Four historic mining towns on the edge of the Rockies survive booms, busts, blizzards — and tourists.
Nederland: From miners to frozen grandfathers
In 1864 young pioneer Sam Conger was hunting in the high country above the new settlement of Boulder when he spotted a strange rock. Conger took the stone home to Central City, where it sat in a friend’s barn until someone told him in 1869 that it was silver ore. He immediately staked his claim and named it Caribou. It would be the largest silver ore deposit ever to be found in Colorado.
Within five years, Caribou exploded to 3,000 residents. At 10,000 feet high and tucked up against the easternmost extent of the Continental Divide, it was one of the coldest and windiest mining towns in America. Despite the conditions the hardy prospectors built a real town there with a school, hotels, and even a roller skating rink.
The glory of Caribou was short-lived. Silver crashed in the 1890s, and a series of fires swept through the town in the early 1900s. In the ensuing decades, the winter wind and snow took what was left — not even a ghost town remains.
But a tiny stage stop far down the hill would outlast Caribou by more than a century. Today, we call it Nederland. With a population of about 1,500 people, “Ned” is now the big city of the four remaining Boulder County mountain towns.
On a recent sunny day in May, my friend Lisa and I took a road trip through the four towns of Nederland, Ward, Gold Hill and Jamestown. We descended into Nederland from the south on one of Colorado’s most scenic roads, the Peak to Peak Highway.
After stopping at Blue Owl Books on the edge of town for ice cream, we headed across the road to a place of whimsical joy — the Carousel of Happiness. The story of the carousel begins in a war. An American soldier in Vietnam carried with him a music box to sooth his nerves. The tinny tunes emanating from that box took the soldier’s mind away from the bombs and guns of war and brought to him a vision of laughing children riding a carousel in a mountain meadow.
After the war the soldier, Scott Harrison, brought his vision to life when he found an old 1910 carousel frame and mechanism in a Utah warehouse and moved it to Nederland in 1986. For the next 26 years Harrison personally carved all the wooden animals, many of which are time capsules containing old mementos. Around the carousel, if you look carefully, you might see the little fairies that watch from above. There is also the “somewhere else wall” and its portal to another dimension. A ticket to ride is just $3.
Near the Carousel of Happiness, a dirt trail follows Middle Boulder Creek through Chipeta Park and down to Barker Reservoir. Chipeta was the wife of the Ute Chief Ouray and herself a tribal leader. The land that Nederland rests on today is thought to have been a crossroads of successive ancient cultures, including Chipeta’s Utes. The meadow now at the bottom of Barker Reservoir was likely used for thousands of years as a base for hunting, trade and transit between the plains and the mountains.
Nederland’s first non-indigenous settler was Nathan Brown, who built his cabin in that same meadow in 1864. From that foothold came Brown’s Mountain House, an inn for hunters and prospectors. As the small settlement grew, it became known variously as Brown’s Crossing, Brownsville and Middle Boulder. The tiny town was renamed Nederland in 1874.
After Caribou collapsed and a brief gold mining run at nearby Eldora came and went, a third boom would launch Nederland into its true mining heyday. This time it was tungsten, discovered by the same Sam Conger who first found silver in the area decades earlier. Tungsten is a metal used to harden steel, needed in World War I. In 1916, Nederland’s population shot up to 3,000, double its current size.
As the war wound down, the bust cycle returned, and by 1920 only 200 Nederland residents remained. Nederland would hang on as a sleepy ranching and tourist town until the next boom cycle in the 1960s. This time it wasn’t miners but hippies who brought the town back to life.
In the late 1960s Boulder, Colorado had become one of America’s counterculture havens. Inevitably this brought “longhairs” up into the nearby mountains where they clashed with residents, many of whom viewed them as unwelcome invaders.
“We hippies were moving in, and there was a lot of tension between us and the older residents,” longtime Nederland-area resident Holly Widdowfield told me. “The 1970s was a lot rougher in Nederland than it is today.”
