEK CANYON
 
SATURDAY, JULY 29
 
 
"Lucknow is the name given to the old town of Florence. Winfield is the name
of the post office, so that is a much-named town. The town site, comprising
120 acres, was taken up by P. H. Symons, G. L. Brown, J. S. Sharpe, Dr. J. J. Smith,
L. W. Clark, and Thomas Leasure. It is laid off into lots of 50 x 100 which
are free to all desiring to build. No soulless corporation about that."
 
- Chaffee County Times, August 12, 1881
 
 

 

Winfield is one of several mining camps along Clear Creek that sprang up during the boom-and-bust days of gold and silver prospecting in the 1860s, '70s, and '80s and died out when prospectors moved on to richer sources of ore.

Four major mines flourished in the scenic canyon: Tasmania, Fortune, Banker, and Swiss Boy. The towns of Beaver City, Vicksburg, Rockdale/Silverdale, Winfield, and Hamilton, once hives of activity, have either totally disappeared or remain primarily as ghost towns with only a few remaining buildings.

Clear Creek Canyon lies halfway between Leadville and Buena Vista off Hwy. 24 in Chaffee County, Colorado. It is a beautiful canyon that narrows the farther you ascend toward the west. Elevations at the eastern end, where beautiful Clear Creek flows into the Clear Creek Reservoir, and then the Arkansas River, are about 9,000 feet. Twelve miles in at Winfield, the elevation is over 10,000 feet.

We've never been past Winfield, where the road splits in two. FSR-390 (Clear Creek Canyon Rd.) turns south and follows the South Fork of Clear Creek past Virginia Peak (13,088 feet), Huron Peak (14,055 feet), and Granite Mountain (12,848 feet) to Harrison Flat, almost at the Continental Divide. The former location of Hamilton is shown on our DeLorme Colorado atlas in the valley between Huron and Granite peaks. I don't know if any buildings remain there.

The other little road, FSR-2, follows the North Fork of Clear Creek around the north side of Winfield Peak (13,077 feet) and dead ends five or six miles later.

Winfield's primary significance to Jim and me is that it is the site of a crucial aid station during the Leadville Trail 100 race. It is the turn-around for this out-and-back course, fifty long miles into the race. In six attempts to complete this race between us, we've missed the cut-off here five times.

Wouldn't that have significance for you, too??

Well, this year I decided to learn more about Winfield's significance in the area's rich mining history. And in the process, I learned about all the other little communities that sprang up along this long, dusty, bumpy road, towns I never knew existed before I opened up my eyes recently and nosed around a little more.

Winfield was by far the largest of the four (or more) towns along Clear Creek and several of its buildings have been preserved. 

The town was platted in 1881at the junction of the north and south forks of the creek, where Tater got to get a drink the day I took these photos:

There are informational boards that describe the town's history and composition. The following quotes are from one of those boards:

"A cabin was built at Winfield as early as 1861 and some prospecting was done in the area by 1867 but Winfield reached its heyday in 1890 with an estimated population of fifteen hundred. At its prime, Winfield included three saloons, three stores, a post office, two hotels, a boarding house, mill, smelter, concentrator, church, and a school which is now a museum containing school furnishings and displays. This museum is restored and operated by the Clear Creek Canyon Historical Society of Chaffee County."

This is the school:

"The Ball Cabin [below] across the street from the schoolhouse is also a museum of the mining area."

"The silver market crash in 1893 halted the mining activity in Clear Creek Canyon. There was a resumption in the early 1900s with the last ore hauled out of the canyon by two-horse stage in 1918."

"Like many early mining camps, Winfield had its accounts of violence. One quarter mile above Winfield to the north is the cemetery. Twenty-six people are buried there, victims of fires, snow slides, shooting, mining accidents, disease, and one man stoned to death by Indians he had cheated. Only two graves now have markers . . . "  

This is another cabin that appears to be occupied at the present time, perhaps by volunteers working on the site:

The sign above the door? It says, "SELDOM INN." Methinks that's a more recent name for the place!

