Exploring historic Eagle River Valley
This time of year always feels a bit strange. Maybe it’s the crisp air and the crunch of leaves beneath our feet, or that the moon appears to loom larger in the night sky. Old memories seem to visit us more than usual, and we find ourselves reflecting on lives already lived, the summer swiftly fading from reality to a dream. The towns themselves feel a bit dead, awaiting the hustle and bustle of the ski season crowds that are weeks away.
With Halloween just in the rearview mirror, thoughts turn from ghosts to tradition, family and maybe even history. The past is closer than we realize. People often talk about Vail being a young town, with the ski resort celebrating its 50th anniversary last year, but the roots of Eagle County go back much further. Originally settled by the Utes, the first Europeans came to the Eagle River Valley as early as the 1840s. Fortunately for us, there are many historic buildings still standing throughout the county that have been preserved or maintain much of their original structure. You might know all of the ski runs and biking trails in the area, but now is the perfect time to take a historic hike back to an earlier era.
Red Cliff is the oldest town in the Eagle River Valley, established in 1883. Settlers looking to find gold and other minerals in the mines near Leadville descended upon Red Cliff and the population began to boom, bringing banks, saloons, hotels and plenty of mischief along with it. A quick stop by the Red Cliff Historical Museum, located in the town hall on Pine Street, will give you a sneak peek into those who came hoping to strike it rich and ended up suffering through hard times because of it.
“Conditions were difficult,” said Jaci Spuhler, local history librarian for the Eagle Valley Library District. “There were a lot of people from the Midwest who thought they were going to find their fortunes, which they would not necessarily do.”
Perhaps the most fascinating place in Red Cliff to visit is the Greenwood Cemetery. Strolling among the tombstones, you might come across some names that are familiar to this day, such as the Nottingham family. According to Kathy Heicher, president of the Eagle County Historical Society, not all of the early Nottinghams died of old age. County commissioner William H. Nottingham went down in a shoot-out with his business partner in 1892. In 1904, Grace V. Nottingham, considered quite a babe back then, shot and killed her fiance during a fight. Grace went to jail for only 24 hours, and four years later found her own fate in the hands of her then-husband Harry Adler, who killed them both in a murder-suicide.
Although Red Cliff was the first official town in Eagle County, Leadville was the main attraction where much of the action happened. Roger Pretti, local historian and author of two books on Leadville history, said in the early 1880s, an average of 200 people immigrated to the mining town daily, a staggering number compared to today’s small population.
“There were not enough lodgings for all those people,” Pretti said. “Many, probably hundreds, had to sleep where they could find a spot, be that a barn, on the street, under a door step or even an empty barrel.”
Those who had a little bit of fortune before coming to town may have been lucky enough to get a room at the Delaware Hotel, on Harrison Avenue. Built in 1886 by renowned architect George King, both the exterior and the hotel itself remain true to its original grand Victorian architecture. Gail Dunning, co-owner of the Delaware Hotel, said spending a night here is like “getting a glimpse of what life might have been like during the 1800s in Leadville.”
“Leadville is a who’s who of anyone who had anything to do with Western history,” Dunning said. “Everyone from individual miners and homesteaders to people like the Carnegies and the Rothschilds. They all have connections to Leadville.”
Like Red Cliff, the Evergreen Cemetery in Leadville is filled with tales of those who met an unexpected death. One old soul who may not be resting peacefully is Tom Dickson. Pretti said oddly enough, Dickson has two graves, one marked and one unmarked, in the Evergreen Cemetery, for reasons unknown. Dickson was already a wanted man at age 17 when he came to Leadville to escape the law. One night, he and a buddy burst into a local saloon with shotguns after closing time, attempting to hold up the bartender. A scuffle ensued until Dickson was shot right between the eyes by the saloon’s owner. Dickson was such a bad guy that his partner in crime fled the scene, only to return a few minutes later to make sure the young outlaw was truly dead, intending to complete the job himself if needed. Dickson was buried in the clothes he wore that night, still with a robber’s mask around his face. Stories such as these abound in and around Leadville, and some of the local folk are glad to tell ya all about it.
Away from the riffraff that inhabited Leadville, the town of Gypsum drew ranchers and homesteaders looking for their own patch of land to call home. One can’t drive down to Gypsum without visiting the First Evangelical Lutheran Church, located on Eagle Street. Constructed in 1890, the church is on the National Register of Historic Places in America. Pastor Dan Tisdel said First Evangelical is one of the oldest churches on the Western Slope. Even from afar, the church’s steeple spread the good word, intentional or otherwise. According to Tisdel, one day a group of Greek Orthodox railroad workers spotted the cross on top of the steeple through the fog, believing it to be a sign from the Holy Spirit.
“When they saw the cross in the fog, they were so frightened they didn’t come back,” Tisdel said. “Apparently the foreman had to go all the way to Grand Junction to get (new) workers for the railroad.”
To view First Evangelical Lutheran Church and even take a look at hymnals that date back to the late 1880s, call 970-524-7919.
Also initially a ranching community, Eagle offers a historical walking tour. Maps can be picked up at the Eagle Tourist Information Center at 100 Fairgrounds Road. One place that’s easy to find is the Mountain Pedaler Bike Shop at 101 E. 2nd Street, which used to be a general store and dates back to 1893. Heicher said one interesting thing about Eagle’s early days is how often people went up and down the valley, even in the winter.
“It wasn’t easy,” Heicher said. “They’d be traveling by horse or walking or a buggy. If you lived in Eagle, you made frequent trips to Red Cliff. People traveled a surprising amount.”
Compared to the rich history of Red Cliff and Leadville, the farther up the valley you go, the harder it is to find points of interest related to the true olden days — not the 1950s like some might think. However, the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens in Vail is now home to the Gore Creek Schoolhouse, constructed in 1922. The schoolhouse was built on the Eliot family homestead in West Vail and used until 1938. The school’s first teacher, Dorothy VanSchaack Carroll, describes some unusual transportation methods used to get to the school at that time:
“There was a sawmill located above in the Gore Valley and each day, at 3 p.m. or a little after, a lumber wagon and its load came down the road,” VanSchaack Carroll wrote in a letter from 1980. “The driver would stop and let the children and myself going down Gore Creek jump on top of the timber, stopping for the little ones to get off at their homes, and allowing me to ride to the junction of Gore Creek and Eagle River.”
Eagle County even has its own forgotten ghost town. Located past Minturn on U.S. Highway 24, one can pull off the road and view what remains of Gilman from a distance. Gilman was once a booming mining town that sprung up in the mid-1880s — it’s now closed as a toxic cleanup site. Spuhler said the first Gilman water line was made out of wooden piping, carrying water from Rock Creek. It was once a booming company town, which closed somewhat abruptly, with inhabitants leaving behind furniture, a bowling alley and a medical clinic complete with X-rays. While some think ghosts lurk in this abandoned mining town today, apparitions were actually more common back then.
“Miners who were on the job, many of them reported (ghosts) coming back to warn them (about) dangers underground,” Pretti said. “They would warn them before a cave in or lead them to a place of safety. (Many people thought) the dead returned to the mines.”
Like Gilman, many of the places and people of the Eagle River Vally may be long gone, but knowing their history helps us to not forget them.