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.

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.

As one history put it, Georgetown “virtually slept” through the first half of this century. In the 1930s the population dipped to three hundred. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when Denver’s growth spilled out into the neighboring valleys and ski resorts began appearing to the west, that Georgetown began a resurrection. Situated as it is halfway between the city and the ski areas, Georgetown became known as a refreshing side trip for skiers in the winter. My parents remember taking my older siblings to lunch at Georgetown’s Red Ram restaurant on the way to Breckenridge in the early 1960s. And on my visit I met several ski-suited browsers who had happily detoured.

After decades of neglect and disrepair, the Loop itself was restored in 1984. It now runs regularly from May to September, luring hundreds of summer visitors for a ride that Kirby describes as “fun, fun, fun!” It’s a potent symbol of the town’s revival.

Georgetown’s population is now steady at nine hundred and consists mostly of retirees, Denver commuters, and summer-home owners. “Georgetown has fiercely resisted the forces of resortism,” said Neely as we walked down the hushed, pretty streets. That was clearly a battle worth winning. I found a 1968 Georgetown Centennial pamphlet in one of the antiques shops, and it sums the situation up well. Georgetown, it said, is “a beautiful, historic village that for one hundred years has welcomed guests with a single-minded belief that they will be sufficiently charmed to return again.” It worked for me.

—Catherine Calhoun TO PLAN A TRIP