A subset of these newcomers was the so-called Serenity, Tranquility and Peace (STP) Family. The historical narrative describes them as a hygienically challenged cult of troublemakers. One STP member, Guy “Deputy Dawg” Gaughnor, was murdered by Nederland police marshal Renner Forbes, a crime that remained unsolved until Forbes’ confession in 1997. Former STP member David “Midget Jesse” Ansberry tried to avenge the murder of his friend by attempting, and failing, to blow up the Nederland police station in 2015.
In the early 1970s, music producer James Guercio purchased the 4,000-acre Caribou Ranch in the hills above town and turned its barn into one of America’s finest recording studios. With his music industry connections, Guercio attracted top singers and bands to the ranch, starting with Colorado resident Joe Walsh.
The list of big names who recorded at Caribou during its 12-year run is incredible. Elton John recorded three full albums there, including, of course, “Caribou.” There was Dan Fogelberg, who also lived in Nederland for a time. Steven Stills recorded there and had a home in Gold Hill. There was Chicago; Earth, Wind & Fire; John Denver; U2; Stevie Nicks; Stevie Wonder; Jerry Lee Lewis; Tom Petty; Amy Grant; Billy Joel; Michael Jackson; and many others. Even John Lennon stopped by to record backing vocals for Elton John’s cover of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
Local Nederland residents often enjoyed impromptu encounters with the era’s biggest rock stars at the Pioneer Inn. Old-timer and current Rollinsville resident Geno Kennedy, author of Welcome to the Mountains – Now Behave!, told me of times sitting next to Robert Plant at the inn. He also proclaimed the truth in the urban legend that Steven Stills once got tossed through the front window.
A fire severely damaged the recording studio’s control room in 1984. By that time, the heyday of the Caribou Ranch studio had passed. It was never reopened as a recording studio, and ownership of the ranch passed to new hands.
Nederland would soon return to fame in an unexpected way. In 1995, a big stir broke loose in town when local resident and Norwegian citizen Aud Bauge, upon being evicted from her home, expressed her concern that the frozen body on her property might thaw. A frenzy ensued, and it was revealed that Aud’s son and former Nederland resident Trygve, a cryogenics and life-extension fanatic, had been keeping his frozen grandfather, Bredo Morstoel, on dry ice in a shed.
After much deliberation, the town passed a law against storing frozen bodies on private property. But Grandpa, as Bredo became known, was “grandfathered” in. He could stay, but someone would have to keep him on ice. Opinions on the matter shifted, and the people of Nederland accepted the frozen dead guy and created an annual festival in his honor.
Frozen Dead Guy Days exploded in popularity over the years with its frozen turkey bowling, coffin races and polar bear plunges. Having outgrown Nederland’s capacity, the festival moved to Estes Park in 2023 after a run of 20 years. Bredo Morstoel’s frozen body remains in his Tuff Shed in the hills above Nederland.
Welcome to Ward! Now get out.
Some people say that if you’re too strange for Boulder, you end up in Nederland, and if Nederland isn’t weird enough for you, there’s always Ward.
This town is a mystery to many people. There’s a vague understanding that it’s a different kind of place — reclusive, perhaps even hostile, to outsiders. Despite dozens of visits to Nederland over the years as a Colorado native, I had never been to Ward.
After driving north from Nederland a few miles and a thousand feet higher in elevation, we turned off the highway to Ward and dropped steeply into a slice of Appalachia. Most of Ward sits in a sort of bowl that looks a bit like a West Virginia holler. The numerous junk cars strategically placed along the main road act as tourist repellant. It’s clearly a deliberate strategy.
Not sufficiently repelled, we parked the car below a wood carving of a demon with red eyes and walked up to some sort of general store. Stepping over a lazy unleashed dog, I tepidly opened the door. Behind the counter was a man wearing a beaver pelt hat who greeted us with no words and a narrow-eyed stare. We bought two coffees from his co-worker, a slightly more chipper fellow, as a peace offering.
