Winter With The Silver Queen

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This Gothic Revival mansion is open for tours now, and I took one on my visit, accompanied by Ron Neely, president of Historic Georgetown. Neely was once an executive at the Transamerica Corporation, but he decided to trade his corporate career for the quiet mountain life of Georgetown several years ago. He’s now an expert on the village, and we sat under the greenhouse ceiling of Hammill House’s light-filled conservatory and talked as snow gathered to form a translucent canopy above us. “Early on,” he said, “the people of Georgetown were concerned with permanence, and that’s not at all typical of mining towns.” He and his colleagues are working to protect the place’s unique architectural character. “Georgetown has an ordinance, consultants, and architectural review boards to approve any new buildings,” he says. New designs should be Victorian “but not tricky.” Georgetown has never been given to tasteless excess.

According to one observer, Georgetown was “a gentler, more refined, more polished place to live than the typical mining camp.”

The town’s population peaked at five thousand in the 187Os, and that number was said to double on Saturdays, when the miners descended on the village for their weekly night out. Georgetown had become the region’s cultural center by then, boasting a Shakespeare club, an opera society, a municipal planting committee, and two regular newspapers. I happened upon some copies of the papers while browsing through a cache of old photos in one of the town’s many antiques shops. Some of the papers’ ads reflected the community’s lofty aspirations. “Selak’s celebrated ale takes right hold of the vitals and elevates the soul,” read one from 1870. “It opens the faculties, tickles the fountains of charity, clears the canals of the heart and strikes down to the very bottom of contentedness.” An 1872 classified was less refined: “If the kind, noble-hearted, illegitimate, putrified cuss that stole my gold pen and holder from the desk at the Postoffice will return the same to me, I’ll give him a cent and bet him five dollars that he has not changed his underwear in six weeks.”

The crown jewel of Georgetown was its famous Hotel de Paris, an elegant sand-colored edifice that was one of the finest lodgings in the West. It was the creation of Louis Dupuy, an eccentric scion of a French family who arrived in Georgetown after running through his entire fifty-thousand-dollar inheritance. In 1875 he solicited town funds to build a grand hotel. “In this land of gold and silver, we should live like princes,” he said. “We should have a great hostelry and the best of wines.” Indeed, they did. A man of taste, Dupuy built his hotel in the finest European style, with imported walnut floors, porcelain lavatories, and both hot and cold water in every room. A typical menu at the restaurant featured pheasant en casserole with sauce piquant and peach Charlotte in brandy sauce with petit fours. A fully stocked wine cellar complemented the cuisine. The hotel was a sensation from the start.

Today Dupuy’s hotel is a museum, and visitors can wander through its well-appointed rooms. The building was acquired in 1959 by the Colorado chapter of the Colonial Dames, which has lovingly restored it to its original grandeur with authentic furnishings and accessories.

By 1877 Georgetown had all the advantages of a modern mountain village but one: a railroad. The miners had wanted a line to Silver Plume for years, but the steep terrain prohibited it. Just west of Georgetown the mountains rise almost 650 feet in less than two miles, a grade too steep for most locomotives. But in 1878 an engineer named Jacob Blickensderfer devised a circuitous series of curves, bends, and a big loop that would reduce the grade by half. The most audacious part of the Georgetown Loop, as it became known, was a high bridge that crossed Devil’s Gate, the narrowest point of the valley, even as it straddled another portion of the tracks 75 feet below. As one commentator put it, “Of all the absurd places that rails went in the mountains, they said this was the absurdest. And they were right!”

When the difficult construction was completed in 1884, the Georgetown Loop not only served miners but attracted throngs of tourists who wanted to experience the spectacular scenery and hair-raising ride over the Devil’s Gate viaduct. It was not a trip for the fainthearted—or the fastidious. One tourist returned to Denver from her Loop ride and apologized to her hostess for being covered with dust and soot. “Never mind, my dear,” said the hostess. “We have all been around the Loop.”

Georgetown seemed poised for decades of prosperous expansion, but history had other plans for it. In 1893 Congress voted to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which had propped up the metal’s value. Silver prices plunged, and Georgetown was devastated. As mines closed and families moved away, the town limped along on tourism until just after the turn of the century, when automobiles took the spotlight from the great Loop.