It is a collection of towns well off the beaten path. Long ago, maybe on a pay day, they pulsed with activity. But today not even a defibrillator could get a pulse in places like Independence, St. Elmo, Tin Cup, Vicksburg or Pagosa Junction, all Colorado towns long ago abandoned and where, on most days, the only thing moving is the breeze. But each has its own story and usually, more interesting than sad.
Take Independence. Like so many of the ghost towns that dot out-of-the-way Colorado it began with big dreams. Just a stone’s throw from the 12,000-foot Independence Pass, miners thought they could coax a motherlode out of the earth just like the miners who hit it big in Victor or Cripple Creek. They might have even thought---if they were really lucky---that they’d out-do Central City, a 19th Century boom town once dubbed ‘the richest square mile on earth’ for the vein of gold it sat on.
But like so many of these towns, dreams and reality mixed like oil and water. After a few heartbreaking, backbreaking years, miners, merchants and whatever other hearty souls tried to make a go of it just moved on. “You can see it from the Pass,” said April Kali, Executive Assistant at the Buena Vista Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center of the once thriving Independence.
Kali said it’s not that difficult to see why Independence went from hope and dreams to unanswered prayers. “The harsh winters,” she guessed, “made it impossible to stay.” Sitting “above tree line,” freezing winter winds and accompanying snows were just too much to endure. What remains of Independence are five buildings and not much more.
But those aren’t the only ghost towns near Buena Vista and Kali has seen them all. Besides Independence, there’s also St. Elmo, Vicksburg and Winfield, each a short drive away from her town and each with its own ghost town stories. They are Colorado’s rear view legacy.
“Vicksburg and Winfield are off County Road 390,” she said. St. Elmo is about a half hour away off County Road 162. The road is paved except for the last three miles which, said Kali, is dusty but easy to drive.
St. Elmo may be the most popular and most interesting of the Chaffee County ghost towns. “You have multiple structures,” including a general store, antique store, a Bed & Breakfast and a chipmunk park.”
The lure of quick riches or, maybe, just steady work, is what inspired most of these towns. In its heyday, the county had as many as 50 operational mines. St. Elmo’s were pumping out “75 to 100 tons of ore a day,” said Kali. “It was pretty productive.” The Mary Murphy Mine is the town’s most popular stop. Gold, lead and zinc were the underground harvest.
All the towns were gone by the late 1920’s “when the railroad closed,” said Kali. On days when visitors aren’t exploring, the only stories are found in the cemetery.” One headstone belongs to a baby.
In Southwest Colorado, Pagosa Junction was once a thriving little hamlet. The town sits just west of Pagosa Springs and approximately 15 miles off Colorado Highway 160. When it was boomed, said unofficial town historian, Liliosa Padilla, it was “a small Hispanic village,“ with maybe a hundred people living there.
But others lived nearby, perhaps, doubling the population, said the affable and informative Padilla. She recalled that as a young girl, the railroad passed through “hauling lumber, cattle and sheep and wool” to faraway places like St. Louis and Kansas City.
Interestingly, Pagosa Junction is also where Padilla spent her childhood and where her grandfather, Jose Eugenio Gomez opened the family’s store, Gomez Mercantile, in 1913. It was the region’s center of commerce. “It was a lively, little place,” she recalled. “We sold everything from food to clothing, farm implements, coal, we had a pharmacy, too.” The store was moved several years ago and now sits off Highway 160 in Pagosa Springs. Padilla conducts tours a few times a year.
After his death, he wife, Ruben Garcia Gomez, took over the operation with the help of her five sons and four daughters. The retired school teacher said one of the sons died in 1918, a victim of The Great Influenza.
Gone are most of the structures that sustained Pagosa Junction. What remains of Padilla’s childhood home are memories, a church, a single house and the cemetery. “It’s changed completely,” said Padilla. “But people still come by.” With a soft sigh and thoughtful, friendly laugh, she said, “my childhood home is now a ghost town, but we’re still connected to it that way.”