Looted “Ghost Town” aspires to new life

News from the Denver Post, October 6, 1956

by Charles Little

Nevadaville is not dead yet, not by a long shot, nor the civic pride of its four inhabitants. Not to deny that nearly all of what once was Nevadaville is missing and gone. The mining community just up the gulch from Central City and which grew up with Central, booming to 2,000 persons, has been enjoying mighty poor health for a long time now.

If an absence of population constitutes dissolution of a town, Nevadaville has been tottering on the corporeal brink off and on since twenty years ago when the census dwindled to one hardy citizen. But now there are four residents, as many more non-resident home owners and dog population of two.

A count shows a dozen houses dotting the rows, and rows of vacant terraces and foundation holes. Three brick buildings, all privately owned, still stand in the business section. The largest is the property of Nevada Lodge No. 4 of Masons; another is one of thirteen original saloons and the third is a brick home. The weathered Methodist-Episcopal Church is the landmark of the town and the combination city hall and firehouse is almost intact. Both are privately owned. There is electricity in Nevadaville for those who are there to use it—a luxury that was unavailable in the town’s palmier days. The road from Central City which leads to the Glory Hole on Quartz Hill is kept in some repair.

Posted conspicuously on the front of the town hall is a public notice. It reads: “Contrary to statements made, Nevadaville is not, and never was, a ghost city. All property is owned either by mining companies, Gilpin County or by private parties whose taxes are paid. Any person trespassing on these properties do so at their own risk.”

Former and present residents say that two-thirds of the town’s dwellings have disappeared in the last ten to fifteen years and that most of the brick and stone edifices of the business section have gone in ten. The changes have largely gone unnoticed. For the most part, Nevadaville has been sold for the wood that was in it. The houses have been rolled out plank by plank on the trucks of persons very willing to pay the delinquent taxes for the lumber. The county commissioners have been glad to get what they could for dwellings falling into the earth. “They make us an offer and we work out a price,” says Commissioner Otto Blake. “Some of the houses were only worth a small part of the amount of back taxes of course.”

Lou Streng, one of four town residents this summer, may have lifted the town’s last obligation recently when he bought what Nevadavillans say was the only remaining ownerless shack for its accrued taxes.

The Episcopal Church went to its reward about 1930 leaving the Methodist-Episcopal Church alone. It now stands securely boarded up, but its steps in ruins, the property, thru payment of its taxes, of Mildred Cook Dickinson of Donner’s Grove, Ill. The frame schoolhouse where Professor Wilson sat over 300 young “scholars” fell during the ‘30s. An allusion in 1933 by Muriel V. Sibell notes it stands but with “books, maps, a clock and a tattered flag strewn about the floor.”

The frame of city hall stands on the main street largely through the ministrations of William C. Russell upon whose mining claim it is situated and who has taken care of it for eight years. No taxes are paid on it, of course, and Russell lays claim to it. The city hall safe, taken down to Central City a few years ago, is locked, its combination unknown, and the county commissioners plan to have it opened to see what’s inside (note: the safe has been returned and is back in its original home). Across the street from the city hall is the first chartered Masonic lodge in the state. Lodge members held an annual meeting there up to the time the building was sacked.

Taking the census last summer was easy: There are Mr. and Mrs. Lou Streng who arrived last winter and found no one in town; there is Donato Russell of New York; and high on the hill, Maximillian Alexy and his two dogs, Pagar, a German shepherd, and Kala, a malamute, who keep the inquisitive at a healthy distance. Alexy has a violin and is wont to send music down the valley—a sound unheard in a real ghost town.

Townsfolk of Nevada Gulch in the last decade have watched the town both sold down the hill and thoroughly looted. Houses with their swinging doors to the wind and the furnishing remaining were an invitation the self-helpers. Sure, people begin to think the contents were theirs for the taking.

“I went to Nevadaville in 1937 and have been trying to hold off the looters ever since,” relates William C. Russell, home and city hall owner. “I got myself elected constable so as to be able to make arrests. The houses were stripped of thousands of dollars’ worth of furniture and then the town itself went fast when the Central City Opera opened in the early ‘30s and people began to hear more about Nevadaville. One cabin I remember was worked over one way or another until it got so weak one day the wind knocked it down. The next day it was gone.”

Another of Nevadaville’s boosters, Lou Streng, recalls that “old Mr. Moore, who used to live here, told me one day he had company and went out with them for an hour or so. When they came back a couple of women were lugging benches from the house. Mr. Moore says they said, ‘Oh, we didn’t know anyone was living here.’”

