Mountain towns struggle to maintain identity while building economies.
SAN JUAN MOUNTAINS» The winding, two-lane highway into Lake City hugs the light-green Lake Fork of the Gunnison River as it rushes downward toward the valley, past thick forest and Colorado wildflowers.
The first view from above is unexpected, almost startling: a town, though a tiny one with wooden boardwalks instead of sidewalks along its two-block main strip, sits isolated in a valley surrounded by mountain peaks, three to five hours from any major metropolis.
The 780 residents who live in Hinsdale County year-round desperately want to entice tourists to drive over 11,000-foot passes, hundreds of miles from a major airport, to visit their breathtaking valley. But Lake City has no ski resort, no alpine slide, no Leadville 100 ultra-running race, nor any other defining attraction, save for a fall wine festival and a free iceclimbing wall.
Locals in this former mining town are brainstorming to come up with an “anchor attraction,” one that draws tourists but stays true to Lake City’s identity as a farther-off-the-beaten-path, nonresort, mountain community. A consultant hired by the city recently suggested a zipline that would fly above the 12-acre, former Ute Ulay silver mine just outside town.
It did not go over well. Lake City, Silverton and Creede are the county seats of three southwestern Colorado counties that have fewer than half the residents they had at their peak population, which was around 1900. Evidence of that long-dead era lies in the wooden mine shafts crumbled in the hills of Hinsdale, San Juan and Mineral counties, and in the mines that have reopened so tourists can ride trains into the dark core of the mountains, where snow runoff trickles through the tunnels and splashes on their helmeted heads.
A year-round struggle
The struggle to survive, to attract young families to balance out the retirees, to find people hardy enough for year-round, high-elevation living, leads to conflict between preserving an authentic vibe and becoming a gimmicky tourist trap, between retirees and young bloods, between second-home owners and permanent residents. The three one-town counties built by gold and silver miners more than 100 years ago have worked hard since the last of the mines closed in the 1990s to reinvent their economies based on recreation. The work is constant; let down their guard and residents risk their livelihood if too many tourists or would-be residents choose someplace else.
All at once, they both envy and turn up their noses at Telluride, the southwest region’s tourism darling.
“This is more reality,” said Deanne Gallegos, who owns The Chocolate Dog fine gift shop in downtown Silverton. “We protect our blue-collar vibe.”
The resilient residents of Lake City mention fairly often they would rather not become a Telluride or an Aspen, though that’s hardly a legitimate concern without an airport, golf course or ski resort. When word got out about the zipline idea, Lake City locals began calling their county commissioners, and the town’s Main Street program manager asked people during a June economic vitality summit not to “freak out.”
Instead of grumbling about what they don’t want, Main Street manager Kristine Borchers, a mother of two teenagers who moved to Lake City in 2006, encourages people to describe their vision for a Lake City that will survive.
“We want to be an authentic community that feels like a small town, a place where kids can ride their bikes, where the rec department sets up a slip-and-slide on Friday nights, where a ski ticket for the pommel lift is seven bucks,” she said. “A place that when people visit, they think: ‘It’s tiny. It feels friendly. Everybody waves at me. I want to live in a place like this.’ ”
Lake City wants to attract more attention to the Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway, a four-wheeldrive-required, 12,800-foot-high rough road that connects the town to Ouray and Silverton. Lake City has some of the most gorgeous peaks in Colorado, epic fishing in 2-mile-long Lake San Cristobal, forests full of elk and deer, and the kind of backcountry solitude hard to come by along Interstate 70. The city owns the $7 pommel lift and the free ice-climbing wall, a natural rock wall fed from the town’s water tank.
Instead of something as flashy as a zipline, residents are tossing out other ideas. How about a nordic ski track? That’s what one woman offered at the recent economic vitality summit. A classic film festival? Phillip Virden, an amateur astronomer who runs the town movie theater, wants Lake City to become an internationally recognized “Dark Sky” destination, a designation he believes would attract stargazers from across the country looking to escape city glow.
If Lake City could just get people to come, to climb 11,500-foot Slumgullion Pass with the steepest grade in Colorado, to drive that much farther for that much more solitude, they would come back again and again. Locals know this: Surveys found 80 percent of tourists return.
