Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part Friday series on the history found along U.S. 24 between Colorado Springs and Vail.
U.S. 24 is much more than a slab of asphalt stretching 1,500 miles from Michigan to Colorado. Its final 150-mile segment, from Colorado Springs to Vail, bristles with the history of mining, railroads and mountain training of skiing soldiers.
The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, which enabled significant westward expansion, was launched by the same man who founded Colorado Springs, Gen. William Jackson Palmer.
Having survived a stint in the notorious Castle Thunder Confederate prison in 1862, Palmer served so well as a Union officer during the rest of the Civil War that he was awarded the Medal of Honor. In 1869, while working for Kansas Pacific Railway, Palmer wrote to his fiancée, telling her he intended to make his home at the foot of “magnificent” Pikes Peak.
A year later, he formed and was elected president of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. This company and its offshoots built rail lines north to Denver, west to Salt Lake City and south to Mexico City. In 1871, he founded Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs.
By 1880, his company had completed a rail line from Colorado Springs to Pueblo to Buena Vista, a mountain town also bisected by U.S. 24. In those days, a Buena Vista-bound traveler could choose from four railroads.
Buena Vista was born as a railroad town, incorporating in 1879 as the railroad approached. It was called Cottonwood for a time, then took on the name of an early settler family, becoming Mahonville. A local German woman, Alsina Dearheimer, is credited with giving the town its current name — and the non-Spanish pronunciation of “Byoona-Vista.”
The town’s combined courthouse and jail was finished in 1882 for $25,000, and the building still stands, now serving as a local history museum. A nearby historical marker proclaims that the city proudly had 68 saloons in its early days.
Perhaps more impressive, about 100 years ago, Buena Vista was the nation’s lettuce capital. The heads were grown on 13,000 acres, chilled for rail transport locally with ice from Ice Lake and marketed as “Buena Kist.” The lettuce stayed popular until the 1940s, when refrigerated rail cars took away the “Buena Kist” advantage.
Rail benefits mining
The 1879 Silver Boom brought thousands west to Leadville, also on U.S. 24. There, $82 million worth of silver was mined (nearly $2 billion worth in today’s dollars). Mining, aided by rail, was a key factor in the state’s tenfold growth from 1880 to 1890, from about 40,000 people to more than 400,000.
But silver prices crashed in 1893, leaving wreckage that still can be seen on the drive between Buena Vista and Leadville, including the ghost town of Vicksburg, named for Vick Keller, who owned the general store there. In 1880, Vicksburg was home to about 700 people and 40 buildings.
Also felled by the crash was Inter-Laken Resort next to Twin Lakes. It was built in 1879 and enlarged after James V. Dexter bought it in 1883. But the fall in silver prices — and in the lake’s depth — doomed the hotel venture. Decades later, in 1970, the federal government bought the land and buildings that remained, and volunteers since have refurbished Dexter’s private cabin. It’s open most days and reached by a 4-mile roundtrip hike.
Leadville started as the Oro City mining camp. When the camp migrated a bit south, the name changed to Slabtown before becoming Leadville in 1877. In the 1880s, it was the state’s second-largest city, at about 40,000. Today, the population has dwindled to 2,600.
Leadville always has captured imaginations, in part because it’s often viewed as the last wild place in the U.S. The town has been featured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (“Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner), a Jimmy Buffet song (“Incommunicado”) and a movie (“Under Siege 2: Dark Territory”) starring Steven Seagal.
One resident from Leadville’s early days achieved lasting fame: the “Unsinkable Molly” Brown, nee Margaret Tobin. Her friends called her Maggie, and movies fictionalized her name into Molly. She arrived in Leadville in 1886 at age 18 and soon met James Joseph Brown, a mine superintendent. They married at Annunciation Church, which still stands off the town’s main street.
In 1893, the couple struck gold and moved to Denver. They separated 16 years later, leaving Maggie with a hefty monthly stipend (nearly $20,000 in today’s dollars) that she used to travel.
One such trip came on the RMS Titanic. When that ship sank April 15, 1912, Maggie ended up in Lifeboat 6, which could hold 65 but pushed off with 21 women, two men and a boy.
When the crewman piloting the boat refused to go back to rescue more passengers, Maggie took an oar and threatened to throw him overboard.
On her return to Colorado, she decided to run for the U.S. Senate. Then World War I came, and Maggie ended her campaign and headed to France to work for the American Committee for Devastated France. She earned the French Legion of Honor for her service.
Another Leadville-mined metal, molybdenum, became crucial in the next war and helped Leadville rebound after the Silver Rush went bust.
Also spurring the town’s revival was construction of nearby Camp Hale, where the Army’s 10th Mountain Division was stationed during World War II.