Smelter Skelter!

The lost town of Saxonia reemerges from the pages of history.

The first clue was an 1880 train ticket for the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad.

The ticket listed the railroad's stops, beginning with Denver and ending with Buena Vista (the railroad never made it to the Pacific, but the nineteenth century wasn't big on truth in advertising). The conductor would mark the passenger's final destination and then place the ticket -- known as a "hat check" -- above the seat, so he'd know which travelers had already checked in.

Most of the places they traveled to sounded familiar, even to a resident of modern-day Denver. Bear Creek, Littleton, Platte Canon, Pine Grove, etc. But there it was, an oddly named town that Richard Boulware had never heard of: Saxonia.

Jo Rivers
Mining history: Richard Boulware discovered Saxonia on an old railroad ticket.
Brett Amole
Mining history: Richard Boulware discovered Saxonia on an old railroad ticket.

Boulware, a former public-relations official at Denver International Airport and its predecessor, Stapleton, had taken up historical research after retiring in 1998. His brother, John, who runs an antique store on South Broadway, bought the ticket at an antique show and gave it to him, knowing that Boulware was fascinated with the old narrow-gauge railroad that had run along the South Platte River into the high country.

"I saw Saxonia on that and said, 'What in the hell is Saxonia?'" remembers Richard Boulware. "That's what set all this in motion."

For much of the summer of 1999, Boulware explored the often rugged terrain along the north fork of the South Platte River, trying to find Saxonia -- a place the train would have taken you for $3.75 back in 1880. Local historians told him they had never heard of it, so he spent weeks searching through microfilmed copies of the Rocky Mountain News and the Fairplay Flume, looking for clues. He discovered several short stories about the town, which had sprung up in 1880 when a large smelter opened in a remote spot along the river. To Boulware's great surprise, he found that, for a while, as many as 300 people lived in Saxonia, which was surrounded by more than a dozen mines.

Boulware could hardly believe his luck -- he had stumbled on an all-but-forgotten mining town at the edge of the metro area. "This is 55 minutes from Denver, and nobody knew about it," he says.

It took three attempts before Boulware was finally able to locate the actual site of Saxonia.

Hiking in from the side of a steep canyon, Boulware followed a narrow deer trail down to the South Platte. At one point he stumbled on a steep slope covered with gravel and plunged toward the river until he was able to grasp a small pine tree and stop his fall. He tore up his knee and bloodied his face. "I haven't been so scared since my old Navy flying days," says Boulware, 65. "If that pine tree hadn't been there, I would have done an Indiana Jones swan dive into the river."

Boulware's blue eyes sparkle, and his deep voice rises in excitement as he recalls his discovery.

Today, Saxonia isn't much more than a wide spot in the river surrounded by an expanse of U.S. Forest Service land. Sheer canyon walls on the south side make access from that direction almost impossible, while the north side is only somewhat less rugged. But it was clear that Boulware had found Saxonia, because the smelter's brick-and-stone chimney still stands among the pine trees. Besides that structure, the only other signs of the lost town are crumbled foundation lines in the dirt and a few rusty mining implements.

Combing through deeds on file at the Jefferson County courthouse, Boulware found a map of the town, filed in 1880, that showed the exact location of several buildings related to the smelter and a spur of the railroad used to deliver ore, as well as the locations of the town's boardinghouse, the Saxonia company headquarters and a tavern.

Because so little is left, Boulware feels an urgency to protect what remains of Saxonia. He has become frustrated with the U.S. Forest Service and accuses it of showing little interest in helping to save the spot. Discovering the town was like finding a new planet, Boulware says, and he wants to see it preserved so that future generations can enjoy it.

But Saxonia was probably closer to a shooting star -- it existed as a town for probably no more than four years. By 1886 most of the buildings so carefully mapped out in that 1880 deed were gone, and the land was given back to the animals that cross it as they head to the river for a drink. The railroad bed still runs along that river for miles, though, and when the wind comes howling down the canyon you can almost imagine the roar of the steam engine as the South Park train chugged into town.

"We're still discovering the secrets of Saxonia," says Boulware. "She doesn't easily give up her secrets."

In the 1880s, no Colorado town could survive for long if it wasn't on a rail line. People went where the rails took them. The railroads moved food, building supplies, mail and souls into a forbidding wilderness, and they carried out the precious metals that made the settlement of the Rockies possible.

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