On the line between Central City and Nevadaville lives Paschal Quackenbush, a young artist, now building a studio in Central City, who states his home was broken into six times while he was in service. There are several kinds of predators, he has been led to believe: One kind just likes to bust up property; another takes useful articles; but “none of them will touch a painting.” Quackenbush recalls some people have shot out windows of the houses from moving cars. “Nevadavillans know what to do about that. A shot into the air over the car stops it.”

If there was little documenting of the town’s drop to obscurity, it was one of the most famous in its heyday. The gold lodes were unearthed in 1859 a few weeks after the Gregory strike in Black Hawk, and by 1868 fortunes were being taken from the Ophir, Hidden Treasure, Burroughs, and California mines.

The peak population was reached in the late ‘70s according to the state business directory which found nearly 2,000 citizens, mostly miners. Thirteen saloons were purveying the O-be-joyful to a community which seems to have had less of the boisterous element than contemporaneous towns. Many of its citizens were later to become state leaders.

The first blow fell in 1879 with the boom of Leadville and before many weeks a goodly part of the population was on its way to Leadville. But in the early ‘80s the mines were bought by English capital, the properties placed on a more businesslike basis, and the decline braked until the panic of the 1890s.

By 1900 the population numbered about 1,000 and the handwriting was on the wall, but there is no evidence that Nevadavillans paid heed to it. One finds that the Methodist-Episcopal Church (with a Sunday school attendance of 150) has been newly refurbished with a new roof and painting. Politically the town is divided into three wards with two aldermen in each. And now the town begins to shrink fast. In 1904 the census taker counted 823 persons; in 1912 there were 367; by 1919 one finds 200; and two years later there were only fifty.

In 1925 the late Courtney Ryley Cooper, on one of his long pack trips along the high country, viewed the town… “a solid line of brick buildings stood there in gaunt loneliness, their ceilings sagging from the inroads of roof leakage, their windows long ago broken to admit the whining wind. High upon the hill stood the two churches with their pews, their organs, their songbooks, even their altar cloths remaining. The schoolhouse still held its desks, its blackboards and even the daily lessons chalked thereon. The houses stood row upon row upon a plane of vacancy.” There were several hundred houses and still two churches, one finds from allusions of other writers of this time.

Yet it was about this period that there was some talk of opening some of the old mines and a writer telling that “pieces of early American furniture which were left in the houses and stores of the town have been pilfered and even the saloons have been stripped of their bars” adds significantly “but after a few windows have been replaced here and a wall built there, a new population can set up housekeeping.”

And so down to 1929, when there were still “rows upon rows” of houses and blocks of stores, all of which were deserted except for one man, Leonard Nichols. Nichols basking in the sun, vouchsafed to one of his visitors, “things are rather quiet around here now.”

Leonard Nichols died in the early ‘30s at about the same time that a music festival opened a new vista for Central City. Residents say that this was the time that Nevadaville was shipped out the fastest, but it was not good for much else by now. Muriel V. Sibell observed in 1933 that the post office and schoolhouse were much the same as the houses where she found “an armchair with its upholstery broken or sagging, old newspapers, a few books, their pages gummed together, tin cans, wash basins and old bottles and always the loud inexplicable noises of empty rooms, the flapping wallpaper, dropping plaster and the rattle of corrugated iron…”

Nevadaville though has never turned in its checks and homeowners have turned up with greater frequency in the last decade, rescuing the best houses, a church ad one or two of the public buildings. You could count twenty-five villagers there in 1940 before the war emptied the town again. Perhaps this handful of returning residents will mark the shape of things to come.”

From Mary Peery

Here are some points of clarification, about the Main street buildings, which the Denver Post writer Charles Little references, starting with the Masonic lodge. According to A Concise Social and Business Review of the Three Principal Towns in Gilpin County, written in 1905: “In 1879 the lodge erected a fine two-story building of stone with iron and brick front, fifty-five feet on Main Street by 100 feet in depth, at a cost of $7,000. The building is still a credit to the lodge and the town. Many of the most distinguished men in Colorado have been members of this lodge.” Nevada Lodge No. 4 is the second oldest chartered lodge in the state of Colorado, dating back to Nov. 17, 1860. The first chartered lodge was in Golden City. Chartered lodges nos. 2 and 3 were located at Parkerville and Gold Hill, both are now extinct.

Two saloons would have been standing, and are still standing, when Charles Little saw Main Street – the Bon Ton Saloon and the Kramer Saloon. Both were built approximately 1887 with brick fronts and stone construction. Both saloons were closed by the start of prohibition. However, neither one of these two saloons would have been in existence at the town’s inception. In 1859 and 1860, the legendary 13 saloons would have been built as notched log cabins. Their lifespan was short due to the first fire, which devastated the town. Next time we will learn what Murial V. Sibell saw and wrote about, when she visited Nevadaville.

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