Moun­tain towns strug­gle to main­tain iden­tity while build­ing economies.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Jen­nifer Brown

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.

Pho­tos by RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.