Why are we so fascinated by old ghost towns? And what can they teach us? We go looking for the ghosts of an old silver mining community called Teller City to see if they have any lessons for how the nearby town of Walden, Colorado can keep from falling into the same cycles of boom and bust.
[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
I’ve always been more than a little obsessed with the ghost town of Teller City. It was settled in 1879 and was the first real town in my home valley of North Park, Colorado. I loved reading about it in this old leather-bound book in the local library called North Park. It was written by Hazel Grisham, this adorable little old lady that, as a kid, I’d see on the street and think, she’s famous! Because she wrote our definitive history. In it, she tells stories about all the wild characters who came to Teller hoping to get rich quick, digging up silver ore. Like one bloody tale about some of Teller’s founders who decided they wanted to oust the county’s sheriff. But, the way Hazel tells it, Sheriff Boyer got to them first.
“Boyer and Redman shot Weber and Dean from ambush, killing them instantly. Barney Day, an old Indian fighter, saw the shooting and rushed toward Sheriff Boyer, in an attempt to prevent further bloodshed. But the sheriff fired at him point-blank. J.G. Mills, upon seeing Day shot down, rushed to him to either knife him or shoot him at close quarters. Day, lying mortally wounded, raised himself on one elbow and shot and killed Mills instantly.”
The Grand Lake Massacre. Hazel might have been a sweet little old lady but she knew how to tell a heart-pounding story. So, yeah, Teller City was a wild and crazy place. Thirteen hundred people lived there at its height. It had a grand hotel, a barbershop, a newspaper, 27 saloons. 27!! But then, after only eight years, Teller City just went kaput. And so what I’m wondering is, if I can understand why Teller City died, could I understand why its nearest descendent–Walden, the town where I grew up–is dying too?
Looking for Ghosts
My first step to figuring out why towns like mine are dying is to track down Hazel’s grandson, Rick Corneilson. He agreed to meet me and my dad, Jay, at the North Park Pioneer Museum. Rick is a big guy with a salt and pepper mustache and today he was wearing a red Trump 2020 cap. Rick helps run the museum–which, I just gotta plug, is one of the best museums anywhere, chock full of wild West stuff– but today, he was taking us on a tour of Teller City. We got in our cars and started across the valley.
To get to the ghost town, you have to drive to the far south end of North Park and then head up into the mountains on dirt roads that get narrower and narrower and narrower. The whole time, I’m thinking, why exactly was this a good place to plant a town? Finally, after crossing a rickety bridge, we saw a rough-looking cabin and a dirt parking lot next to it. A buck-and-rail fence encircled it and part of the hillside too. I figured this must be the town and pull in. We parked and got out, looking around at what was left of the once-bustling metropolis of Teller City. It was hard to tell what we were looking at, and so I pulled out Rick’s grandma’s book. We flip to page 44, where she’s drawn a map of the town. My dad tried to get oriented. “That’s the road to Rand. Okay. So we’re going to be on this side over on the north side. Here’s where we are.”
“Okay, so the hotel is going to be right here somewhere,” I said.
There wasn’t much left of the town to orient ourselves by. Just the falling down foundations of cabins here and there. We started walking up C Street. Rick said most of the town was carted off long ago. “People came up and started tearing them down, taking logs to build their houses elsewhere. They were already cut and planed. And a lot of people came up here and took the good logs and made fireplace mantels out of them.”
As we walked we tried to imagine 1300 people living here. That’s twice as many people as live in Walden now. The town is nestled in a hollow surrounded by mountains. Back then, the Ute and Arapaho tribes still spent summers hunting in this valley. The imposing Neversummer Range looms above the town. Hazel’s book says, in the winter, the mailman delivered the mail on snowshoes over a pass high above timberline. It’s because people were determined to have all the makings of a real town. Kinda like Pinocchio wanting to be a real boy.
“Yeah, they had a newspaper,” Rick said. “They had a barbershop, they had the whole nine yards. A school, they had two school teachers.”
“This town wasn’t here that long,” I said.
“No, but they had a lot of silver. A lot of different silver. Just trying to get it out of here was the problem.”
“That’s why it busted?”
“You can imagine bringing a stage in here every day from Laramie, Fort Collins.”
“Yeah. big mountains no matter which direction you go.”
“I mean, it’s hard to get here in the car!” Rick laughed.
“Even to this day!”
We came to a placard the Forest Service posted next to a sprawling ruin of logs. There was an old photograph of a two-story building, before people carted it off piece by piece.
“Here’s the hotel,” Rick said.
I read the placard aloud. “‘Welcome to the very heart of town, C Street. The foundation before you is all that remains of what was the grandest structure in Teller City, the Yates House Hotel, boasting two stories and as many as 40 rooms,’ geez. ‘It was both large and elegant with Persian rugs and fine European paintings decorated the lobby. If you listen closely, you might still hear faint echoes from the grand piano that graced the parlor.’”
“I don’t think so,” said Dad.
I read on. “‘Teller City’s boom was dizzying. Buildings and rooms sprang up overnight. There’s even a story of a Yate’s House room built right around a newly arrived guest.’ Wow.”
My dad was skeptical about hearing echoes of piano music. But, for me, the ghosts of the place did feel close by.
“Why are people so fascinated by ghost towns anyway?” I ask Rick.
“I guess it’s just the fact that people actually lived here, made a home,” he said.
“It feels like there are actual ghosts. You can sort of feel them here.”
“Uh-huh, you can. You have to have that belief.”
What stays after the town dies seems to be the energy of all that activity. Over 40 mines sprang up here, silver as close to the surface as four feet down. But Rick said nobody ever got rich here. He said Teller’s bust hit out of nowhere when the Cripple Creek gold rush started near Denver. “When they closed it down, they came up and the cabins that were still here, still had your kitchens and stuff. The kitchen table still had the plates on the tables and food on the plate.”
“When they left, they left,” Dad said.
I added, “They just walked away. Abandoned it.”
“Yeah, a lot of them just dropped over into the valley and started ranching,” Rick said.
I said, “So a lot of the miners, those families that were miners…”
“They became ranchers,” Rick said miners turned into cowboys for a very simple reason. “You could see your profits walking around out in the field.”
“Right,” Dad said. “Or like logging, same thing, you know, you can have a little clearer vision. The mining thing, it’s crazy. Get rich. Maybe. Probably not.”
After Teller City busted, people wanted a nice, reliable, evergreen economy. Raising cattle seemed like a safer bet than mining silver. And Teller City isn’t the only ghost town in the valley that was abandoned for agriculture. On the other end of the valley, the town of Pearl boomed for copper. 800 people at its height.
“That chimney that’s still standing up there?” Rick pointed it out. “It was where they were gonna process their copper. It ran one day. It made one billet of copper. I have it at the museum.”
“Really?” Dad said.
“Same thing. They’re just petered out and just the expense of shipping their product. They just couldn’t do it.”
“Why didn’t anybody try again?” I asked. “Once, you know, the trains came through and roads were built. Why didn’t anybody try again?”
“By then they were all out ranching. They gave up on the mining. Even the mines here–corporations got together to build a mine. Instead of just individual people, it was big companies that merged together to come up with the money to keep it to do what they did.”
The whole mythology of the old scruffy miner, wandering out of the mountains with his mule and his gold panning gear, his panniers bulging with gold nuggets–yeah, that’s all in our heads. Even back then, those guys were few and far between. Our history books fed us that refrain because it explained mass migration to the wild frontier. Our history books didn’t want to dispel those myths our country was built on. There’s a fear that without those myths our country will fall apart. We need to believe Americans are self-made, independent. Unstoppable. But the truth is, mostly big companies were the ones striking it rich. Teller’s mines were no different. Two big companies monopolized the silver rush here: the Endomile and the Gaslight. Rick said there was pressure on the little guys to give up their own mines and join forces with the big companies. That sounds kinda familiar, huh?
A Western Myth
I needed help interpreting all this ghost town history, putting it in perspective to understand our current times. So I tracked down an economics historian. Samuel Western–nope, not a pseudonym–is author of Pushed Off the Mountain, Sold Down the River, about the state of Wyoming’s many booms and busts.
“Ghost towns are almost exclusively connected to either railroads or commodity production,” Sam said. “If you look at railroads in this country, there’s just a few really big railroads. And especially after World War II, commodities just became increasingly consolidated and towns were left hanging high and dry.”
Sam said the West is built on this idea of rugged individualism. But that never really worked out so well.
“We think of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family moving West, and you know, Pa always wanting places that had less people, etc.,” Sam said. “But where did they settle? They settled by the shores of Silver Lake. And he got a piece of land close to a town. And Pa worked for the railroad. So he’d come back to his homestead and supply his family with the necessities because farming wasn’t cutting it anymore. And I think that the idealism of the rugged individual collided with reality. And the small farmer, the small miner, the small oil producer, found themselves in pretty dire straits, or they couldn’t hack the competition, or the boom and bust.”
But there is just something so alluring about the idea that the hardworking entrepreneur can pull himself up by the bootstraps. The self-made man. Free from the restraints of an over-regulated culture. Outside the mothering clutches of refined society. And yes, I’m intentionally using some gendered language here. The myth of the rugged individual IS almost always a man. And the West was built around the mystique of such men. Like cowboying –hear that word ‘boy’ in it?–it satisfied that myth. So did lumberjacking. And, in the 1940s, when the first energy boom arrived in North Park, so did oilfield work. You remember my dad in the last episode? He quit his factory job and went back to roughnecking because he couldn’t do what he called conventional personality work. That was true for a lot of his buddies too. Back in the ’70s, looking for domestic sources of oil, a minor boom hit North Park. My dad made deep friendships on those crews.
Recently my dad got together for a reunion with two brothers, Robert and John, that he roughnecked with back then. Robert was passing through after retiring from captaining fishing boats in the far north–another good career for a rugged individual. Now he was on his way home to Maine after a lifetime away. John and his wife Amy invited us all over for dinner at their amazing log house. It’s tucked in an aspen grove in North Park’s Medicine Bow Mountains.
We pile up our plates with grilled salmon and coleslaw and quinoa and sit down to reminisce. These days these guys go by John and Robert Symonds, but when I was a kid they had nicknames. Dog and Pigpen. Back then, they both had long tangled hair and beards. John still does–a white flowing beard down to his belt that he sometimes wears in two braids. Both of them ride Harleys. A little scary to some people, maybe, but I thought of them as uncles. John had the biggest muscles I’d ever laid eyes on. As a kid, I always dreamed of painting him green like the Hulk and taking him to school for show and tell. He gave me and my brother rides up and down the stairs on his big steel-toed boots.
Robert lived in a travel trailer in our yard for a while. One time, my mom was worried he wouldn’t wake up in time to get to work because he’d been out carousing late. So she gave me a glass of water and told me to pour it on his face. So I did. He came up sputtering and laughing. Everything was an adventure to them then. John ran away from home when he was only 15. He made money the best way he could, and that usually meant hard labor.
“I was making $85 a week building a campground for some old German bastard,” John said. “He was a hard ass. Then I wound up heading out here under duress, and wound up working seismograph. My first check, full check for two weeks, was 900 bucks.”
“That was a major raise,” I said.
“Yeah, that was a pretty good raise. And then I went to work on the rig and I was making $7.50 an hour. $2.30 an hour, I think that was the prevailing wage back then. I think that was the minimum wage. I remember guys back East, working at mills, going, ‘these guys are paying $3.10 cents an hour.’ Whooptie. I came out here, went to work on the rig and I was making $7.50 cents an hour. And by the end of the first year, I was making $10.”
Things were so much better out West that he called up his little brother and told him to come too. Robert was only 19 when he got on a train in Boston bound for Rawlins, Wyoming.
“I took the train out there and he told me, he said, ‘when you get off the train, I’ll wait, I’ll be there.’” Robert said. “This is the days before cell phones. And if I’m not, I’ll be at the Riflemen Bar on 4th Street.” We all laughed.
“I knew he was going to say that,” Dad said.
“And after I stepped off the train, it was October, it was snowing and blowing. But there was no brother there. I remember thinking, what the fuck did I get myself into? And I heard somebody call my name. I saw two greasy characters outside the door and I heard one of them call my name. I turned around and that was one of the greasy characters. So we went in and had a few drinks. And I said, ‘Hey, John, why don’t we go to your place and drop my bags off and all, then we could come back out and party?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’ve been meaning to tell you about that. I got evicted.’ He said, ‘But you can stay here in the bar.’ And I did for three weeks.” Everybody laughed.
Robert said it worked out okay because he soon got a job working morning towers. That’s the oilfield terms for the night shift. But right off the bat, he realized roughnecking was exactly that: rough work. His boss, Floyd, called him the worm. And on day three on the job, “We were tripping pipe and I didn’t know what’s going on. And it’s midnight. And you know there was steel moving all around and I don’t know what I’m doing and we’re setting the kelly back and I have my finger on the edge of the rat hole. And Floyd lowered the kelly down and the bushing smashed on top between me and the rat hole and cut the tip of my finger off,” Robert said. “And it hurt like hell, and it was bleeding like hell. And he said,’ come here, you fucking worm.’ And we went to the dog house and there was a medicine cabinet, right? Like, there was like two Band-Aids and a Q-tip. I mean, there’s nothing in there, right? And so he gets some gauze and he wraps it and he gets this tongue depressor and he breaks it in half and puts that on there. And then he gets a roll of electrical tape and starts wrapping it as tight as he possibly could. And I went totally white, almost passed out.”
“And bitched about the cost of electrical tape the whole time on top of that,” John added.
“Yeah, probably,” Robert said.
Robert was tough, but that kind of stuff got to him. He only lasted a few years in the oilfields before he moved on to fishing boats. But my dad and John stuck it out as long as the boom lasted. But that wasn’t long.
In the mid-’80s, the oilfield dried up. Not just in North Park. Everywhere.
“The oilfield went to hell,” John said.
Dad said, “Everybody got out of it.”
“Yeah, I tried cutting timber for a year and that didn’t work out. I wound up going to school for motorcycle mechanics and ended up on the West Coast for a while. Then my hand got injected with oil, so I was out of work for two years. And then I called up Jay and he said Exeter was hiring so I came back. That was in ‘91.”
In the ’90s, a boom hit the Front Range of Colorado and more in Wyoming and Utah. After that, both my dad and John had plenty of work for years. Then shale oil technology came along, and that changed the oilfield in a huge way. Now oil that was trapped in the rock could be fractured with intense earth-shaking–what they call fracking–and then flushed out with chemicals. There was lots of that shale-trapped oil under North Park, turns out. And so, using this new technology, a boom hit here. John started his own service business and hired his brother and my dad. The gang was back together again.
“Things went really well for a while,” John said. “Robert came to work.”
“And then Jay came to work,” Robert said.
“And then Jay stopped working,” Dad said.
“So then what happened?” I asked.
“Then these assholes from Oklahoma came up and bought the oilfield,” John said. “Going into bankruptcy, telling everybody what a great company they are. Investing $3.5 billion and our friggin CEO gets a $18 million bonus for expert guidance and leadership in the bankruptcy process.”
The new company insisted, if John wanted work, he had to be an employee and give up his business. So he did. Just like in Teller City days, the pressure was always on the little guy to consolidate into the big companies.
But then, just a few months ago, the bust hit North Park. Big time. John recognized it as a harbinger of things to come.
“Eventually, you know, they’ll figure out how solar power works and figure out how things work and that may probably be a good thing,” John said. “They’ll never completely get rid of oil fields. It would be nice to see if everybody would get together and try to figure out, come to some compromise, put their energies into something productive instead of fighting each other all the time.”
Diverse Wildlife and a Diverse Economy
Barbara Vasquez is someone who entirely agrees with John’s idea of finding a compromise to the constant boom and bust of the energy industry. “I’m the environmental representative to the North Platte Basin Roundtable and have been since 2006,” she told me.
She’s someone who moved to North Park a couple of decades ago because of its wildness. In other words, NOT one of the rugged individuals trying to strike it rich. I wanted to see if she could help me see my town from outside that paradigm of boom and bust. Someone who recognized the value of this beautiful place–not as a resource–but just for itself.
“All throughout my career,” Barbara said, “I had to live in cities, but I’m not a city person. And as I approached retirement, I started looking for a place that had more four-footed than two-footed critters.”
But soon after she arrived, the fracking boom hit. Barbara said the oil rigs of the ’70s had pretty small footprints that weren’t especially damaging to those four-legged critters and their habitat. But “these oil shale wells have a totally different characteristic on the landscape. They are enormous multistory pump jacks, huge tank farms. You can’t miss them.”
She said North Park is known for its amazing night skies, but the flaring from these rigs has diminished that. Imagine giant candles flickering and flaming many stories high in the sky.
Trucks carting away fracking fluids have spilled a few times into North Park’s pristine waterways. It was for those waters that my dad moved us to North Park–it’s some of the best fly fishing anywhere.
“One of my concerns was really for the community in that they had enjoyed, and have enjoyed, an evergreen economy based on outdoor recreation: fly fishing, hunting, as I mentioned, both quiet and motorized forms of outdoor recreation,” Barbara said. “And these enormous swaths of industrialized landscape are not something people are looking for when they come for outdoor recreation. So my concern was that we were going to make a permanent change in the opportunity this community had to enjoy that sustainable form of economic development, in exchange for a boom and bust.”
And she said the COVID-19 pandemic is showing people around the world that they can work from anywhere, even a town like Walden. “One of the problems North Park has had, and Walden in particular has had over many years, is developing their economy so that there are jobs for people who have grown up there and want to stay there. One of the things that would help that is broadband. And we have broadband into the school but it’s not widely available. This would make a big difference for teleworking for Jackson County to develop in that direction in addition to maintaining an evergreen, outdoor recreation economy.”
Barbara said the electric company has a plan to do just that.
Walden’s mayor Jim Dustin said it was true that diversifying the town’s economy is the way to go. “The bane of many small towns is to be dependent on one industry or one large employer, and when that employer goes away, so do the jobs.”
But he said Walden has been careful to plan for the bust, expecting it. Over the last few months, Jim has sat in the hot seat watching a wild shale oil boom come crashing down just in time for a global pandemic. “When they were in full operation, they were bringing in 500 contract workers a day. And they were spending a lot of money in Walden and our sales tax revenue doubled. And then overnight, the price of oil falls to negative,” he said. “I mean, people were paying people to store their oil! They almost completely shut down there. They’re not drilling new wells. They’re just operating the ones that were there before. In a small town, you can’t depend on things lasting forever. We got all that extra sales tax money and we just stuck it in the bank. And we didn’t budget for having any extra revenue this year.
“And then the pandemic comes along and all the restaurants had to shut down. It seems like there’s one thing after another.”
But when I asked Jim what could help to lift Walden out of these constant cycles, the cycles going back all the way to Teller City, he’s not sure that’s the goal.
