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.
|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.
|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. http://www.city-data.com/city/Silver-Plume-Colorado.html#top 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|