Monday, September 10, 2012

A Trip to Silver Plume

West of Denver, Colorado, up the steep, narrow Clear Creek Canyon, lie two towns which are forever linked in the history of Rocky Mountain silver mining. One is Georgetown, a beautiful gem known for Victorian homes and once dubbed “Silver Queen of the Rockies”. The town is also home to the Georgetown Loop Railroad. Completed in 1884, the Loop connected Georgetown with its rough and ready neighbor, Silver Plume – only two miles away but 601 feet up.

Color print Georgetown Loop RR
1899 color print of Georgetown Loop, Public Domain, Library of Congress

Although it was intended mainly for the transport of silver ore from the mines of Silver Plume, the Georgetown Loop soon became one of Colorado’s premier tourist attractions. The rails covered twice the actual distance between the two towns, traversing a corkscrew path that included horseshoe curves, steep grades and four bridges across Clear Creek. The mammoth Devil’s Gate bridge -- 95 feet high and 300 feet across – offered tourists a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and the canyon below.

Georgetown Loop RR
Devil's Gate bridge ca. 1885, Public Domain, Wikipedia

Originally part of the Colorado Central Railroad, the Georgetown Loop was taken over in 1893 by the Colorado and Southern Railway. The line operated for passengers and freight until 1938. Later dismantled, it was restored as a tourist attraction during the 1980s. Track and ties were donated by the Union Pacific RR and a new high bridge was built. The trains operated only during summer. Nowadays, however, they run from early spring through late fall, offering enclosed, heated cars and diesel locomotives during cold weather.

Tourist train pulled by an old time "Shay" (geared) locomotive, crossing the new high bridge in 2002. No smoke coming from the engine indicates the train was heading downward to Georgetown. Photo licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license 

When my husband and I visited Georgetown in the late 90s, it was mid-May and the trains had not yet resumed running for the summer, so we missed out on the spectacular ride up Clear Creek Canyon. Instead, we made the climb to Silver Plume by auto up the I-70 Mountain Corridor. The climb was a tad steep, but our destination was well worth the drive.

There are various legends about how Silver Plume got its name. One story says massive quantities of silver ore were found in feathery formations in the area. Another tale claims the town newspaper editor wrote a short poem: "Knights today are miners bold, Who delve in deep mines' gloom, To honor men who dig for gold, For ladies whom their arms enfold, We'll name the town Silver Plume!" Romantic, if rather nonsensical.

Water Street runs along Clear Creek, Photo taken by author

Set against Republican Mountain to the north and Mount McClellan to the south, the Plume, as it is affectionately called, was home to the silver miners – the hard working stiffs who risked their lives underground. Mine owners and managers lived down in Georgetown, in their lovely Victorian mansions. Both towns declined after passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893. Silver Plume lost most of its population. However, it continued to attract tourists who arrived via the Georgetown Loop Railroad.

Known these days as a “sleeping town” because so few people live there year around, the Plume isn't nearly as photogenic as Georgetown, but it offers authentic glimpses into the past. Perched on the side of a mountain, with steep paths leading up to houses built virtually into the rock, the setting gives one a taste of what it was like living and working in such a precarious location. I can't imagine climbing those paths in the dead of winter, contending with snow and ice, but they did it. Of course their homes (shacks?) probably weren't as pretty as these.

Silver Plume homes ascend the mountain, Photo released into Public Domain by its author Ken Gallager, Wikimedia Commons

Walking along Main Street, unpaved and dusty, we saw what’s left of Silver Plume's downtown -- empty storefronts dating back to boomtown days. I could almost see tired miners gathering in the narrow, false-fronted saloons (there were nine) to cleanse the rock dust from their throats and ease their aches and pains.

Original structures, ca. 1870-80s, Photo taken by author

While researching for this article, I came across a site with a number of photos showing how some of those time-worn buildings have been restored.  Others look just as forelorn as the day we snapped our pictures. One structure that fascinated us was the small stone jailhouse. I wonder how many prisoners were held in there.

Stone jail, built in 1875, roof obviously not original, Photo taken by author



Caroline Clemmons said...

Lyn, what gorgeous photos. Now I want to go see this place for myself. Thanks for sharing a lovely trip.

Meg said...

WOW, what cool photos! And that bridge!! Yowza. Incredible. Great post, Lyn!

Lyn Horner said...

Caroline, you're not alone. I want to go back there so bad! I'd love to have a little cottage in Silver Plume, where hubby and I could spend our summers and escape the Texas heat.

Meg, glad you like 'em! If I ever do get back there, I mean to ride the Loop. Hubby will need to close his eyes. He's not a big fan of heights. Sometime I'll do a post about our flight over the Grand Canyon. I loved it, but hub not so much. Oh, and I have pictures.

Mel Comley said...

Fascinating piece, Lyn and gorgeous pictures too. :-)

Lyn Horner said...

Thanks, Mel. I'm glad you stopped by.

ellaquinnauthor said...

That was fascinating. I loved the pictures.

Lyn Horner said...

Thanks for visiting, Ella. It's a fascinating place.

Anne Carrole said...

Great post. Loved the picture of the loop!

Lyn Horner said...

Anne, thanks much! The Loop is spectacular. It was considered an engineering marvel when built. Still is in my opinion.

Paty Jager said...

All you ladies write about such interesting places, I'm going to have to start making a list for when Hubby and I start traveling the U.S.

Carra Copelin said...

Facinating article, Lyn. This is quite possibly my favorite area of our country, this and northern New Mexico. It is beautiful and has wonderful history. Thank you for taking us on a tour with your pictures.

Sharla Rae said...

Lovely Post Lyn and I love the pictures. You really brought this place to life for all of us. Thanks for sharing.

Ellen O'Connell said...

This is my third try at commenting on this article. Maybe third times will be the charm. ;-)

I'm a Coloradoan and while I've never been to Silver Plume, have been to many other similar mountain towns. They always charm me and have the effect of making me think how much I'd love to live in the mountains. Then I think about winter and shiver. Not being a skier, I've never even visited up there in the winter and have no plans to. Living down here on the flat has its advantages.

Lyn Horner said...

Paty, I need to make the same list. Won't be long before Hubby retires. We'll have more time for travel then, if I can unglue myself from this machine. :)

Carra and Sharla, thank you for stopping by. I'm glad you like the pics! I love sharing photos of fun times and places. Hmm, I recall another trip a few years back to Angel Fire. Maybe we could do a combined blog, your photos and mine.

Ellen, sorry you had trouble posting your comment. Thanks for trying a gain and again! I'm with you about winter in the Rockies. Definitely not for me!