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Bowling for an identity in Westcliffe

Column by Hal Walter

Wet Mountain Valley – May 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

AFTER YEARS OF STUDY, it has occurred to me that _Westcliffe is a town that’s always striving to find an identity or to be something more than it is. And it never quite pans out. But recently I’ve seen a sign that perhaps this century-long identity crisis is coming to an end.

It’s odd that we use the name “Westcliffe” as a catch-all for what really is two towns, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, plus the outlying areas of Custer County, where most of the residents actually reside. I sometimes use the word “Clusterplex” to describe this far-flung little community.

But when someone asks me where, I live I say “Westcliffe,” even though my actual home is 15 miles from town and nearer to a defunct mining camp known as Ilse, which newcomers always mispronounce. Everyone else knows it’s really “Ill-see.” I have noticed that other people from around here also say they are from “Westcliffe,” even when they actually live nearer to Hillside, Rosita, or Querida.

So let’s start at the beginning, or at least close to it, in 1877 when Custer County was split off from Frémont County. Custer had Silver Cliff, a booming mining town that once was in the running for state capitol.

An entrepreneur by the name of General William Jackson Palmer, who now has an amber lager named after him, played a big role in shaping the community’s future. If it weren’t for Palmer, we’d all be saying that we are from Silver Cliff.

Palmer is also known as the founder of Colorado Springs, one of the most physically and spiritually jacked-up cities on Earth. So that should tell you something. I haven’t tried the beer but hope to soon, since I like the idea that Palmer, a Quaker who prohibited alcohol sales and consumption within Colorado Springs, now has a namesake ale brewed in a city that is also the vortex for the religious right.

Anyway, to get back to our history lesson, Palmer was also the founder of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, which built a spur line into the Wet Mountain Valley in 1881.

It was a narrow-gauge line that climbed along Grape Creek from Cañon City. Its terminus was located just west of Silver Cliff, on land conveniently owned by Dr. William Bell, an investor in the railroad.

So you can see that the town was literally founded on a land scam of sorts, and to this day there are several realty enterprises in Westcliffe that maintain this fine tradition.

This land scheme ensured Palmer a virtual lock on business, since any proprietor wanting to locate at the railhead had to buy lots from the Central Colorado Improvement Company — owned by Palmer, Bell, and other railroad investors.

The only other way to transport goods in and out of the Wet Mountain Valley was the rocky little route up Hardscrabble Canyon.

Dr. Bell came up with the name for the new town, calling it “Westcliffe” after Westcliffe by the Sea, a little-known burg in his native England.

At any rate, since all the businesses wanted to be near the railhead, Westcliffe became the main town, and Silver Cliff sort of faded into the mine tailings (although its population exceeded Westcliffe’s in the 1900, 1990, and 2000 censuses).

When a flood in Grape Creek wiped out the narrow-gage line in 1889, Palmer opted to not rebuild it, the land having already been sold and the ore having played out in the Silver Cliff district.

But in 1901, the D&RG brought in another line, standard-gauge this time. It branched off the main route along the Arkansas River and ran roughly along Texas Creek and into the valley. This railroad operated until 1938, shipping produce like potatoes and cabbages out of the valley.

This railroad too was abandoned. You can still see its bed along Colorado Highway 69 between Hillside and Westcliffe.

FARMING TURNED from produce to hay and beef in the mid-1900s, and things were relatively quiet in Westcliffe until the late 1970s.

Ranching was a slow but sustainable industry, but it did not allow for growth, especially in the face of cheap beef from overseas and south of the border. As the beef market declined, developers began to buy out big ranches, and talk turned to Westcliffe as a ski resort town.

Soon trees were cleared to the south of Hermit Pass, and a grid of water pipes for snowmaking was laid under the ground. And for more than a decade realtors drove around with skis permanently racked atop their spewts and sold land subdivided from the larger ranches. Meanwhile, the Conquistador Ski Resort slowly went out of business, was resurrected twice — once under management of the Small Business Administration, and again privately as Mountain Cliff.

In the final analysis, the ski resort seemed to have more to do with selling land than it did with skiing. The snow was never reliable, but the wind was. And nearly every disappointing ski season was punctuated by the irony of a huge dump of snow a few days after closing.

AFTER THE SKI AREA closed for good in the early ’90s, things were quiet again for a couple of years until the biggest boom yet, the Lone Eagle Rush. Comparatively speaking, land prices were still low in Westcliffe in the mid-1990s, the national economy was just beginning to boom and computer technology, especially the Internet, was advancing at a rapid rate.

This combination brought people from across the nation and even around the world to build homes and live here. At one point Custer County was the fourth fastest growing county in the nation. Mountain homes, some of them huge, were popping up like mushrooms on a humid summer day.

By the close of the century, Westcliffe was a booming little center of activity again, with two grocery stores and a health-food store. One of the older bars was remodeled into an upscale pizza joint. There were three espresso shops, and most of the storefronts that once housed businesses like hardware stores near General Palmer’s busy railhead now are boutiques, art galleries, or junktique stores. But I recently made a weekday trip to Westcliffe and found the entire downtown empty of vehicles and people, like a ghost town. The Lone Eagles have all flown away, some for the winter, some for good.

But down the street, just past the old train depot, there has been a flurry of activity this winter. A new steel-construction bowling alley, of all things, is going up, just across the street from the new Metal Supermarket and not far from the brassy-looking new restaurant that was closed for business all winter.

At first I thought, oh great, just what we need — another identity crisis. Westcliffe didn’t have the ore to be a mining town. There were never enough shippable goods to make it worthwhile for a railroad.

Ranching had a real spine, but was humble and did not provide for growth. The attempt at being a ski resort was a miserable disappointment for everyone except the realtors (always lowercase the “r”), and the Lone Eagles were out of here when they found that a person really needs to have a better reason than the scenery to live here year-round.

Now a bowling alley?

Well, maybe it’s not such an outrageous idea after all. For once, instead of trying to be something it isn’t maybe the bowling alley is finally an admittance and an acceptance of what Westcliffe really is: A little town, in a nice setting, where not much of anything goes on.

THERE ARE SOME OF US who sort of like it that way. Nobody will be selling property on the premise that you can “walk to the lanes.”

I’m not likely to take up bowling or to spend much time playing billiards at the new bowling alley. I moved here to spend more time outdoors. But I do think that perhaps, at long last, the bowling alley will give this place an identity, a sense of community. It’s what Westcliffe really needs. That and a new name.

Writer Hal Walter has suggested Steelcliff as a new name for the Clusterplex because of the predominance of building type, but he will never likely own a railroad, found a city or have a beer named after him.