The beaver pelt-hatted man was Damian Strider Stevens, and I felt fortunate to have met him as he claimed he was probably the only person in Ward who would be willing to speak on the record. He spun many tales of a different kind of life in Ward. Stevens is a coppersmith, sword-fighting instructor and children’s book author. He told us there’s a leash law in Ward, but only for pigs, and it’s illegal to own a billiard hall if your name is Steve.
Ward’s population has hovered around 125 residents, give or take, for the last half century, but it was once one of Colorado’s most successful and long-lasting mining districts. During most of its first half century it was home to more than a thousand people with a full-service business district. Founded in 1861 Ward also predates both Nederland, and the now vanished Caribou, by several years.
In a story all too common in these mining towns, a devastating wind-whipped fire swirled through the “Ward bowl” in January of 1900, and the town never recovered. Mining dwindled leaving residents with little reason to stay in this harsh and high locale. One notable visitor during this era was famed artist Georgia O’Keefe, who took the scenic Switzerland Trail to the town in 1917 and painted several landscapes, including the surviving oil painting “Church Bell, Ward.”
During World War II, Ward’s population dropped to just four people. A few hardy loners hung around and kept Ward from becoming a ghost town until it was rediscovered in the 1960s by some of the same hippies who came to Nederland.
Stevens spent part of his early childhood in Ward and then returned as a young man almost thirty years ago. When I asked why he returned to Ward he said, “There’s this weird word people don’t understand. It’s called freedom. That’s why we chose Ward.”
The freedom of Ward is defined by its resistance to the societal mores of the world. It’s a last bastion of counterculture utopian dreams. The people of Ward seem to understand that to hold on to that dream, however watered down it may become over time, requires a certain open hostility to the influences of outsiders. Those junk cars lining the road, dogs wandering around off leash and lack of attractions are all part of a deliberate strategy to make Ward seem like an unappealing place.
Ward residents do not like publicity, and yet here I am putting them on the printed page. But no story on Boulder County’s mountain communities would be complete without including Ward. Its story must be told, but the interests of the people of Ward must also be respected.
Ward is not a tourist attraction. There is no place to stay in town, nothing to do, and it’s not very scenic in its Appalachian-like bowl with streets full of junk cars. Ward’s beauty is in the knowledge that a place like this still exists in a homogenizing world.
Gold Hill and Jamestown: The fires and the floods of time
Just south of Ward, we turned east off the Peak to Peak Highway onto the gravel Gold Hill Road. It’s a lovely backcountry drive through pine, aspen and mountain meadows. In a few minutes, we arrived at the west end of Gold Hill.
With no paved roads in or out and its historic log structures, Gold Hill looks the part of a western mining town. It is the oldest mining town in Colorado, founded in 1859 after gold was discovered nearby. Gold Hill generally follows the same boom-and-bust history of other Colorado mining towns. At its peak in the late 1800s, it housed around 1,500 residents. Just under 200 people call it home today.
The town was sustained during the quiet days of the first half of the 20th century in part as a retreat. The Bluebird Lodge, originally built in 1872, was acquired by a group of women in 1920 who called themselves the Bluebirds. They built the Gold Hill Inn next door in 1924, and for the next three decades the “by-and-for-women” retreat thrived.
The Gold Hill Inn is now owned by brothers Brian and Chris Finn, who took over the business from their parents, Barbara and Frank, in the early 1980s. According to Brian Finn, his “crazy-adventurous” parents borrowed $12,000 in 1962, purchased the inn and opened the restaurant that still operates today.
“Since the inn was so unique, it got a lot of press,” said Finn.
Before long it became a favorite haunt for visitors from IBM and the University of Colorado. Around the time that Brian and Chris Finn took over the inn, the family owned a free-range donkey named Twinkles who would greet visitors on arrival.
