During the silver mining boom of the 1870s, with a population of just 71, Sts. John was for a short time Summit County’s largest town.
The Summit County Open Space and Trails Department recently bought the abandoned townsite and nearby mining claims for $425,000 from the Tolen family, which owned land in the area since the 1950s.
The purchase, finalized July 28, conserves about 90 acres in the Snake River Basin above the town of Montezuma as public open space. The 18 separate parcels have significant wildlife value, according to the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, the U.S. Forest Service and the Snake River Master Plan.
“We are incredibly grateful to the Tolen family for working closely with the Summit County Open Space program to preserve the heritage of Sts. John and this exquisite landscape for the enjoyment of Summit County citizens and visitors alike,” said Brian Lorch, the program’s director. “This is one of the most important and significant acquisitions the program has made in recent years.”
The county acquired the properties using the Summit County Open Space fund, approved by voters in 2008. Breckenridge Ski Resort contributed $25,000 toward the purchase as part of a deal with environmental groups worried about the impacts of the recent Peak 6 development.
With the acquisition, the county will protect a large portion of the Snake River Basin backcountry and preserve a piece of Summit County history. Lorch said the Sts. John properties are highly valued for their intact historic resources, popularity for outdoor recreation and high-quality wetlands and wildlife habitat.
A RICH HISTORY
The Sts. John area first landed on the map when John Coley discovered silver on nearby Glacier Mountain in 1863.
A number of less documented silver discoveries were made before that, said longtime Keystone resident Mike Clary, 81, who has written a series of books on the area’s history, but Coley often gets credit for the first silver discovery in Colorado.
His findings started a silver boom with prospectors digging all around the Snake River Basin. They formed a small town named Coleyville.
A few years later, the Boston Silver Mining Co. bought the silver lode and built an ore mill, fueling the town’s growth to a population of 71 in 1870. Clary said the company renamed the town Sts. John after the two saints John the Evengelist and John the Baptist.
When the silver market crashed in 1893, “everybody just kinda walked off the job,” he said, and expensive furniture that filled the Sts. Johns cabin where the superintendent sometimes lived “magically disappeared.” That furniture was later found in proper ladies’ houses in Montezuma.
The Superintendent’s Cabin still stands, as does an old home with a sign that reads “Berry Cabin 1869.”
Those cabins were fixed up by a man named Rob Ilves who lived at the nearby abandoned Tempest Mine more than 40 years ago.
Ilves was “a wild man,” Clary said, who liked to bring friends to the area for backcountry helicopter ski trips. Ilves also did some work on the Sts. John Mine’s assay office, where the assayer determined the quality of ore coming up from the numerous underground tunnels by pouring mercury on them.
“They generally didn’t live very long because the mercury vapors would kill them,” Clary said.
The mine’s roaster, a tall tower made of Welsh bricks, also still stands, but similar bricks from the mine’s smelter were stolen by opportunistic men who built two Keystone establishments.
“Tiny Dodge borrowed an awful lot of the bricks,” Clary said, describing the man who built the Snake River Saloon on Highway 6. Max Dercum, famous for co-founding Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and Keystone Ski Resort, also “liberated” some bricks for a wall in his Ski Tip Lodge.
Clary hopes the county will turn the remnants of the historic town into an exhibit and called the acquisition one of the biggest coups in the Snake River Basin for the Open Space and Trails Department.
“To get that many claims at one time, it was really amazing,” he said.
The county plans to research funding and management strategies for preservation and interpretation of the site.
THE TOLEN FAMILY
In the 1950s, a Korean War veteran named Delbert Tolen bought the land where the town used to be and several old mining claims.
Clary said Tolen paid almost nothing for them as he bought them for the price of the taxes the previous owners owed the Forest Service.
Tolen planned to mine in the area, but the mines never reopened, Clary said.
“I’d hike up there a lot, and every now and then he’d be out sitting on the superintendent’s porch or something, or he’d have barbecues and parties for his old friends or something, and I’d happen by,” Clary said.
When Tolen died in 2004, the land ownership passed to his five sons, who had no interest in mining, which is much harder these days with environmental concerns, Clary said.
In the last two years, the state Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, Climax Molybdenum and numerous other partners completed a reclamation project at the abandoned Sts. John Mine.
The project removed more than 23,000 cubic yards of tailings from the stream corridor, preserved the historic mill by diverting clean water away from the site and created or enhanced more than 3 acres of wetlands to improve water quality in Sts. John Creek.
Though the county wanted to buy the land and the Tolens wanted to sell, the liability of the cleanup complicated things.
Lorch said the family had a caretaker and did a nice job maintaining the surviving buildings, but the upkeep was more than the sons wanted to manage. The Tolens listed the land for sale last winter, Lorch said, and the county acted quickly to negotiate a deal.
PRESERVING RECREATION AND HABITAT
The Sts. John Road, which runs through the former town, is popular with backcountry skiers and snowmobilers in the winter.
Adding the properties as open space will ensure public access to the upper reaches of the 2,000-acre Sts. John drainage, avoid future plowing of the road and protect those outdoor recreation opportunities.
The properties are surrounded by national forest land, so limiting development means the area will retain its backcountry character.
Plus the riparian area surrounding Sts. John Creek has “high biodiversity significance,” according to the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, and the parcels are in a wildlife corridor that provides “landscape-scale movement, migration and dispersal of forest carnivores and other wide-ranging wildlife species,” according to the Forest Service.
“Anything that the county can scoop up as open space is always beneficial,” said Ashley Nettles, Dillon Ranger District wildlife biologist.
Because the area is known lynx habitat, Breckenridge Ski Resort contributed $25,000 to the acquisition.
That donation was part of a deal with Rocky Mountain Wild and other conservation groups that raised concerns about lynx habitat during the Peak 6 expansion approval process, along with $350,000 that was donated to the U.S. Forest Service’s nonprofit partner, the National Forest Foundation, said Kristin Williams, spokeswoman for Vail Resorts.
“We are thrilled to include these lands in Summit County’s open space properties,” County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said. “Given their historical, recreational and ecological values, this acquisition is an amazing triple play.”
The Summit County Open Space program acquires lands to protect the scenic beauty, natural habitat, backcountry character and recreational opportunities in Summit County. Funded through property tax mill levies approved by voters in 1993, 1999, 2003 and 2008, the program has protected more than 14,000 acres of open space.