Winter With The Silver Queen

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The first time I saw Georgetown, Colorado, it appeared as a sort of oasis: a cluster of lights that struggled to poke through the dense white gusts of a snowstorm from a valley just off 1-70. That was six years ago, and my friends and I had been crawling eastward on the interstate for two and a half hours on our way from the Copper Mountain ski area back to Denver. When Georgetown flickered into view on our right, we jumped at the chance to hunker down somewhere safe. We eased the car down the exit and took cover at the café of the Swiss Inn, a lively spot with checkered curtains and fading edelweiss stencils, where we happily waited out the weather. I’ve associated Georgetown with snowstorms and warm, friendly interiors ever since.

I was back at the Swiss Inn last winter, when I spent a couple of days exploring Georgetown itself, a jewel of a nineteenth-century mining town that is currently being restored to its original charm. Again the weather proved a strong presence. On the day I arrived it was gorgeous, with hardly a breeze in the air. Then on the last day of my visit it began snowing early in the morning—first in feathery clusters that looked as if they’d blown off the late-summer dandelions, then in heavier clumps that clung to the trees and made the town look like something out of a Christmas special. I actually preferred the snow; it gave the place a cozy seasonality.

The stormy conditions brought Kirby, a big, burly guide from Denver’s Best Mountain Tours, into the café of the Swiss Inn. He and his trusty fourwheel-drive van had been summoned to Georgetown to shuttle some stranded visitors—myself included—down the snowy interstate back into Denver. Best Mountain runs regular tours around Georgetown in the milder months, and as we waited for the rest of his cargo, Kirby went through his tour-guide spiel for my personal benefit.

“We’re now entering the historic town of Georgetown, settled in 1859!” he began, pulling up a chair. “In 1864 they found silver here—lotsa silver. Between 1864 and 1892 miners pulled more than a hundred million dollars’ worth of the metal out of these mountains, and Georgetown became known as the Silver Queen!” He leaned back for more air and bellowed as if he were addressing a busload of passengers. “In 1893 the United States switched from a silver standard to a gold standard, and the silver prices plummeted,” he continued. “That was bad for miners, but good for us ‘cause the town has barely changed in the last hundred and two years!”

That’s true. In fact the 1877 photograph that hangs in the public library looks remarkably similar to Georgetown today. The town is tucked into the head of a deep valley and walled in by the Rockies on three sides. It has no buildings more than three stories high, no sprawling supermarkets, and no clusters of the geometric condos that have invaded so many of Colorado’s ski-oriented towns. There are still only a few paved streets here, each lined with tidy Victorian structures. The roads that run eastwest are just long enough to accommodate about a dozen buildings before giving way to the sudden rise of mountains, which seem to jut up from the streets at ninety-degree angles and serve as backdrops to most of the views from town.

Georgetown, as Kirby said, began in 1859, when George Griffith and his brother. David, discovered gold in Clear Creek, just east of the Continental Divide and forty-five miles west of Denver. Word of the discovery spread quickly, and by 1860 it had been christened the Griffith Mining District (or, unofficially, “George’s Town”), with mines springing up around the mountainsides. The gold supply was tapped out in less than a year, and most of the prospectors moved on. But the optimists who remained were stunned to discover, in 1864, that the hills were riddled with silver. As David Griffith said later, “There was a mountain of silver! We passed it by in our frantic search for gold.”

This time the supply of precious metal appeared endless, and speculators poured into Georgetown. By the time it was chartered in 1868, the community was growing faster than any other city in Colorado, and it developed a distinctly genteel character in the process. Milling operations were set up in Silver Plume, two miles away, and most of the mine workers settled there. As a result, Georgetown distinguished itself as a town of professionals.

“From the very first,” says the narrator in the town’s promotional video, “Georgetown seemed to be a gentler, more refined, more polished place to live than the typical mining camp.” Instead of the usual gangs of male workers, the community attracted whole familles. With them came churches, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and—maybe most important—four separate volunteer fire departments. Their presence helped Georgetown remain the only major mining town in Colorado that was never damaged by a fire. The pert wooden firehouses themselves still stand, tributes to their own considerable success.

There are currently 211 historic structures in Georgetown, including a handful of appealing shops and restaurants that are now back in business. The town’s one active preservation organization, Historic Georgetown, Inc., is restoring a series of buildings that will represent the town’s full social strata —from a tiny miner’s house and a log cabin to the glorious Hammill House, which was built by one of the town’s wealthiest mine owners.