‘Ghost Towns’ a good guide to the past
summit daily news
It was the trail work that took Preethi Burkholder to more remote parts of the West, where she encountered abandoned and dilapidated cabins in the woods.
Not long into her volunteer work with the U.S. Forest Service – she had come from Boston – she learned that these clusters of cabins were often once thriving towns.
The Lafayette resident is the author of a recently released travel and touring history book, “Ghost Towns of the Rockies,” which is a good primer for those looking to visit Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Montana and Utah towns that have been marked by a cycle of dramatic boom and bust. She – and it’s encouraged to do so – points to mining museums, plaques at the sites and other sources to get more in depth into the towns’ histories. Hers is meant to be a book to carry as a quick reference.
Silver Plume is on the list, even though people still live there.
So, too, is Leadville, and Twin Lakes. Nearby Independence and St. Elmo are more like the ghost towns normally envisioned today.
But many didn’t make the book. Among thousands of abandoned cabins and clusters of shops and abodes scattered through the West, Burkholder had to narrow it down to a few that were most interesting, and most accessible by map.
They were also the towns most affected by the silver panic of 1893, when the value of the metal plummeted, as did the fortunes of many. Her stories, which sometimes are colorful and sometimes recount a drier history of the area, were drawn from interviews with history experts, book and online research as well as visits to many of the towns.
“As a result of such volatile economic conditions, the towns were often left in a state of suspended animation,” Burkholder writes in her preface. “Displays still standing in shop windows, bottles and glasses on saloon tables, and the shelves of abandoned cabins lined with pieces of crockery and silverware.”
Some towns that are included in the book retained population – though not on par with historic values – or revived momentum in a different way, like Cheyenne, Wyo., and Creede.
And Leadville, whose population severely declined in 1893, did not die but turned into “one of America’s last remaining authentic mining towns” and recreational centers, Burkholder writes.
“Leadville declined with empty streets and silent mines after the turn of the century,” she wrote. “Much of the town was torn down for firewood.”
Her book and the research involved in it serve as a warning to Burkholder for how quickly the tide can change, she said. And it’s a story still being told today, for those striking out in search of adventure or fortune – in hard times, doors close and people migrate to places with better opportunities.
“Some of the towns that are very successful today will wither away into darkness and get claimed by nature or vandalized,” she writes.
Burkholder particularly draws parallels in the lives and ambitions of immigrants then and now, being a Sri Lankan immigrant herself.
“They came with a dream,” she said of the miners. “Only a sliver achieved that dream.”
She added, “I can relate to them, not in terms of mining… but in getting something better. That’s why I came.”
She said she can draw comparisons between what she imagines the miners sought – a roof, food, income and some sort of success -and what she feels today.
It was her favorite experience to see these parallels, she said, but it was also her least favorite aspect.
Because at the same time she sees history repeating itself in interesting ways, so, too, do the hardships endured by the folks setting out.
“Because of a handful of individuals who want to get a lot, there are (many) who suffer in that process,” she said. She referred to walking through the towns and doing research into the hardships and pain “endured silently by miners and their families,” Burkholder said, adding that the hard, risky work wasn’t adequately rewarded for either the husband or his wife at home, caring for the family and the children.
Burkholder also said that these are the stories – about hardship or the fun facts that dot her book – that give life to the now lifeless or sleepy towns of today.
“It’s these stories that give the towns personality,” she said. “For a moment, they transport the reader to a different world – a fun and light world.”
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