From boom to bust
The miners rushed to the San Juan Mountains in the 1870s, blasting for gold, silver, copper and lead, building homes, schools, boarding houses and even underground tunnels to brothels. When the remaining mines shut down from the 1960s to the 1990s, Lake City, Creede and Silverton slumped. Longtime Lake City residents recall the town dropping to fewer than 200 people in the 1970s.
Lake City’s elementary school stayed open, but beginning in 1967, any junior high students or high schoolers who remained were bused an hour and a half away and over the mountains to Gunnison. It wasn’t until 2005 that Lake City again ran its own high school program.
Hinsdale County hit 1,609 people in 1900, according to Census data, but dropped to 774 in 2010. Next-door San Juan County, home to Silverton, has fallen the furthest from its peak population of any county in the state, according to Census data, dropping 77 percent to 701 residents, compared with 3,063 people in 1910.
“We joke that we don’t have enough people to play town,” Borchers said.
In 2005, when multiple buildings sat empty along the twoblock town of Lake City, a group of longtime residents created DIRT, the “Downtown Improvement & Revitalization Team.” They tapped into state funds for economic development and gave loans to people who wanted to open businesses. They enlarged historic photographs of miners and covered the store windows of shops that had shuttered, giving people something to look at as they wandered by. The first brewery since the 1880s is under construction, and a record nine businesses sold in 2016, a sign that “new blood” is coming to town.
Economic gains are measured in small, but meaningful, increments: Four business sales and four new businesses were recorded in the second quarter of this year, the highest reinvestment statistics since Lake City’s Main Street program started keeping track in 2005.
“It’s slowly happening. More businesses are starting to open,” movie theater owner Virden said. “Downtown is the heartbeat of a community, the hub. It was close to dying, and now it’s coming back.”
Lake City’s school has grown from 81 students in 2012 to 111 last year. The school has no gymnasium, and its basketball and volleyball teams have combined with Creede, 55 miles away over two mountain passes. One student who wanted to play football joined the Gunnison team.
Alena Haskell, whose mother was born in Lake City but moved away so her kids didn’t have to bus to Gunnison for school, is among those who have returned. Haskell, 45, owns a title company, which is prosperous thanks to homeowners who are constantly selling to the next generation of retirees. And this summer, she opened a gift shop on Main Street called the
Bluebird, offering soaps, cowboy hats and artsy T-shirts.
“This will be my ‘guess year,’ ” she said, not knowing whether the Bluebird will survive.
Signs of life in Silverton
Lizzie Loyer bombs up an old mining road out of Silverton, a cliff on one side and the whitewater North Fork of the Upper Animas on the other. She’s driving an off-road Polaris RZR with outrageous tires and roll bar, the evergreen-fresh air whipping her hair. Waterfalls are splashing down the sides of the snowtopped mountains and marmots are darting across the road as she bounds through potholes and streams of fresh runoff, climbing to 12,000 feet and the long-ago abandoned mining ghost town of Animas Forks.
Loyer and her husband, Erick, own Rock Pirates ATV rentals and Ice Pirates, the winter, snowmobile version. In their 30s with a baby and a 3-year-old, the Loyers are among the youngest of the 600 or so year-round residents, the ones who stick it out even when Main Street is covered by 2 feet of snow and Loyer uses a kicksled to push her kids around town.
“This is extreme living,” she said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Whether they will stay once their boys are older, keeping them in a school with 65 kids from kindergarten through 12th grade and limited sports teams, is a question Loyer can’t answer. She loves that most everyone in town knows them, and that children can walk themselves to the ice cream shop and the candy store.
The Loyers are succeeding in part due to a controversial ordinance Silverton passed a few years ago allowing all-terrain vehicles on its two main streets downtown, Main and Blair. It made the town something of a mecca for ATV lovers, who can cruise from their campsites into Silverton’s three-block-long downtown, pulling into angled parking spaces in front of the barbecue joint, historic hotel bar or the lone coffee shop.
Old-timers who have “seen the town be nothing, literally almost a ghost town,” support the ATVS, despite their booming engines, Loyer said. It’s the newer residents, the ones who see Silverton as their private playground and want to close the gate, who generally are opposed, she said.
The Loyers met as summer rafting guides and moved to Silverton in 2007. Erick worked as a snowmobile guide until the previous owners sold him the business.
“Silverton is one of those few footholds where you can make it without burying yourself in debt,” Lizzie Loyer said. “There is some real momentum going.”
