Friday, January 10, 2020

Town at the Top of the World

By Suzanne Norquist

Life at the top of the world isn’t easy, but early Colorado miners were a hearty bunch. If a prospector found gold and silver, a settlement soon followed. Such is the case with Animas Forks, which sits deep in the mountains at 11,200 feet (that’s more than two miles) above sea level. Cold temperatures, coupled with a lack of oxygen and moisture discourage life.

On a warm August afternoon, I stood among the ghost town’s preserved buildings and tried to imagine the bustling community. A few buildings remain standing, thanks to the preservation efforts of The San Juan County Historical Society, the Ghost Town Club of Colorado, and Outward Bound. It is the highlight of the Alpine Loop system of Jeep roads.

The “Three Forks of the Animas” was settled in 1873 by prospectors who wintered there. In 1875, the town changed its name to Animas Forks to accommodate the post office. Apparently, the more descriptive name was too long. By then, a wagon road linked Animas Forks to nearby communities. 

In 1876, Animas Forks boasted 30 cabins, a hotel, a saloon, a post office, and a general store. Before nearby Silverton became an incorporated town, Animas Forks was the San Juan County seat, where court cases were heard. One man who didn't like the outcome of his trial promised, "I'll take this to a higher court!" Responded the wry judge, "There is no higher court in Colorado."

The most photographed structure today is a two-story house built by local merchant William Duncan in 1879. Every time I visit, I stand inside and try to imagine living there.

By 1883, 450 summer residents called Animas Forks home. The Animas Forks Pioneer newspaper operated June 1882 through October 1886.

Most people migrated to nearby Silverton for the winter. Although I’ve been to Silverton in the January, and I wouldn’t call it warm. Harsh winters dominated Animas Forks. In 1884, a 23-day blizzard dropped 25 feet of snow. Locals had to dig tunnels to get from building to building.

The history of most mining towns includes a devastating fire because so many buildings are hastily constructed. Animas Forks is no exception. In 1891, a fire that started in the kitchen of the Kalamazoo Hotel destroyed most of the town. And, like most mining towns, they rebuilt, using better materials.

In 1904, the Silverton Northern Railroad came to Animas Forks. By then, locals enjoyed the use of electricity, telephone, and telegraph. The Gold Prince Mill was the first in Colorado to be built of structural steel. It was the largest mill in the state.

Animas Forks’ prosperity depended on the mines. In 1893, it suffered a recession when silver prices dropped. An upsurge in mining brought the town back to life in the early 1900s. But the high-tech Gold Prince Mill only operated for six years. By 1910, most of the mining had stopped in the area. Animas Forks was a ghost town by the 1920s.

Thankfully, some buildings still stand. A visit to the site brings this writer’s imagination to life. But I only visit in the summer, and even then, thunderstorms roll through most afternoons.


Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.

She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.

“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?

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  1. Interesting post! And I'd love to see the Duncan House, I love the picture. Thanks for sharing your research and travel pictures.

  2. Thank You. It is fun to explore bits of history.