Historical Overview

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Historical Overview

Since 2002 researchers with the South Park Archaeology Project have accumulated evidence that Paleo-Indians and other prehistoric peoples utilized numerous sites in Park County as early as 6000 BC.


By the time the first Spanish explorers entered Colorado in the 1500s, Mountain Ute Indians were well entrenched in this area.  Nomadic hunters and gatherers, the Mountain Utes erected temporary shelters and seasonally hunted and gathered salt around natural saline springs.  Located in the geographic center of Colorado, Park County was to the Utes what later became known as a "Hunter's Paradise" to the trappers and hunters that followed.

In 1806, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and a party of 21 men explored the headwaters of the South Platte River.  On December 13 of that year, Pike and his men entered the Eleven Mile Canyon area near Lake George, to become the first official U.S. Government explorers of the region.  Mountain men began to filter into Park County about the time Pike was exploring the region for the U.S. Government.  They hunted and trapped in South Park and the San Luis Valley, trading their furs in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico.

During the 1850s there were large Mountain Ute camps in this region and upon occasion bands of Arapaho and Cheyenne would make the long trek from the plains to claim their share of the area’s abundant plant and animal resources.  On several occasions government scouts, including Kit Carson and members of the second Fremont expedition, witnessed skirmishes between the Utes and rival tribes over Park County’s bountiful hunting grounds.


As a major east-west route into the Colorado Rockies, Platte Canyon has long served as a passage for explorers and fortune seekers. American Indians established trails that European trappers later followed.  Gold strikes in the 1860s drew thousands of prospectors from the East. Pack trains and freight wagons turned trails into rutted roads that the railroad graded and state highway crews eventually paved.

After blasting its way through Platte Canyon in 1878, The Denver, South Park & Pacific Railway became a mighty engine of economic growth in this area.  Sections of the D,SP&P bed were constructed where wagon roads and even foot trails seemed unlikely.  In the late 1800s, truss railroad bridges spanned the river throughout Platte Canyon.  While the bridges are gone, the old rail bed is permanently etched in the granite walls of lower Platte Canyon.  A relic Pratt truss bridge has been relocated to McGraw Memorial Park in Bailey.  Mining, logging and ranching communities thrived along the D,SP&P in Platte Canyon but the line itself didn’t fair as well.  Epic financial struggles, blizzards and floods sent the railway into bankruptcy and the last Park County segment was abandoned by 1937.

William L. Bailey came west from Wisconsin in 1864 with his wife Ann and her sister Elizabeth Entrikin.  William built a two-room cabin that became Elizabeth’s home until shortly before her death in 1922.  Listed on the State Register of Historic Places, Entrikin cabin is the only remaining structure from the original town of Bailey.  The cabin and a variety of other historic items are preserved at McGraw Memorial Park in town.

Founded in 1883, the community of Dake produced charcoal to fuel ore smelters in Denver and Leadville.  Nearly 300 area residents were employed felling trees or tending the 27 charcoal kilns. Another 12 charcoal kilns lined the railroad track in Webster, three miles east of Dake.  Highway 285 has replaced the tracks and traces of the charcoal kilns are difficult to find at Webster and Dake, west of Grant.

By the time William Watts Hooper was appointed forest ranger in 1898, demand for timber had nearly stripped the Kenosha Range bare.  As one of the first rangers hired to protect the “Forest Reserves,? he continued his conservation career with the U.S. Forest Service after its establishment in 1905.  With proper management by Mr. Hooper and his successors, the forest in Platte Canyon has been regenerated.

The most popular summer playground in the Rockies, where congeniality and the spirit of good fellowship reign…You will make no mistake in spending your vacation anywhere in Platte Canyon (1920 Platte Canyon Tourist Association booklet).  In the early 1900s, tourists rode the train to nine different guest resorts in Platte Canyon for fishing, horseback riding and mountain air.  Some resorts even had facilities for tennis and golf.  For more than 30 years D,SP&P ‘fish trains’ carried anglers to their favorite fishing holes along the South Platte River between Bailey and Grant.  By 1900 the railroad promoted outdoor recreation and hauled thousands of trout in ‘fish cars’ to stock the river each year.  The D,SP&P catered to visitors seeking respite from “city life? until it went out of business in the 1930s.  Built in 1901, Glen Isle Resort is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and still provides a base camp for outdoor adventures.  Some of today’s visitors are descendents of original guests. 