Silverton native Jake Gallegos, who worked in the mines, said the town has changed for the better as a younger generation puts in the effort to revive the economy. As he was growing up, “when you graduated from high school, you either went underground or you left,” he said. He did both.
Dan Bender, 65, a former miner who has been in the area since the 1980s, says the new life is evident, and literally more colorful than in Silverton’s hardest of times.
“When you pulled into town, everything was either gray or brown,” he said, recalling the hardware store, movie theater and gift shop. In the 1990s, after the mines closed, he took a job as a bartender. “It got really lonely in town for a while. It was empty.”
Now, downtown buildings are vibrant yellow, blue, purple and orange. There are two marijuana stores tucked between the gift shops and galleries. Bender, who gives tours at the Old Hundred Gold Mine up a dusty dirt road above town, doesn’t bother going downtown.
“There is not a really local place where locals meet,” he said. “It’s a new generation. They are the ones that are running the show now.”
Still, he says the town’s economy “is better than it’s ever been.”
Scott Fetchenhier, a geologist who worked in the mines in the 1980s and now owns Fetch’s mercantile, has had two “banner years” in a row, which he attributes to cheap gas prices and a good economy. But this comes at a price: He worked 100 days straight last summer, about 14 hours per day, because it’s that hard to find employees who can afford to live in Silverton while working at his store. He pays “far above minimum wage,” but housing prices are so high in the mountain town that “you are not going to buy a house on the wages I pay,” said Fetchenhier, also a county commissioner.
He rates the town’s lack of affordable housing as its biggest challenge.
Fetchenhier’s two daughters grew up in Silverton but relocated to Durango with their mother when the oldest reached junior high and “wanted to move because she only had a few friends and she wanted more,” he said. The girls, one a dancer and the other an artist, were drawn to a larger school and town with more arts programs.
A tourism draw
Don’t assume kids are bored in Silverton, though, he said. Besides the expert-only, guide-required Silverton Mountain, kidfriendly Kendall Mountain is “about one minute away,” he said. “These kids can ski lickety-split by age 7 or 8,” he said. “Most of them are on skis by age 1½.”
Silverton has no doctor, but it has a nurse and three full-time paramedics funded through a sales tax increase recently passed by residents who learned that about 70 percent of medical calls come from tourists, often because of skiing, ATV or hiking accidents.
The historic Narrow Gauge Railroad from Durango delivers tourists to Silverton daily, dropping them on the Old West-inspired Blair Street, where Silverton children sell rocks left over from the mines out of their wagons. If Silverton is lucky, the tourists will extend their stay for an ATV or ghost tour instead of swiftly returning to Durango.
In Silverton, like many mining towns, locals entertain tourists with ghost stories, listing ghost tours as tourist attractions. At the Historic Alma House, once a boarding house for miners, caretaker Betty Heirich tells guests just before she closes their doors to the 1900-era frilly bedrooms that the inn has three guests who are “no longer living.”
Locals say they see the longdead schoolmarm who taught miners’ children peering out the front windows. Ghost hunters have detected paranormal activity with their devices, she says. The boarding house’s stairs and floors creak even when no one is walking.
The tales are thrilling, evoking an era long gone, but some residents are tired of hearing them. They say they hold Silverton back from its potential. The new Silverton is about recreation, about extreme skiers and snowmobiles, waterfall hikes and beers on a patio. Think the quieter, more down-to-earth version of Ouray, which is just over the mountain.
It’s no ghost town.
Dave Shaw offers stagecoach rides to visitors in Silverton last month. During the 1990s, after the mines closed, the town emptied out. Now, downtown buildings are vibrant yellow, blue, purple and orange. There are two marijuana stores tucked between the gift shops and galleries.
Kayla Robertson, The Denver Post Sources: State Demography Office, Census Reporter
Lizzie Loyer takes her youngest — and napping — son for a walk in Silverton on June 27. Loyer and her husband, Erick, own Rock Pirates ATV rentals and Ice Pirates, the snowmobile version.
Errol Barber, on vacation from Texas, enjoys some ice cream with his granddaughters at the San Juan Soda Company in Lake City in late June. Locals in this former mining town are brainstorming to come up with an “anchor attraction,” one that draws tourists but stays true to Lake City’s identity as a farther-off-the-beaten-path, nonresort, mountain community.