Masontown’s rise and fall above Frisco
Bill’s Ranch tour
What: The Frisco Historic Park and Museum’s next tour will be of the Bill’s Ranch neighborhood
When: June 25, 10 a.m. to noon
Cost: Free, but reservations are required and fill quickly
Fore reservations or more information contact the museum at (970) 668-3428
A lazy morning and just poor sense meant I was woefully unprepared for the hike to Masontown with Jana Miller and a group of historical enthusiasts brought together by the Frisco Historic Park and Museum. As I met up with the group of 20 at the recpath before heading to the trailhead, the floppy hats and walking poles all around me caused a moment of panic as I wondered what I’d gotten myself into — I hadn’t even put on sunscreen and all I had with me was my left-handed pen, notepad and a bottle of water. As a Colorado native, I’m ashamed of my preparations.
My cockeyed optimism had led me to assume we would take a nice meandering walk to Masontown, where we would be regaled with stories of the bygone town — I was half right. Don’t let me scare you away, the hike wasn’t that difficult, but as we stumbled over the snow-clad path (the hike took place Saturday, May 7), my fellow history buffs and I wondered how people hauled all of their stuff, even just their groceries, home to this mountain town.
THE TALE OF THE TOWN
To this day, there are doubts as to whether Masontown was really even a town at all or simply a mining camp on the side of Mt. Royal. The same question that rattled around my brain hiking to the site must have crossed the minds of 1900s miners as well: Was living up there really worth the haul?
Sitting at an elevation of 9,600 feet, the mining and milling operation perched directly above Frisco, meaning dedicated workers could have walked to work every day rather than living in Masontown. Yet, reports from the time show there was quite a bit going on, as the June 11, 1904, Breckenridge Bulletin claims the area had, “the mill, twelve lode claims and one placer claim, containing an acreage altogether of about one hundred acres.”
The mill was truly the center of Masontown, regardless of whether it was a mining camp or town. Owned by the Masontown Mining and Milling Company, which was established by investors from Philadelphia and Georgetown in 1872, the 20-ton cyanide ore mill was 200 by 300 feet, with a slanted roof, and built precariously in the path of an avalanche chute. The mill itself cost $75,000 to build — the equivalent of $1.5 million today. This was just the beginning of expenses, as mines in the area also faced exorbitant costs to transport mined ore. Before 1882, everything had to be moved by wagon over Loveland or Argentine passes to the closest railroad station in Georgetown. When the railroad came to Frisco in 1882 the game drastically changed and Summit’s profitability increased.
It wasn’t until 1903, however, that the Masontown Mining and Milling Company consolidated its five claims at the Victoria mine, purchased the Victoria-Eureka property for $25,000 — $650,000 in today’s money — and incorporated and capitalized in Colorado for $1.5 million — $37 million presently.
As the mining company grew, the expensive operation at Masontown, named after Masontown, Pennsylvania, where one of the founders was from, began to take off. In 1904, the mine and mill was said to be operating at cost of $3 per ton, while producing $16 per ton for a tidy little profit. These were the glory days for Masontown, and 10 to 12 buildings, including a boarding house, popped up at the site. A population of 25 to 200 people called Masontown home, and a 120-man crew worked the mine and mill.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
High times didn’t last too long in Masontown as five excavated tunnels proved to be far less profitable than investors had hoped. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 had the unintended effect of dropping the price of silver, which meant that most of the mining in Frisco halted by 1910 — which is why the Frisco lost electricity in 1913. As profits became increasingly rare, Masontown cleared out, meaning by 1912 the town was all but deserted when an avalanche ripped through the mill. Regardless of the facts, the legend of Masontown claims that residents had ventured to Frisco for a New Year’s dance. As reported in Frisco News, “their carousing was so vibrant in the clear night that Mount Royal’s snow was dislodged and came roaring down over Masontown. Reverberations of the first slide brought a second avalanche for the further internment of the city of sinners.”
Any residents that remained quickly left after the avalanche. However, the humble hamlet wouldn’t have to sit idle for long as Prohibition began and the bootleggers moved in. They operated mostly through 1923 before again abandoning the town, but disaster wasn’t done for the city of sinners. In 1926 another avalanche destroyed nearly all that remained, leaving only a handful of cabins at the site. Unfortunately, by 1968 those that still stood had become a fire hazard, and the whole of the town was destroyed through a controlled burn.
As our tour group approached the town site, and pulled up some pine to catch our breath and hear the stories, all that remained of the bygone town were some metal scraps and dislodged bricks. Further up the trail, a brick foundation sitting directly in front of a tailings pile, directly in front of an avalanche chute, said all we needed to know about Masontown. With a final look around and the last sip from my water bottle, my companions strapped on their Yack Tracks and I stumbled my way back down the path.
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