VICTOR • It’s best to go on the trail with a poem.
The words are found in a commemorative book from 1993, celebrating 100 years of this once mighty gold camp. The relics from those days still stand, those towering headframes along the Vindicator Valley Trail.
“Skeletal now,” Maxine Phillips Brown wrote of them. “Still stout, but leaning with the years it seems to sway against the scudding clouds. Its rusty sheave, its slack and raveled cable slap and play, idle, in the wind, or whine and grieve.”
Born to a pioneer family and raised here on the south slopes of Pikes Peak, Phillips Brown went on: “It is a place of emptiness and dust, which once knew hope, and fear, and fleshless lust.”
It is a place like a graveyard, this frozen-in-time landscape toured by the 2-mile loop.
It’s not just headframes along the Vindicator Valley Trail. It’s other splintered, cracked and rusted remains from an era of broken dreams — mills, surface plants, dynamite keeps, outhouses and cabins built when thousands called Victor home and millionaires were made at the mines.
What they built now creaks and groans in the land gone silent. One can smell the old timber and iron. One can touch some of it. One can only imagine at sites such as Independence, the ghost town where trains rolled, and where one of the greatest mines around, Vindicator, is today represented by structures refusing to fall.
One can only imagine here above 10,000 feet, looking out to dusty Victor and the Sangre de Cristo peaks mingling with the distant sky. It was a loud, bustling scene at the turn of the 20th century. The town had dozens of grocery stores, restaurants and rowdy bars.
“There’s something about imagining what it would’ve been like,” says Ruth Zalewski, a longtime local. “Any time you can make that connection to the past, you’ve helped people understand better where we came from.”
Zalewski is president of the Southern Teller County Focus Group. She organized the group that went on to establish the Vindicator Valley Trail in 1998 as an early priority in its Trails of Gold initiative. Starting off the road into town, Vindicator Valley Trail is the most dramatic of the network exploring the historic hills preserved in partnership with the land-owning mine company.
Zalewski calls Vindicator Valley “a treasure trove of history.” In all of Colorado, she says, “it’s one of the only places left where you can actually see original mining structures in place where they were operating.”
They were operating as Victor was living up to its billing as the World’s Greatest Gold Camp. While Cripple Creek rose as the political and cultural epicenter, the sister town was home to most of the mines and “assumed the role of a workingman’s town,” recalled a local journalist, James Keener.
While the likes of Winfield Scott Stratton and David Moffat rose to prominence, many more toiled deep underground and ended days on saloon floors and pool tables.
With the hard, dangerous labor came disputes and tragedies. One man’s grievance led to him planting a bomb under a train platform in Independence. Thirteen perished in the explosion.
So it is a ghostly walk through the old town. A superintendent’s log home is still standing — “pretty incredible,” Zalewski says. Incredible that any of the structures still stand, at high altitude where wind, rain and snow tend to be extreme. Their longevity is a credit to the combined craftsmanship of yesteryear and some conservation efforts today, Zalewski says.
But those efforts can only go so far, she says. “The wood is fragile, so to climb on one of those structures or to attach someone to them would be putting lives in danger. We’re pretty much letting them weather as they are in place.”
They can’t last forever — all the more reason to see them now. What’s more, the Vindicator Valley Trail doesn’t get the traffic of, say, the parks and open spaces on the other side of the mountain, in Colorado Springs.
“You can pretty much find some peace and quiet out there,” Zalewski says.
So quiet that you can almost hear the sounds mentioned in another poem. Phillips Brown wrote of “the throb of great compressors, the pound of hard-rock drills, the muffled boom of blasting, the grinding of the mills.”
And then there was the “sad and sweet” song of locomotives, she wrote. “I hear them in the midnight wind, the ghostly engineers, signaling each other, from the lost and golden years.”
Lost, but remembered on the trail.
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