South Park City displays daily life

Article by Martha Quillen

Museums – May 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

In 1885, Leadville was the second largest city in Colorado with 16,000 citizens, three daily newspapers, two weeklies, two hospitals, two telephone companies, eight schools, seven churches, three Masonic lodges, two Odd Fellow lodges, thirteen hotels, two railroads, eight smelting and reduction works, an uncountable number of mining operations both large and small, plus a gas company, a water works company and an electric lights company.

Far to the south, in Custer County, Silver Cliff was already in decline in ’85, down to a population of 1,300 from an 1881 high of 5,000. For a time Silver Cliff had boasted ten hotels, two banks, two daily newspapers, three weeklies, three saw mills, four stamp mills, and the prospect of a railroad connection with the outside world. The train arrived, but the ore in the Wet Mountain Valley was too low in grade to keep Silver Cliff competitive.

East of Leadville, over the dizzying height of Mosquito Pass, Park County had suffered even worse reverses than Custer County. In 1885, a mere 500 people were left in Fairplay.

One of the oldest mining camps in Colorado, Fairplay was settled in ’59, and opened its first Post Office in 1862. Over the years, the town changed its name several times and peaked with a population of nearly 8,000.

But by the ’80s, Fairplay was on a downhill slide — scrabbling just to stay in place.

In 1885, Fairplay’s chief rival, Buckskin Joe, was nearly deserted. Nearby Montgomery had fallen off entirely, even though that camp had once led the pack, forging ahead of both Fairplay and Buckskin Joe back in 1861.

They were short-lived — those glory days when optimistic citizens rushed in to build more than 200 bustling towns in central Colorado alone, including Quartzville, Mosquito, Leavick, Tarryall, Oro City, Adelaide, Monarch, Tomichi, Winfield, Harvard City, Alpine, Romley, Shavano, Bowerman, Sherrod, Sedgwick, Duncan, Custer City, and a host of others that are now only memories.

Some of those towns barely held on long enough for the paint to dry. But that didn’t seem to discourage anyone. In his 1885 Guide to Colorado, George Crofutt wrote, “The few people who still remain at Webster, sigh for the good old times and say, ‘we will soon have a bigger boom than ever.'”

WHEN FRESH STRIKES didn’t pan out, most people merely moved to another camp — thereby enriching the history of Colorado with a mind-boggling number of downtowns erected in dubious places. Although people tend to look at the nineteenth century as an era offering fewer amenities — in the second half of that century, public transportation systems reached far more of mountain Colorado than is accessible today.

Food and lodging were available in what are now very remote areas.

Hostelries operating in 1885 included the White Pine House in White Pine, the Cummings House in Tomichi, the Clifton Hotel in Saint Elmo, and the Elgin House in Elgin. In that same year, the Pacific Hotel, an impressive, three-story building in Como, was reputed to be one of Colorado’s finest establishments.

Obviously, none of those towns offer similar accommodations today. But those were the days — booming, bustling, prosperous and vivid — wild, wicked, woolly and wanton — golden, lawless, legendary days.

Today, South Park City stands at the edge of Fairplay to give people a taste of those early-day mining camps.

Featuring buildings hauled in from ghost towns throughout Park County, South Park City represents a prototypical mining town.

Whereas Colorado legends generally extol the murders, lynchings, ladies of the evening, dance halls, gambling dens, and gunfighters, this extensive restoration project illuminates the everyday lives of mining camp citizens.

There’s a Masonic Hall, a trapper’s cabin, a saloon, an assay office, a livery stable, a railroad depot, a carpenter-undertaker’s shop, a bank, a mercantile — and much more. Displays explain railroad and mining operations. Exhibits feature a doll collection and period clothing. A restored home highlights furnishings and kitchen supplies.

On the hill above South Park City, a church pays tribute to Father Dyer, the Methodist minister who snow-shoed from camp to camp, even over Mosquito Pass, in his determined efforts to spread the gospel.

On Main Street, one can spend hours at the drug store, marveling over the lethal-sounding ingredients listed on the dozens of boxes and bottles — while wondering just what, exactly, those peculiar-sounding ailments were. Dropsy? Catarrh? Neuralgia?

DOWN THE STREET, a doctor’s office provides a clue as to why early Coloradans were so dependent on patent medicines. There, an extensive collection of saws gives ominous meaning to that fond old appellation, “saw bones.”

Across the street, at the laundry, one can muse on why white cotton was so popular in those days of wash tubs and flat irons. Or one can examine the mining machinery, and realize that, although their engines were larger and their equipment more unwieldy, gold-rush citizens definitely lived in an industrialized age.

At the train depot, one can sit on a bench and pretend to wait — because there will almost certainly never be trains pulling into Como, Alma or Leavick again.

At one end of the street, beyond the South Park City fence, the earth drops away to reveal a river turned inside out by early-day efforts to extract every ounce of mineral wealth. And at the other end, one can look out at Fairplay, a town every bit as picturesque as South Park City.

When the metal markets failed Fairplay, the town persevered — often by mining its own past.

Today, Fairplay lives on — a legendary mining camp still going strong more than 130 years after it all began.