Westcliffe Information Westcliffe Article Custer County Visit Westcliffe
"I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference" - Robert Frost
Scenery, History, and Real Life for the Discriminating Traveler
by Joanne West Dodds
Not far from Colorado's major interstate highway (I-25) is a beautiful valley that few travelers see. Surrounded by the Wet Mountains and the eastern face of the Rocky Mountains, the Wet Mountain Valley is proud to be one of life's less traveled roads. Descendents of the pioneers who settled the valley have a deep seated love for the peace and beauty of the home that they would like to share with you.
It all began with a dream for a better life. German-Americans living in Chicago formed an economic colony. That is a fancy way of saying that they all paid a fee of $250 to migrate together to Colorado. They also promised to share equally in the labor and the profits for five years. They arrived in the valley on March 21, 1870 and named their community Colfax. Unfortunately, the leadership was poor, the weather was harsh and their crops failed. One member recalled that their 8 by 10 foot cabin's window was a sliding board and that meat and butter were scarce. By spring 1871, the colony had disbanded but many of the members homesteaded in the valley.
At the same time the Germans and other ranchers were settling in the valley, miners were searching the hills for gold and silver. Richard Irwin led a group of prospectors who found gold in the Rosita hills. By 1875, Rosita, named for the little roses that grew along the hillsides, had 1,500 inhabitants, three churches, a bank, a couple of hotels and a dozen businesses.
Silver Cliff was the second largest mining community. The first discovery of silver was made on June 28, 1878 by George Hafford. Being a poor man, he sold his claim to Mr. Bailey of Denver for $25,000. In less than ninety days Bailey took more than $40,000 worth of silver from the mine and organized the Silver Cliff Mining and Milling Company. Almost simultaneous with this find, the Racine Boy mine was struck, and purchased by the Silver Cliff Company. The mines had fanciful names such as Baby Love, Wanderer, Wild Joy, Starlight, Song Bird, Lone Star, Last Swindle, Peru, Juanita, Silver Queen, KY Boy, and Moneyless.
Rude huts, shanties, and nondescripts of all kinds were erected. Soon the entire area was perforated with prospect holes. On September 10, 1878, Ed Austin and Ed Norris used a tape-line to measure off Cliff and Mill streets so that the post office and the Horn Silver saloon might be put up, those being "the two prime necessities of American life."
Soon there was a tide of immigration. Men taking the Silver Cliff stage saved money on their fare if they walked up the hills thus relieving the load on the horses. Professional men, soiled doves, gamblers, businessmen, and laborers built the town. By 1880, Silver Cliff was the third largest Colorado city with a population of 5,040. Nearby Rosita recorded a population of 1,008.
Edmund Bassick was one of the successful miners who retained an interest in his mine when he sold the mine to investors. Originally called Bassickville, the town was renamed Querida. Disputes between the business community, the unions and the mine owners were frequent, violent and often fatal. The mining company hired the Pinkerton Company to restore order. Their representatives went door to door offering to buy gold nuggets. Unsuspecting wives sold nuggets their husbands had stolen from the mine leading to their husband's dismissal from their jobs.
While mining towns boomed and died, ranchers continued to settle the valley. Horses and mules were needed by the mining companies. Cattle were needed to feed the workers.
In the northern part of the valley a group of English settled. Well-educated, they brought with them knowledge of cattle breeding and afternoon tea. Settled in the Ula and Pines area, they were as inclined to hunt and fish as to ranch. Reginald Neave (in cooperation with Dr. Bell) built a cheese factory. Tragically he was killed by a drunken friend, Thomas Pryce. Both young men were members of the British peerage. Pryce's family sent a barrister to help defend him at his trial which may have hurt his case more than it helped. Pryce was sent to the state penitentiary and eight years later his prison record stated that he had starved himself to death.
Schools became the community centers for the valley. There was Adobe, Brush, Canda, Fair View, Froze Creek, Ilse, Knuth, Willow and others. The schoolhouse was more than just a place of education. A young teacher often became the rancher's bride. Their weddings often were held at the school. Everyone attended the school plays and help provide treats for the annual Christmas party. People voted at the schools, attended lectures from visiting scholars and from time to time funerals were conducted as well.
From the beginning, the valley's isolation was a problem. Only the richest ores could be mined for profit. Businessmen in Pueblo paid to build a road to the valley in the early 1870's. Then the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad built a line into the valley in 1881 along Grape Creek. Weather again played an important role in the history of the valley. Winter melt-off and rain caused the bridges along the line to wash out. One storm washed out 33 of the 35 bridges along the line. Repair costs exceeded the revenue from the line and railroad service to the valley ended in 1889. For over a decade the valley had no railroad service, then the Texas Creek line of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was built and opened on June 18, 1901.
The town of Westcliffe was organized by railroad investors who had a wicked sense of humor. The town was just a few miles west of Silver Cliff and would eventually rob the other town of important business revenue. Indeed by 1922 the Custer County courthouse was moved from Silver Cliff to Westcliffe. This was the fourth county seat. The first was Ula (1877), followed by Rosita (1878), then Silver Cliff (1887), and today Westcliffe (1928).
Throughout the history of the valley the ranchers were the stable economic force that paid the county's bills and supported the local towns. Ranchers know the value of a helping hand and daily spend time in one of Colorado's most beautiful regions. They have seen first hand the environmental damage done by reckless mining and live with the forces of nature. Still, generation after generation they stay because there is a quality of life in the valley that makes its less traveled roads very precious.