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Smelter Skelter!

Jo Rivers

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.

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.

Building rails into the Colorado high country was a daunting proposition. Simply identifying the canyons and passes that would allow a train to move over the Continental Divide was hard enough, but arranging financing and actually building a line through often-treacherous terrain made railroading a risky venture. While successful rail lines were enormously profitable, dozens of others went bankrupt.

The Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad Company was organized by former Colorado territorial governor John Evans in 1872. Evans recruited more than a dozen prominent Denver businessmen, including David Moffat and Walter Cheesman, and he raised $2.5 million to build a rail line along the South Platte River from Denver to Fairplay. The target was the booming mining district that had grown up around and above Fairplay, where millions of dollars' worth of gold, silver and other metals were being dug out of the earth.

Evans set an interesting precedent by asking Arapahoe County -- which then included Denver -- to approve $300,000 in bonds to help fund his railroad. After a public dustup involving a Denver city alderman who demanded that no public dollars go to the railroad until construction was under way and several critical editorials in the Denver Daily Times, Evans was able to win the county's backing for the venture. (This alliance between business and government on transportation projects in Colorado has continued to the present day; Denver International Airport is the best-known example.)

Construction of the railroad took years. Morrison, then called Bear Creek Junction, was the first stop. Service began there in 1874, with a first-class passenger car trimmed in gold leaf and dubbed "Auraria." The railroad was often referred to by its initials, DSP&PRR, and Denver wags took to saying it stood for "Damned Slow Pulling and Pretty Rough Riding."

Slowly the rail line extended up the canyon. Like most of the rail lines built into the mountains, the DSP&PRR was a narrow-gauge, with a track just three feet across, rather than the standard gauge of four feet, eight-and-one-half inches. The narrower track made it easier to build through sheer canyons and along skinny embankments, but even so, many points along the canyon were too narrow for a rail bed, and the granite walls had to be dynamited. By 1878 the tracks had reached Bailey, a few miles past what would become Saxonia. The South Park line eventually extended to Gunnison and was used to transport granite from the Western Slope to build the State Capitol.

"The Denver and South Park was constructed as a way to get into Leadville, but it never made any money," says Bart Berger, who is related to banker Charles Kountze, one of the railroad's founders. "The silver crash of 1893 screwed things up."

The railroad was closed for good in 1937, and the rails were ripped out and sold. "Many of the small, narrow-gauge railroads were scrapped out," says Berger, whose family still owns property along the old rail bed. "The Japanese were buying up the scrap iron."

By the late 1870s, the area along the tracks was dotted with mines. Dozens of miners staked claims along the railroad. The entrances to many of the mines are still visible, and their names reflect the freewheeling atmosphere of the mining camps: Chicago Boy, Little Buttercup, Uncle Robert, Rebellious, Lilly Belle and Pinafore.

The first known reference to Saxonia was in an 1879 Rocky Mountain News article, which described the emerging town of Crossons and detailed the plans of "an eastern company" to build a smelter just up the river, by the tracks. In the exuberant journalistic style of the era, an unnamed correspondent touted Crossons as a miners' paradise: "We have a population here exceeding already 150 and continually on the increase," he wrote. "The climate is excellent, not hot in summer and very little snow in winter. The mines can be worked all the year round without interruption. The splendid farms in the neighborhood furnish any quantity of vegetables and beef, while our market in Denver is but a short distance from here, either by rail or by the old Fairplay wagon road. So you see we are bound to prosper here."

In another dispatch, the News correspondent boasted that the miners were "all young and energetic go-ahead fellows who mean business, and intend to push things until pay ore is reached." He ended that article with the exciting news that "we are to have a smelter beyond a doubt. Professor Langhammer has succeeded in forming a company for the purpose of putting in a smelter and refiner. The camp is jubilant over the prospect, and we propose to celebrate on the strength of it."  

Professor Paul Langhammer was a German from Saxony, and he named his smelting company after his native province. The Fairplay Flume described him as an "accomplished scholar and an expert in minerals," who had raised $1 million from East Coast financiers to build the smelter. "Professor Langhammer deserves great credit for the zeal and energy he has put forth in the interest of the camp, and I express the sentiment of the camp when I say that he has everyone's sincere thanks for his efforts," wrote the Flume's correspondent.

The smelter was constructed in the summer of 1879 but didn't begin operation until 1880. A series of short articles in the News in the summer and fall of that year revealed that the company was having problems, which included the dismissal of Langhammer.

"It's pretty clear this whole Saxonia thing was an on-again, off-again operation," Boulware says. "It begs the question, was the whole thing a scam to get investors' money?"

By October the company had been sold, but a November 2, 1880, News article announced that Saxonia was back in operation.

"The mystery which for months has shrouded the great Saxonia mills at this place is unveiled," wrote the News. "They were built in July last year, but owing to the high tariff for coal and bullion over the railroad in Colorado, they were not set to running until yesterday. They are now in full operation, treating 200 tons of lead bullion per day, employing 26 men and consuming forty tons of coal each 24 hours. The town put on an air of prosperity this week. The large boardinghouse opposite the mills has started up, several new cottages are being built, and in a short time Saxonia will be one of the live cities of the South Park circuit."

The smelter ran both day and night producing lead. Ore was brought in from the mines outside Breckenridge and placed in huge, cast-iron cauldrons, each twelve feet across. The ore was heated until the lead melted and was then allowed to cool; as the lead crystallized, it was skimmed off the top with large ladles and transferred to the next cauldron. After each stage of heating and cooling, the lead became more pure.

"They'd take lead that was 75 percent pure and by the time they were finished, it was 90 to 95 percent pure," says Boulware.

Each cauldron held ten to fifteen tons of lead. On the site of the old smelter, indentations in the ground still mark the spots where the lead cauldrons rested. The main building that housed the furnace and cauldrons was about 120 feet by 48 feet; the chimney and piles of bricks are all that remain of that structure.

Lead was a highly valuable commodity in the nineteenth century (when it was often referred to as galena). "It was like aluminum is today, used in everything from bullets to bearings," says Boulware. But smelting lead was also dangerous; lead is highly poisonous. "God knows how many miners they killed from all the lead fumes," he adds.

Small smelters like Saxonia's often didn't operate long, as they were unable to compete with the huge smelting factories in Denver and Pueblo.

"I would guess that smelter just lasted a few years until they figured out they could process ore more efficiently by shipping it to Denver," says Tom Noel, professor of Colorado history at the University of Colorado-Denver. "Each of these little stops along the railroad hoped to make it. They all wanted to be the next Pueblo."

But for at least a few years, dozens of people called Saxonia home. The town missed being counted in the 1880 census, but some newspaper estimates put the population as high as 300 -- a number that may have been inflated by more journalistic boosterism. "The population figures are often exaggerated," Noel says of Colorado's approximately 500 ghost towns.

Naming the town Saxonia would have been appealing to the smelter's workforce, which was most likely made up of immigrants. "There were more German immigrants than any other kind in Colorado up until World War I," says Noel. "They were also starting to bring in Italians, who were the stoop laborers."

Most of the residents of Saxonia would have been young men who were either trying to make their fortunes or sending their wages back home to support their families. The town bar was probably the center of social life. "You couldn't really have a smelter and a railroad stop without a bar," says Noel.  

In fact, the saloon plays a crucial role in the most dramatic episode of Saxonia's short history: the murder of a barkeep named Joseph McQuoid. According to newspaper accounts, McQuoid had loaned money to a young miner, William Angell. Angry over the miner's inability to repay the debt, McQuoid quarreled with Angell in the saloon and followed him outside to a spot along the South Park line. Witnesses said Angell pulled out a revolver and aimed it at McQuoid, and the two men stared at each other for several seconds, neither saying a word. Then Angell fired.

"On the railroad track Angell drew a revolver and fired one shot at McQuoid at a distance of four paces," reported the News. "The shot proved a fatal one."

McQuoid, married and the father of two, was taken by train that same afternoon to Denver for medical treatment. But he died in agony ten days later at a house on Blake Street, and he was buried in Riverside Cemetery.

Angell fled Saxonia and was never arrested. "It is thought that his home is in Iowa, and that he is a fugitive from justice in that state," wrote the News. "The crime was a cold-blooded one, there being no palliating circumstances in the sad affair."

There are no newspaper accounts marking the smelter's closure. Boulware believes the town was abandoned by 1886, with most of the buildings torn apart and the equipment sold off.

While Saxonia was soon forgotten, the nearby mining camp of Crossons took on new life as a summer retreat for Denverites. The South Park train -- which after a series of railroad mergers became part of the Colorado & Southern Railroad -- continued to run into the mountains, but instead of moving miners it now took vacationers and outdoorsmen into the hills.

The train soon became known as the "fish train," because fishermen would board in Denver in the morning, travel to a spot along the river where they wanted to cast their lines, and then pull a cord in the passenger car to signal to the conductor that they wanted to stop. After a day of fishing, they would flag down the train on its way back to Denver and carry their catch right into the passenger car.

The mining cabins at Crossons were turned into summer homes. An affluent family would rent one for the summer, with the wife and children often staying for the season while the father would take the train up from Denver on weekends. One of the cabins was known as the "honeymoon house," since it was popular with newlyweds.

The late Colorado poet laureate, Thomas Hornsby Ferril, whose family had a cabin near Estabrook, a few miles up the river from Crossons, composed a poem about the fish train, "Cadetta -- C&S," which highlights the magical quality the train had for kids:

The children have never ridden the train before,
The children dream the train into the mountains,
Chug of the smokestack blacking aspen catkins,
They lean way out, they see the engineer
Chasing the mountains off the track like deer,
They taste the mountains tumbling through the windows,
They smell the lightning singed by rainy roses,
The river digs a tunnel under the train,
Now it is gone,
Now it is back again.

