The presence of salt springs in South Park was known for centuries before the Tabor party “discovered” them. Indians had long taken salt from the springs. The Spanish called the South Park “Valle Salado” which means Salt Valley. French trappers called it “Bayou Salade,” Salt Marsh, and American settlers corrupted this to “Bayou Salado,” the name of the definitive history of South Park.
South Park – Land of Hushed Echos
Park County was established in 1861, it is one of Colorado’s original counties, and one of the oldest. In its center is a lush valley of ranch land, known as “South Park”, and it features some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the state.
Once over Kenosha Pass, descending into South Park, one can experience the beautiful melody of a high meadow just as the hardy souls of the late 1800’s did as they traveled this crossing in their feverish stampede for gold. From noble white-capped peaks to a vast grassy basin, this is a land of a thousand voices. Three sleepy little towns Como, Fairplay and Alma-located in South Park- have delicately preserved the life and times of the 19th century miners. As you travel to these historic towns, listen for the pioneer’s song on the wind as the cool air brushes your cheeks.
South Park, located in central Park County, Colorado, is one of only three designated Heritage Areas in the state. Known for its beautiful flat valley, the term South Park was first used in the 1840s by hunters and trappers who bravely traversed the Rocky Mountains. Ten years later, word spread like fire across America of three successful gold strikes in Colorado. Fortune seekers flocked to the area and gold camps sprang up overnight. From 1860-1863, Park County boasted $1,500,000 in gold extraction. By the 1880s, the area was known for its mineral springs, hunting, fishing and wildflower meadows. One advertisement stated that a visit to the area “could cure the most nervous into refreshing sleep.”
Dropping off of Kenosha Pass the first town you meander through is Jefferson. The town had been preceded by two other “Jefferson’s” during the gold rush in the 1860s and 1870s. the current town of Jefferson sprang up in 1879 as the Narrow gauge railroads (DSP&P rail line) steamed through the valley. The town was founded by Willard Head who also donated land from his ranch to the railways and opened a store. He ran his personal home as a hotel and stagestop & this home still stands just south of the Highway and across Jefferson Creek along CR 77. The stage line ran between Jefferson and the town of Swandyke via Georgia Pass. By late 1881 Jefferson had boomed to a population of 300.
By the mid 1880s Jefferson had 2 butchers, saloon, post office, express office, lumber mill, blacksmith, hotel, school (Now the local Church), store, Livery (where Jefferson Real Estate now sits), Depot, Section house, jail (now moved next to the Gas station) & stock pens to handle the growing cattle & Sheep economy. By 1890, believe-it-or not, even a cheese factory opened up due to the success of the local dairy farmers (the old factory has since been converted into the local community center). Most of Jefferson’s livelihood was derived from it’s central location w/respect to the railroad & numerous businesses such as the “South Park Hay Company”, numerous local saw mills & the Cattle & Sheep ranchers in the area.
By the mid 1900’s the railroads had gone and many of the original buildings had either been dismantled or burned to the ground over the years. But if you stand next to the highway where the old railroad used to come through, you can imagine the steam engine with the smoke coming out of the pipe chugging down Kenosha pass pulling into Jefferson and all the hustle and bustle of unloading supplies and loading the rail cars with Lumber, Hay & livestock.
A short distance into the basin is the quaint town of Como. Home of many Italian coal miners and stonemasons, Como was named for a lake and city in Italy. The historic roundhouse, one of only three in the state, sits majestically on a hill just outside of town. Built as a railroad facility in the late 1800s, Italian stonemasons were imported to build the roundhouse and other stone structures. The first train arrived from Denver in 1879 and the circular stone and wood roundhouse was built shortly thereafter. Como was the company town for the DSP&P rail line and for a period of time, only railroad employees could purchase land in the area to build homes. As a primary rail division point, the town developed around the railroad with as many as twenty-six trains passing through each day. Sam Peas who worked for the railroad described the area in 1887: The town spread southward, its wide, dusty roads lined with small frame houses, boardinghouses, general stores, liveries, confectioneries, Chinese laundries and saloons. Almost every man in the population of 400 worked on the railroad, including twenty-two engineers, dozens of firemen, and 100 machinist, roundhouse employees, office clerks, and section gang laborers..
