Ruins hold the fascination of the ages for me. I long to visit the Old World just because it is so very old, and it is with great age that those splendid, crumbling, lost cities come, heavy with grandeur even yet. My world holds fewer ruins and most of them are far less grand. The ruins in the Colorado highlands are almost always crude; relics of the mining rush that came and went. Even if you did happen to be rich, it was not easy to create much elegance high in the mountains so long ago. I find their crudeness less surprising than their existence, but there must be thousands of abandoned mines in these mountains. You can see them almost everywhere you go. Some of them were obviously enormous operations but many look like little more than deep, dark holes. Nearly all of them have been sealed, though occasionally you stumble across one which you can enter. Usually it is not advised, nor, probably, legal. But I have been inside one, though I didn’t go very far in. There was lots of snow on the ground inside and a river ran through it, under the snow in places. It grew very dark quickly and I didn’t fancy my chances of falling through the snow into an underground river.
Today we don’t find any unsealed mines to enter. Instead we explore the houses in which the miners lived and inspect the ruins of the mines and mills they worked. A hundred years has lent beauty to their starkness, as well as the sadness of the abandoned. In one house we find an ancient iron cookstove and a rusted iron mattress but the rest are almost entirely empty. Most of the people who lived here moved away when the mines closed and I suppose they took their things with them. I look at their houses of wood with the sharp corners and small dusty rooms, and I wonder who they were. What made them come here, over eleven thousand feet above sea level, twelve rough mountain miles from the closest town? I know, generally, what brought the miners to the mines. But for every family the decision must have been a little different, just as the houses they built are all different. Where did they come from? Did they want to be here? Did they leave as soon as the mine began to decline, or did they stay as long as they could? Where did they go? Where are they buried? There is no cemetery near this little ghost town, and I wonder why not. But there was never any church either, according to the records. Perhaps they did their marrying and burying in Silverton, twelve miles away.
The first cabin here was built in 1873 but the place was already called a ghost town by the 1920s. Fifty years, not even a lifespan. It seems sad, but it also gives this town a beauty of things lost that is denied the nearby Silverton, which was born at the same time but has not died.
Once there were over thirty buildings here, as well as some tents. Today there are nine buildings still standing and taken care of. We walk through them, admiring their endurance and individuality. There is one larger house with an upstairs and a big bay window, and I wonder if these people were counted wealthy. Another house has an enormous stone fireplace. Still another has faded newspapers from the year 1907, found in the back room and now put in a frame on the wall. There is just a small amount left of what was once quite a large mine; the rest is all in splinters. There is a jail, with bars on the single window, an enormous door, and two small dark cells, the walls of which are double-boarded. The husband locks me inside this building, just in case I don’t appreciate what those men had to deal with.
These buildings are all in one town, and then there are other mines and mills scattered about the surrounding mountains. This makes sense to me, but somehow the little cabins out in the middle of nowhere do not. It seems that so long ago in such a wild place, why would you choose to live far away from everyone else? But maybe they had no choice…maybe there once were cabins closer…maybe they just didn’t like people.
I touch these old walls and I wonder. A hundred years from now, will there be abandoned towns from my days? The idea seems strange to me. Ghost towns have a glamour of nostalgia that I cannot see in today’s towns, so industrial and cold and modern most of them feel. But this is only because it is my present. Possibly the miners and their families didn’t see much romance in their high mountain towns either.
I call it an adventure because it feels like one to me, even though there is no fear in most of it. Only where the floorboards have fallen into holes and disrepair can I find a hint of danger, and even those do not break my legs today. But there is a beauty and a sadness here that satisfies something in my soul. These dusty walls are steeped in story.
Close to one building I find an old verse, composed by a man named Steve Earle. His words haunt me for the rest of the day and I love them for that.
There’s a hole in this mountain and it’s dark and it’s deep
And God only knows all the secrets it keeps
There’s a chill in the air only miners can feel
And there’s ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed.