A friend of mine recently posted a video on Instagram of downtown Denver with the caption "I'm going to want to remember this Denver." While his ten-second panel of images was more of a humorous jab at things like the grossness of the 16th Street Mall, he also had some shots of the Paramount Theatre and Civic Center Park, older spots whose beauty can be captured whether you're taking photos of them with a nice camera or a crappy phone. As the wave of progress in this city continues to sucker-punch me right in the nostalgic part of my gut, I have an anxious desire to photograph as many of these relics as I can with my own crappy phone.
But this past weekend, I had a chance to see what Denver might have been like if not for all of our progress: I took a trip to Victor, Colorado, a town with a population of under 400. To put it in perspective, a little over a century ago, Victor was the fourth-largest city in the state. That made me wonder: What if Denver had become a casualty of the Gold Rush, too?
To say that Victor is a place frozen in time is an understatement: The town is like a movie set of the Old West, complete with turn-of-the-century storefronts, creaky staircases leading to former brothels, and street lamps that bear an ornateness only found in the past. In fact, everything in Victor has that kind of old-fashioned detail, from frames that display the massive windows of each business to building-sized, hand-painted advertisements for candies and liquor.
But there is also the quality of stillness that comes when a town has gone bust; for all of its mountain-town grandeur, the lack of human movement keeps Victor mysterious.
One of the funny things about growing up in a place like Colorado is that throughout your life, you will continuously meet people from small mountain and plains communities that you have never heard of prior to meeting those residents. I was only in Victor because my love's band was asked to play the second annual Victor Steampunk Festival -- otherwise, I might never have known that this gorgeous antique of the Gold Rush even existed.
Over three days, handfuls of steampunkers wandered the desolate streets, selling wares, exploring abandoned mines, competing in costume contests and mingling at the grand Steampunk Ball. An outsider in stretch pants and Uggs, I watched, admiring their dedication and wondering what these people did or dressed like throughout the rest of the year.
Even with all the steampunk visitors, Victor seemed vast and empty. But the emptiness didn't equate to creepiness, something I would expect from a town where light switches are still two buttons and City Hall has a place to keep its horses. One night, we were invited to a former brothel above the Headframe Tavern (apparently a bar that once went by the way better name of Dirty Sally's) to hang out with some folks. I stared out from the makeshift apartment space and into the darkened windows of the other buildings on Victor Avenue, hoping I would see some 2 a.m. ghostly movement. I saw nothing but a quiet 1900s street with 21st-century cars parked along it.
There are several empty brothels in the town -- one or two that you can actually stay in -- and I thought that if I ever came back to Victor, that's where I would want to camp out. Maybe then the ghosts of working women would come out and play, because if there are any Wild West spirits a feminist like me wants to meet, it is definitely the sex workers.
Even at the Elks Lodge, a place with plenty of cold, empty indoor space and the kind of propaganda-like markings on the walls that come with secret societies, there were no ghosts. None that I felt, anyway. My boyfriend made a similar remark, because clearly we were both secretly trying to get spooked throughout the weekend but couldn't make it happen. There was a Nikola Tesla impersonator sitting very still in a chair at the lodge that I thought was a wax figure for like, two seconds, but that was as close as I got to getting scared.
I don't know much about the financial standings of Victor or anything about steampunk culture, but what I saw was the makings of a perfect union: I can only imagine if the town were to become a new-style Wild West hub for steampunkers around the world. It's like a place that was made for corseted barroom vamps, space cowboys and psychic stowaways, the ultimate living cosplay tribute where Victorian villains from the future-past could conduct everyday business.
Victor has no Panera Bread or 7-Eleven outfits to disrupt its authenticity; it is truly a town on its own accord, locked up in a time before there were corporations that could dismantle the personality of a cityscape in one fell slapdash commercial frame-and-corrugated-metal swoop. If you're an architecture or nostalgia junkie like me -- or you just want to be around structures that weren't built last week -- I highly recommend a weekend trip to the old town. And if you're new to Colorado, Victor is a great place to get a feel for the Wild West that no longer exists in Denver, because we are trying to shed our cowtown façade as fast as we can.
P.S.: For more photos from my weekend trip to Victor, visit my Instagram.
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