By the early 1900s, decline in the railroad industry caused the work force to be discharged or transferred. In 1935, a fire destroyed the woodsheds and roof of the roundhouse. Even though the roof was repaired, the railroad filed a petition of abandonment two years later. In less than a year, the railroad tracks were pulled up and Como’s population diminished to about 100 people. Standing on the hill that hosts the town of Como, if you listen closely, you may still hear the old train’s shrill whistle in the wind.
Driving on to Fairplay, the experience of open space in the basin brings to mind the unmatched beauty of life’s form and grace. A deep feeling of protection comes from the soft, sweeping hills that are surrounded by rugged mountains.
In the days of the early pioneers, hopeful prospectors fanned out across the area and the town of Fair Play (1859) was created. Fair Play, where “even-handed justice should rule” -the story behind this name lies in a town about twelve miles northeast called Tarryall. Tarryall was known as the land of greediness because the first gold miners who arrived there established claims so large that no room was left for the late comers.
The camp at FairPlay was located at the junction of Beaver Creek and the South Platte River and served as a supply center for nearby mining camps. At its peak, the Hallock and Davidson Lumber Mill reportedly produced 30,000 ft of lumber and 75,000 shingles a week. In 1861, a post office was established for the town’s 100 or so citizens. Six years later Fair Play became the county seat of Park County and the log courthouse from Buckskin Joe was moved to Fair Play. With a school, several churches and hotels and approximately sixty buildings, Fair Play was rechristened as the town of South Park City in 1869 then back to Fairplay (one word) in 1874. Along with a growing population came an increasing need for a jail. Built in 1880, the county commissioners, under pressure to insure the jail was escape-proof, used files to test the bars themselves.
As the mining industry faded, tourism, along with cattle and hay raising, became the economic mainstays of the area. Standing in the streets of Fairplay, one can imagine the rusty ore buckets swaying in the wind during the day and picture weary miners playing cards under the dancing kerosene light and dreaming of fortunes at night.
OLD SOUTH PARK CITY
On the outskirts of Fairplay lies Old South Park City. This make-shift town was created in the late 1950’s by a group of citizens concerned that the old mining and ghost towns of Park County were being dismantled and destroyed. The group, led by Leon Snyder, a Colorado Springs attorney, envisioned a recreated gold mining town. Buildings were brought in from the high gulches of the Mosquito Range and from mining towns such as Alma, Leavick, Buckskin Joe and Montgomery. Most of these buildings boast an array of period furnishings and equipment. A stroll down the boardwalk takes one back to another time when the town dentist and the mortician probably shared the same building!
Further on down the road past the “Long Meadow Ranch” is Alma. From the meadow’s basin the sun tipped mountains stand silent and expansive as lazy white-winged-tipped birds float overhead. Signs along the way state “Lost Park Road” and “Snow Stoppers” both clear warnings of how cruel the winters here can be. In 1884, the Rocky Mountain News stated that Alma, Situated at the foot of Mount Lincoln, six miles west of Fairplay, at the very mouth of the great true fissure gold and silver mines, commands a view, the like of which for magnificent scenery is rarely met, even in the picturesque Rocky Mountains.
During the same year, Alma, served as the ore-processing center of South Park and grew to 900 residents. The commercial district also served as an entertainment district since the manager of the Moose Mine would not allow saloons or gambling in Dudley-a town just a mile away. Some of the more religious residents built Methodist, Catholic and Presbyterian churches. After President Lincoln’s assassination, many visitors arrived by train to climb Mount Lincoln. As Leadville’s population boomed, Alma’s began to drift away. Before leaving town, catch a glimpse into the life of the early pioneers at Alma’s cemetery. One stone is carved with a peculiar message; “I love you but please go to sleep.” In the cemetery there is silence, silence everywhere, except for a whisper of a breeze which might tell you of the days of a gaiety and raucous living here not so long ago.
Park County, Colorado is old Colorado, a scene from which the native strength of the state sprang. From a tranquil valley to a bustling mining area, the ghosts of the ever-hopeful miners still roam this lush panorama. This is a dramatic mountain paradise that stood as a silent witness to many triumphs and tragedies experienced by the men and woman who settled here. Come experience the fragrant land of hushed echoes.