One such visitor was Second Lady Joan Mondale. Town residents doubled over in laughter as Mondale’s secret service men were visibly nervous over the approaching donkey. But Mondale was delighted, gave Twinkles a scratch behind the ears, and all was good. Twinkles now has a signature drink at the inn.
Lynn Walker, owner of the Colorado Mountain Ranch kids’ day camp, has been a Gold Hill resident since 1970. The camp, originally a homestead potato farm, has been in operation since 1947, when Walker’s parents-in-law acquired the property. Every summer, kids are bussed up from the flatlands for horseback riding, roping, animal care, western art and many other activities in the idyllic mountain setting.
In the early days of Gold Hill, the original town site was mostly destroyed by a wildfire. It nearly happened again in 2011.
As Finn described it, “That day was not looking good. But then the winds kind of shifted, and this huge plane came in and dropped a slurry line on the south end of Gold Hill.”
It was a very close call. According to Finn, the flames came so close to some of the homes that their windows melted. Although Gold Hill was saved, Walker’s camp lost a number of structures.
“It was a team of guys from Ward (volunteer firefighters) who got us up and running again,” said Walker.
“Is it me, or is this road surprisingly steep?” I asked Lisa while downshifting. One mile and 750 vertical feet later, Lickskillet Road spit us out onto the paved Left Hand Canyon Drive.
Lickskillet is a backdoor route between Gold Hill and Jamestown. According to Walker, the miner who lived at the bottom had a mule that would lick his skillet, hence the name. I learned later that it is the steepest county road in America, with grades approaching 20%.
A bear on a sign greeted us at the edge of Jamestown, established in 1883, population 254. The story is, by now, familiar. Gold was discovered here, and a mining town was started, originally known as “Jimtown.” There was the boom and the bust. The settlement somehow hung onto existence and remains today as a quaint, secluded mountain hamlet a fraction of its peak size from over 100 years prior.
The lowest of the four towns at just under 7,000 feet, Jamestown offers the pleasantness of a lower foothills environment. The historic Jamestown Mercantile, right off the sleepy main road, is the perfect place to stop for a meal and, if you’re lucky, some live music.
In its lower streamside location, Jamestown has been subject to several catastrophic flash floods. Much of the town was destroyed by a flood in 1894 and again in 1969 when residents were stranded for ten days. The most recent of the floods was in 2013, a well-known disaster to many current Coloradans.
The pursuit of authenticity
Forces of nature often clash in the mountain towns of Boulder County where the Great Plains meet the Rockies. Extraordinary weather events, both awe-inspiring and dangerous, dot the historical record.
The world record 24-hour snowfall was recorded near Ward in April 1921 when over six feet of snow fell in one day. A 2003 blizzard dumped between five and eight feet of snow on these towns. The Ward bowl in the dead of winter may as well be the Arctic on some days, as sub-zero air is whipped around by biting winter winds. Warmer Chinook winds commonly exceed 100 miles per hour as they crash down from the Great Divide. The lost town of Caribou was said to be the birthplace of the wind. Summer forest fires and flash floods are a seasonal threat, as the residents of Gold Hill and Jamestown know all too well.
Full-time residents of these towns accept and embrace these hardships. It’s part of the price to pay for living a mountain life. For visitors, a summer day along the dirt streets in Gold Hill or in Ned’s Chipeta Park can be heaven. But a February spent in the Ward bowl is a different beast. It’s understandable that long-time residents demand they be the ones to determine how life should be lived at 9,000 feet.
“We want to be heard,” Geno Kennedy told me, “but we don’t want a lot of attention.”
There’s an important message in that statement. It represents the pursuit of authenticity, the preservation of a lifestyle uncontrolled by planning commissions, homeowners associations and tacky tourist attractions. The Boulder County mountain towns are places not to be changed or made better but simply to be acknowledged for their uniqueness and character.
Each generation of mountain-towners will establish their own authenticity, but it must be theirs to create.
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