Although beaver were plentiful in the valleys around South Park, the influx of Euro-American trappers was slowed by Spanish troops and bands of Indians.  Only after New Mexico came under Mexican rule in 1821 did trapping begin in earnest in the area.  The stream of trappers into South Park was steady until around 1840 when the demand for beaver belts east of the Mississippi declined.

The townsite of Hamilton near Como was the site of the first American gold discovery in the Western United States in 1803.  However, the first gold rush in Park County did not begin until 1859 when gold was discovered in Tarryall Creek, across the valley from Hamilton.  Within a year of the Tarryall discovery, the phrase "Pikes Peak or Bust" lured thousands of hopeful prospectors to South Park seeking their chance to strike it big.  Soon the mountains were dotted with camps bearing colorful names such as Tarryall, Buckskin Joe, Eureka, Horseshoe and Mudsill.

The town of Como was established in 1879, the year the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad arrived and 20 years after the first gold rush.  At its apex as a railroad town in 1881, Como supported a depot, a 43-room hotel, saloons and a population of about 500.  The massive stone roundhouse in Como has since been meticulously preserved and is on the National Register of Historic Places.  Track has been re-laid along a portion of the historic D,SP&P Highline Route above Como where the Boreas Pass railroad Section House has also been restored, listed on the National Register and converted to a winter ski hut.

Latecomers to the Tarryall District mining camps found themselves unwelcome.  Disgruntled, they pushed on and established a new mining camp on the banks of the South Platte River.  Deciding that things would be different at their camp, they named the new camp "Fair Play" and vowed to welcome all new prospectors to the area.  In the years that followed, the camp grew and prospered and was eventually incorporated as the town of Fairplay.  When Fairplay became the county seat in 1867 it had a population of about 300 miners, bar keeps, merchants and fancy women.

During the 1860s and 1870s, an itinerant Methodist preacher named Father John Dyer cared for his "flock" in the mining camp of Fairplay and neighboring communities.  Holding services wherever he could muster a congregation, Father Dyer covered much of his circuit on foot or, in winter, on long Norwegian skis.  During the winter of 1864 he worked for the U.S. Postal Service delivering mail to Leadville over Mosquito Pass on his long skis.  For this practice, John Dyer became known throughout the region as the "Snowshoe Itinerant."

Booming mining camps created large markets for meat and by 1868 the "vast agricultural wealth of South Park" had attracted the attention of ranchers and stockmen.  Sam Hartsel came to the area in 1860 to mine but realized that he could make a better living raising food for miners.  Starting with a 160-acre homestead in 1862, his operations soon encompassed a 10,000-acre ranch, sawmill, trading post, blacksmith shop, hotel, commercial hot springs and bathhouse.  Sam Hartsel's enterprises boomed when the Colorado Midland Railway reached Hartsel from Colorado Springs in 1887.

Returning from a mining expedition, Charles Hall camped on a briny spring west of Hartsel that was used by Ute, Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians as a source of salt.  The salinity of this area (near Antero Reservoir) earned South Park the name "Bayou Salado" or Salt Marsh.  Seeing opportunity Hall homesteaded the site in 1862 and built a salt works to process commercial quantities of sodium chloride, primarily for use in the mining industry.  Over the next few years Salt Works Ranch became one of the area’s largest cattle operations where Hall and his wife Mary welcomed everyone from Ute Indians to Kit Carson.  Descendents of the Halls still own and operate the ranch, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

From 1922 to 1952, a new form of industrial mining brought floating gold recovery plants to the South Platte River near Fairplay.  Huge bucket-line dredges operated with a digging ladder and a long boom with buckets that dumped gravel into a feed hopper.  Here the gold was separated from the rock and the waste was ejected behind the dredge as it crawled forward.  Huge rock piles east of Fairplay attest to the power and scale of these behemoths.  The Snowstorm Dredge is the largest floating gold recovery plant left in Colorado.  Now a local Historic Landmark, the Snowstorm took two years to build and operated for five years.  Efforts are underway to preserve this rare example of historic mining technology.