“Well, there’s a division of opinion on that and I’m on the side that I don’t really care if anybody moves here or not,” Jim said. “Well, because it’s so open and I can walk out my door, drive three miles and let my dog run all over the landscape. Or I can target shoot. You can just pick up and go fishing in the evening.”
“So your goal isn’t necessarily to grow the size of the population?” I asked.
“No, and I’m sure some people would disagree with that. The town or the county used to have 3500 people in it. Now it has 1300 people in it and that’s fine with me.”
Oh, I know some people who’d agree with him on that. Top of that list: my own father.
Jim figures eventually North Park will be discovered and developed with resorts and floods of people will come. Until then, he’s going to enjoy having it all to himself.
Building A Town For Women
But here’s the thing I feel like I’m learning after talking to all these folks about ghost towns: you can only let a town shrink so far before it caves. And like Teller City, when it caves, it caves in a hurry. Remember Samuel Western, the economics historian? He gave me a succinct definition of what constitutes a ghost town.
“Right now, you look at the metric, what constitutes a town is a going concern, as they would say, which is you need a post office and a school, usually. And when you lose those two entities, I think you probably could be called a ghost town,” Sam said.
Photos of Walden, Colorado
Which explains why Teller City made sure they could get the mail, even if it meant trudging on snowshoes over a mountain pass. Now I understand that every step was a fight for community survival. Walden’s post office is okay, but its school? My elementary now sits boarded up. All the kids are now housed in the high school and they only attend four days a week. So according to Sam’s ghost town rule, that makes Walden on the verge of extinction. That’s scary news. But Sam gave me some hope for my hometown too. He had some advice for mayors like Jim Dustin. He said if small towns want to save themselves, look at their community through the eyes of women.
“A single mom or a woman who has a college degree and her husband or her partner gets transferred to an area,” Sam said. “If we can make communities that are attractive to women, we would both see a pretty, over the long term, short term even, we will see a more profound difference in the tone and tenor of the town. Problem is that carbon-based fuels is a pretty much a male-dominated field.”
Just like silver mining was male-dominated. Those rugged individuals, mostly they were men. In her book, Hazel talks about how there were so few women in Teller that, at the dance halls, the men practiced something called “heifer branding.” Some of the guys would wear a handkerchief tied on their arms and dance the lady’s part.
Then for generations, Walden was stable because ranching is a whole family enterprise. That meant lots of women and children in the community. And when my dad moved to Walden, he dragged along his whole family, including the horse.
But in North Park’s recent fracking boom, few men actually moved their families to town. On their two weeks off, they returned home to Texas or wherever they were from. They filled the town’s motels or lived in the company’s man camps. Notice that word: man camp. It’s no coincidence. Any family that was interested in moving to North Park would have trouble finding a house to live in and they’d be worried about their kids’ education. And while there’s plenty of energy jobs, there’s not much else.
“Adequate childcare is just key. Having good schools. And again, having jobs that are out of the oil and gas sector that women can work in,” Sam said.
Sam said appealing to women and families could pull the American West out of its long reliance on boom and bust that’s primarily meant jobs geared toward men. Instead, towns need to think about jobs women prefer. That’s what the town of Sioux Falls did.
“Sioux Falls, South Dakota is now a major medical center. But that happened because there was an individual who donated millions, hundreds of millions to that system. And now you’re going to see a much greater amount of women into Sioux Falls because there are professional jobs for women in health care.”
What I’m realizing is that towns like Walden could take a little advice from the movie Field of Dreams. Build the town that families want and maybe, just maybe, they will come. I saw that when I toured Teller City–how the town never did quite enough to make it welcome to women and kids. And that’s the secret to saving small towns: no cutting corners. No half-assed attempts at quality schooling or attracting jobs for women. A town can’t lie to itself like Pinocchio. It’s gotta make an honest effort to build something people will move there for.
Ghost Town(ing) episode art by John McNamis
Blue Dot Sessions