Saturday, February 2, 2013

Caribou, Colorado - No Risk, No Gain

The abandoned Caribou townsite

The abandoned townsite of Caribou, Colorado is situated high in the Rocky Mountains west of Boulder just below the continental divide. It's the place where the winds are born and if you listen closely you can still hear the echoes of a glittery past. Silver was discovered on the hill in 1868 and a small mining camp was quickly organized. It's less than a ghost town now with just a few dilapidated structures still remaining but it's not the architecture that drew me here. I'm interested in the stories about the extraordinary people who gave Caribou its life.

With high-grade silver ore coming out and Eastern investment dollars pouring in, the news spread internationally. A congregation of daring souls from Cornwall, United Kingdom, whose hard rock mining skills were in high demand, risked everything and immigrated to Caribou. The carpenters, merchants and common laborers were American but the heart and soul of the camp were the expert Cornish miners who blasted tunnels, timbered drifts and removed underground water. Almost immediately, the success transformed Caribou from a tent city into a respectable town that the determined pioneers were proud to call home.

By the mid 1870s Caribou was a bustling community with a population of over 1,000. There were stores, saloons, billiard and dance halls, hotels, blacksmith shops, a stable, a church, a school, a photographic gallery, a post office and its own newspaper. They were a tight-knit bunch with a strong Cornish influence. They enjoyed beer, music, singing and dancing. They even had an award-winning silver cornet band that performed throughout the region. It was a glorious place to be a kid, sledding and ice skating during the winter months then playing baseball and racing horses in the summer. The high altitude environment was incredibly harsh but the vigorous families desperately wanted to make "The City in the Clouds" their permanent residence.

Caribou was different from the stereotypical, rowdy, frontier mining camp. Caribou was more refined more cultural and more peaceful. All characteristics that can be attributed to an early infusion of entire families. The absence of lawlessness was refreshing and while there was a discreet red-light district, prostitution never really became an issue. People arrived looking to make a fresh start with hopes of improving their livelihood and to provide a reasonable opportunity for their children. As the first decade of existence came to a close, dreams appeared to be coming true but it was really just the beginning of the end.

In 1879 a flash fire descended upon the town and destroyed the entire lower portion. The devastating tragedy brought the neighbors even closer together. Undeterred, they rebuilt what they needed and the backbreaking work continued. A slow decline began mostly because a decreased quality of ore paralleled the depth of the mines. The deeper they dug, the less valuable the treasure. When the price of sliver plummeted, the mining costs exceeded sales. The profit margin vanished. Many workers bolted for the new hotspots like the Black Hills or Leadville, only a dedicated few stayed to make one last stand.

Short periods of confidence and optimism were met with gradually longer stretches of frustration and pessimism. Sadly, the discouraged Cornish miners and their families eventually dispersed and they promptly assimilated into American culture. By the late 1890s, with only 40 people left, Caribou was just a shell of its former self. Most of the mines were barely producing. Mercifully, fires in 1899 and 1905 destroyed whatever structures still remained. Ultimately, a generation's passionate struggle to develop a lasting settlement failed. Deep down the transitory miners, gambling on the unpredictable price of silver, must have already known how it would end. The town has passed away but the Caribou spirit lives on.

The following excerpt is from a letter written in April 1889 by Caribouite Dell Merry to her sister.

Times aren't very brisk here but might be much worse. Frank is leasing now but so far hasn't made much but we miners are always looking for something big whether we get it or not. No risk, no gain is our motto. We have enough to live on and that is more than a good many have so we ought to be thankful.

Only a few dilapidated structures remain

The high altitude environment is extremely harsh

Bald Mountain from Caribou Park

The Caribou spirit lives on

Caribou circa 1885 by William Henry Jackson

4 comments:

  1. Dan - these are beautiful photos and so interesting to read about Caribou - my sons are history buffs and love this sort of thing. There is so much history to be learned all over this country. Really enjoyed this post!!

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    1. Judi,

      It is a beautiful place but extremely windy. Gold and silver mining are a big part of Colorado history with several ghost towns and abandoned structures all over the state serving as reminders of the old days. I really believe the residents wanted their town to make it in the long run but there were just too many factors going against them. I would like to revisit the townsite this summer.

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  2. Thanks so much Dan for this awesome article.

    As Judi we enjoyed to read this post.

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    1. Your welcome, I'm glad you liked it. I enjoy listening to your radio station on the TuneIn Radio App. It's a great eclectic mix of different kinds of music

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