In 1957 the South Park Historical Foundation was organized to preserve relics from the gold mining era.  Land and extant buildings were purchased for the creation of an authentic mining town on the outskirts of Fairplay.  Additional buildings were moved to the site in 1958 and various civic groups assumed the responsibility of collecting period artifacts and furnishing the buildings.  By the end of that summer roughly 40,000 items had been donated by area residents.  Today South Park City Museum in Fairplay accurately depicts life in a Colorado mining town between 1870 and 1900.  Thirty-four log, batten, clapboard and stone buildings contain some 60,000 period artifacts that typify the professions, trades and industries that contributed to 19th-Century life in South Park.


Southern Park County served as a summer hunting ground for the Mountain Utes and other American Indian tribes.  After 1860, fields of irrigated hay replaced native grasses, domestic cattle and sheep replaced the bison, and European-American ranchers and settlers displaced American Indian hunters.  Today, recreation is the main pursuit of most visitors.

Pushing westward from Colorado Springs, the Colorado Midland Railway entered Park County near Lake George.  The first Colorado Midland passenger train reached Lake George in 1887.  This standard-gauge railway, called "the stockmen's railroad," could carry heavier loads than the narrow-gauge Denver, South Park & Pacific that ran from Denver through Como.  The Midland shipped cattle and hay produced on local ranches, and brought tourists to fish and gather wildflowers.

In the early days, the settlement of Rocky was established near what is now Lake George.  A manufacturer from Boston named George Frost constructed a dam at the mouth of Elevenmile Canyon, known then as Granite Canyon, and platted the nearby town of Lake George.  For years ice was cut from George’s lake to refrigerate Colorado Midland Railroad boxcars containing fruit and vegetables.

During a dispute between union and non-union miners in 1894, hundreds of miners left Cripple Creek and headed west toward Guffey in search of gold.  Known then as “Freshwater,? Guffey became a center of prospecting activity and commerce.  The name change to Guffey is said to have occurred when a senator from Pennsylvania named Guffey offered the city fathers $500 to rename the town after him.  When it was discovered there was little gold in the Freshwater Mining District, the miners began to leave resulting in a sharp decline in Guffey’s population.  However, because of ranching and timber harvesting in the area, Guffey remained a busy center of commerce for a time.  Today Guffey is a quiet rural community surrounded by forested hills, reminiscent of eastern United States.  The countryside is dotted with old agricultural homesteads and barns, some of which are unusually large and well preserved.


Bayou Salado - The Story of South Park.  Virginia McConnell, 1966.  Swallow Press Inc, Chicago, IL.

Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps.  Sandra Dallas, 1984.  University of Oklahoma Press.

Ghosts of Park County.  John K. Aldrich, 1989.  Centennial Graphics, Lakewood, CO.

Ghost Towns of Colorado.  Philip Varney, 1999. Voyageur Press, Inc.

Ghost Towns: Remnants of Colorado's Mining Days. Carolyn Bauer, 1987.  Renaissance House, Frederick, CO.

Goin’ Railroading.  Margaret Coel, 1998. University of Colorado Press, Boulder, CO.

Historic Stories & Legends of Park County.  Park County Historical Society, 1988.  Bailey, CO.

People of the Shining Mountains.  Charles Marsh, 1982.  Pruett Publishing Co, Boulder, CO.

The Tarryall Mountains and the Puma Hills.  Midge Harbour, 1992.  Lake George, Colorado.

Unique Ghost Towns and Mountain Spots.  Caroline Bancroft, 1988.  Johnson Books, Boulder, CO.

Utes: The Mountain People.  Jan Pettit, 1990.  Johnson Printing Co., Boulder, CO.

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