For the past twenty years, the Crossons site has been owned by the Colwell family. Bob Colwell, a former principal of Denver's East High School, became familiar with the property in the 1960s when the school held student retreats there. "There would be a fall meeting of the new student council, and we'd take them up to Crossons," he recalls.

Back then, the thirty-acre area was owned by a local Baptist church and used as a summer camp. When the church decided to sell the land, it contacted Colwell, and he agreed to buy it.

The Colwells have several photographs from the 1920s showing summer visitors sitting on cabin porches. They've tried to prevent the structures from collapsing, hoping they can preserve a piece of Colorado history. Signs are posted inside each cabin asking visitors not to vandalize the buildings.

Colwell says he knew that there had been a smelter just up the river, but nobody had been particularly interested in Saxonia until Boulware came along.

"We knew the history of Saxonia, but we had never done anything with it," he adds. "Richard Boulware has more imagination than we do. He wants to put this on the map."  


Although Saxonia is now nothing but piles of bricks and a smelter chimney, Boulware believes it could become a history park that would draw people from throughout the metro area.

"I don't know any other rail site within an hour's drive of Denver that has the potential this one does," he says. "Because of its inaccessibility, it's been preserved."

Boulware wants to bring in a professional team of archeologists from a local university to explore Saxonia, because important items may be buried in the dirt and rubble of the lost town. And he wants to do it soon: Little more than a mile north of the ghost town, the pounding of hammers and whir of chainsaws signal the construction of new homes. Boulware fears that Saxonia could easily be overrun by civilization as the development pressure along Highway 285 keeps building.

"How long is it going to be before that property is threatened?" he wonders. "It's a race to see if it's going to be protected."

And Saxonia faces more dangers than Denver's sprawl. Boulware worries that, once word of his find gets out, it will be picked apart by souvenir hunters. (For that reason, he asked that this story not give detailed directions to the former town.) He dreads the prospect of scavengers showing up with metal detectors to hunt for antiques in the dirt. "They could ravage the place like locusts going through a wheat field," he predicts.

For several months, Boulware tried to get the U.S. Forest Service to help protect Saxonia by posting signs that warned visitors not to remove anything, but he had no luck. Boulware grew impatient with what he describes as forest-service foot-dragging, and he complains that the agency treated him like a pest. "I disrupted their routine, which was hanging Smokey the Bear posters on telephone poles," he says.

Finally, Boulware asked Congressman Tom Tancredo to intervene, and that seemed to get the attention of the feds. Last week Tancredo forwarded him a letter from William Wood, deputy supervisor of the Pike National Forest, saying two forest service employees had surveyed the Saxonia site and would recommend that it be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Wood also said that the forest service had posted signs warning the public not to destroy historic resources in the area.

Jousting with public officials is nothing new for Boulware. When he worked for the city, he was demoted before DIA opened and stripped of his role as the airport's chief spokesman. Boulware accused Mayor Wellington Webb of targeting him, because he had objected to alleged cronyism in the awarding of airport contracts, and he also accused the city of age and gender bias. He challenged the demotion in court, and Denver District Court Judge John Coughlin ruled in his favor in 1996, saying the city had violated its own Career Service Authority rules by demoting Boulware. The judge ordered the city to provide Boulware with all the benefits he had lost when demoted, including pay increases, promotions and retirement earnings.

At the time, Boulware said the ruling ended "three years and ten months of pure hell that has cost me my marriage, savings and included death threats over the phone."

Boulware chose to take early retirement three years ago, but he has continued to publicly criticize the Webb administration. Recently he appeared on Mike Rosen's radio show to renew his charges of cronyism in DIA contracting.

Now he's crusading to save Saxonia from disappearing once again into the mists of time. He hopes to win the support of Jefferson County officials and find funding to explore and fix up the location. "We have to preserve this before it gets paved over," he says. "There aren't many spots like this left. We have a tiny, historical Garden of Eden here."

Historic preservationists say they're intrigued by the possibility of doing something to highlight the area's lively mining history. "It's exciting in this day and age to find something that hasn't been known about before," says Rita Peterson, head of the Jefferson County Historical Commission. "We want to document what's there. We don't have any funds to do anything, but we'd like to work with other organizations on this."

When Boulware thinks about Saxonia, he also ponders the South Park railroad ticket that brought the missing town to his attention. He's certain the hat check is a collector's item, a rare example of daily life on the long-lost railroad.

"To the best of my knowledge, it's the oldest hat check from that railroad that anyone probably has," says Boulware. "It dates from the early summer of 1880."

But despite his affection for the ancient ticket and the historical sleuthing it inspired, Boulware soon may part with his treasure. "I'm considering selling it on e-bay for $500," he says.


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