By Maggie Magoffin
The sky above Quartz Hill glowed in vibrant hues of orange and gold. The pungent odor of burning timber carried on the chilling night air. Thick black smoke crept down the embankment toward Nevada City. The women in town stood in the streets watching and waiting for news. At the first sign of the fire, their husbands and sons grabbed axes, buckets and shovels and hurried up the hill. Fire was a common occurrence in the mountain towns of Colorado – a catastrophe which could destroy and entire city in only hours.
It was in the spring of 1864, shortly after the closing of the Casey Mine, when the morning sun dawned bright on the charred, smoldering remains of a cabin once belonging to a miner, his wife, and young daughter. Little was known about the family other than the man worked for Pat Casey, his wife was Ute Indian and they had a daughter named Nellie.
The girl attended school only a few times, and was mercilessly teased or shunned and called a half breed. On occasion, Nellie was seen in Nevada City or Central City with her father when he came in for supplies. It was thought she was about fourteen-years-old. She was tall and slender with raven black hair, dark eyes and ivory skin.
When the remains of the burned out cabin was searched, only the charred remains of a man and woman were found. Leaving them to wonder what became of Nellie.
For weeks after the fire, sightings of a young woman near the Casey Mine were reported. Women gossiped and speculated, and the disappearance of Nellie was the topic of conversation in the town’s many saloons. Reports of the seeing Nellie described the young woman as having a wild, tangled mass of dark hair encircling a smudged dirty face and on occasion someone reported hearing sobbing near their cabin or place of business.
Women’s clothing began to disappear from clotheslines and food from shelves and pantries. Townspeople would say, “Nellie took it.”
After a time, kind hearted folks left food stuffs and clothing on their doorsteps and would find shiny pieces of quartz or bunches of wildflowers tied with ribbons in their place.
When the Casey Mine reopened, workers who were reinforcing timbers and pumping out water found remnants of food, bunches of dead wild flowers, broken lanterns, tattered blankets and women’s clothing scattered throughout the mine. On one raised area they found piles of rags covered by a blanket and a child’s doll.
The disappearances of food and clothing ended and no further sightings of Nellie were reported. No unidentified remains were ever found. Some said one of the men sent from New York by the Ophir & Boston Milling Company to check out Casey’s holdings found Nellie and took her with him when he left. Speculations were made that when the activity began at the mine the young girl made her way down the hill to Golden or Denver. Others believed she met with foul play. There were many means to hide a body in the vastness of the Colorado mountains.
What became of Nellie? Why did the story remain but no family name was put with the lost girl? Surely someone working in the Casey Mine knew the name of the man who died. All that is known is that he was Irish and because he married the Indian woman, no one other that Pat Casey would hire him.
Years later, a beautiful woman with dark hair, piercing dark eyes and ivory white skin visited Central City and stayed at the Teller House for one night. The next morning, she rented a horse and was seen riding out of town toward what remained of what was then called Nevadaville. Hours later, she returned the horse and took the next train back to Denver. She spoke to no one other than the clerk at the desk in the hotel and took her meals in her room.
The clerk was a wizened old man raised in Nevada City, and after the woman left he recalled the story of Nellie.