VICKSBURG (THE ONE IN COLORADO)

The little silver mining town of Vicksburg was founded by Vick Keller after prospectors from Leadville allegedly camped out in the Clear Creek Canyon and found "good float" in the creek after their burros wandered down there. I believe that occurred about 1867. The town especially thrived for several years in the late 1870s and peaked at about 500 residents.

In its heyday, Vicksburg had a post office, school, blacksmith, two hotels, two billiard halls, several saloons (they had their priorities!), a general store, and about 70 cabins. A tree-lined street still remains with about ten cabins that are privately owned. Several other buildings are maintained as a museum by the Clear Creek Canyon Historical Society of Chaffee County.

I visited the site early one morning after taking Jim to the Sheep Gulch trail head for a training run over Hope Pass. No one from the historical society was there, so I couldn't get into the buildings. That didn't stop me from wandering around the grounds, taking these photos of the buildings and paraphernalia from various local mines (the place isn't locked or anything).

 

This is an original tram drum from the nearby Fortune Mine:

All the pieces of equipment were clearly marked but I didn't write the others down. You'll just have to go see for yourself!

 

 

These are a few of the remaining cabins, now privately owned, that are behind the public museum buildings:

About a mile down the road (toward Hwy. 24) is this sign and a cabin with no information on it. I don't know if it was once part of a town, or what. Rockdale was farther up the road between Vicksburg and Winfield, according to our DeLorme atlas, and Beaver City isn't shown on it.

 

And the all-important outhouse:

 

CLEAR CREEK CANYON TODAY

Clear Creek Canyon still lures people, only now they come for the history lessons and recreation. It is a beautiful area to visit for a day or much longer. We've been here a week and see something new each time we drive up and down the road.

TRAILS are a definite draw for hikers, runners, and climbers. Missouri Gulch and Sheep Gulch are two important trailheads located back this road and the parking lots at both are filled very early on weekend mornings.

From Missouri Gulch, hikers and climbers can "bag" three 14ers in one day: Mt. Belford (14,203 feet), Mt. Oxford (14,160 feet), and Missouri Mountain (14,067 feet). Sheep Gulch is the trailhead for Hope Pass, Mount Hope, Quail Mountain, the Continental Divide Trail, and the old Colorado Trail. There may be other trailheads along the road with which I'm not familiar, but I don't see them in our atlas.

FISHING AND BOATING are popular on Clear Creek Reservoir, just off Hwy. 24 on Clear Creek Canyon Road. No matter how early we drive past to get to a trailhead for a run, there are folks out there fishing along the shore or from a boat. Fishing can be done along much of the creek back to Winfield and probably beyond. Most of the land in the canyon is "public," part of San Isabel National Forest.

CAMPING is also a popular activity, as evidenced by the number of folks who use the campground we're in and the other free "boon docking" sites all along the road back to Winfield.

Clear Creek Canyon Road is very smooth dirt for the first four miles. After Clear Creek Ranch, it becomes much bumpier/rockier. You don't need a 4WD or high clearance vehicle to get back twelve miles to Winfield, but you can go only about 10-15 MPH on much of the road. It's too bumpy for our camper but we've seen other ones back there. I have no idea how bad it gets beyond Winfield. It's shown as a dotted line and not a solid line in our atlas. That usually means high-clearance and 4WD conditions.

CLEAR CREEK RANCH is a large, privately-owned holding located two to three miles back the road. The Colorado Trail guidebook says it's a fishing resort; the CT currently goes through the property for 8/10ths of a mile. However, the trail will no longer be routed through the ranch after September 1, 2006 for reasons of "safety and liability." A Leadville resident who owns property in nearby Granite said the ranch changed ownership a few months ago; that probably explains why the CT will no longer be allowed to go through it.

Here are two views of the ranch, which spreads out at least a mile along the road:

 

This is just one of many historical mining areas in Colorado. I'll write more later about mining and other history around Leadville, fifteen miles to the north of Clear Creek Canyon.

Next up: Colorado Trail Segment 13 between North Cottonwood Creek and Chalk Creek trailheads.

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil