The Ghost Town Club of Colorado was founded in 1958 by two Denver teachers, Jack Morison and Bob Brown. Together with several other people who shared an interest in Colorado history and historic preservation, they created a group focused specifically on ghost towns – their history and preservation.
What do we do?
Ghost Town Club of Colorado (GTC) holds monthly meetings featuring guest speakers on a variety of topics related to western history, ghost towns, Colorado history and relevant historic subjects. Past presentation topics include: the adventure, danger and romance of Colorado’s railroads, Denver’s great mansions and the people who inhabited them, and the unusual opportunities and challenges of living in a fire observation tower. There is something for everyone in this group of enthusiastic lovers of Colorado history!
Members also plan, organize, and lead many field trips to ghost towns and/or historic sites. These include day-trips to local sites such as old Fort Lupton to learn about and observe reconstruction of the fort, as well as to the ghost town of Dearfield to explore a hundred-year-old African American agricultural community on the arid high plains. Our excursions may include leisure driving, four-wheel driving, and/or hiking to our destinations.
Our field trips also include weekend excursions such as a motorcoach tour to Nebraska and the Lincoln County Historical Museum depicting a WWII canteen serving more than six million soldiers traveling by train through North Platte.
We also organize longer tours traveling to several states and parts of Canada, visiting significant historical sites and monuments, national parks, and local historians along the way.
And lets not forget about historic preservation. The club collects money throughout the year in a preservation fund to distribute at the end of the year to nonprofit historic sites in need of finacial support. Also, we will often help by doing actual preservation work with hands-on labor.
Who are we?
We are a diverse and active group of people with a shared sense of and reverence for history. We honor the significant contributions of many people through our strong desire to study, learn from, and preserve ghost towns and the memory of the people who built and lived in them. Perhaps most importantly, we are a group of friendly people who enjoy getting out, socializing, learning, and having a lot of fun.
How do we operate?
We are a volunteer-run organization. Our board of directors consists of six members who are elected to two-year terms. The president and other officers are elected for a yearly term. Subcommittees plan and execute special projects such as the yearly banquet, preservation fund awards, volunteer coordination, or outreach activities, to name a few.
Snapshot of GTC History
During the first three meetings of the Club back in 1958 when organizers were trying to decide on a name for the club, one lone stranger kept insisting that “toll roads” be added to the name. Finally Ghost Town Club of Colorado was “railroaded” through. In December 1963, the Club was legally incorporated with the Secretary of State.
First dues for the Club were $1 a year. In 1979, dues were $5 a year. Slowly postage, printing, insurance and rent have caused minimal increases. It’s been many a year since we had to raise the dues, and as Dick Ramsey says, “It’s still the best bargain in town.”
Letter from the President Ethan Knightchilde, September 2018
By the time you read this, the Nominating Committee should be well into their work of selecting officer candidates for 2019. (If you have an interest in being considered, please contact me). Should we phone you in the coming months and ask you to serve, please keep in mind what I wrote in the August Gazette before you answer. As members, we must be more than the equivalent of moviegoers enjoying passive entertainment—we must be filmmakers who create the show. If you are unable to say yes, I challenge you to take an active role and contribute in some other way. After all, the committee chose you for a reason. Use your experience (or youthful enthusiasm) to offer guidance, suggestions, programs, or perhaps something new to GTC. The club can only continue if we all take a part in its future.
In June I asked founding member Ron Ruhoff to share his personal ghost town “origin story” along with his recollection of that fateful Historical Society meeting in 1958. It is presented here as the second installment of our GTC Legacy Project. I hope it will serve as a reminder to us all of how we came to be here and why we choose to remain.
~ Ethan Knightchilde, September 2018
A Ghost Town Club is Born
By Ron Ruhoff
My interests in Colorado mining and ghost towns probably began with my wanderings around Central City in the 1950’s. My father was a musician in the Denver Symphony and also had joined the Central City Opera orchestra at that time. During my junior high years at Byers School in Denver, I used to go up there with him before I was old enough to drive. I was fascinated as I walked around Central City and Black Hawk and saw so many abandoned buildings, mine structures, and the “glory hole” atop Quartz Hill.
In 1957, the year I graduated from South High, I got my first car: A 1942 military jeep. My friends and I had a grand time that year exploring the back roads around Central City and Idaho Springs. The ghost town of Lamartine was one of my first discoveries. Back then, there were several cabins and a stamp mill still standing. I was also having fun shooting all these things with slide film and a 35mm camera. Those good old Kodachromes have never faded.
Later in 1957, a friend joined me for a Jeep trip to the San Juan Mountains near Ouray, Lake City, and Silverton. We traveled over Engineer Pass and Cinnamon Pass, and visited such places as Yankee Boy Basin, Capitol City, Carson, and Mineral Point. I was off and running on a quest for Colorado ghost towns.
At this same time, I often attended lectures given by the Colorado State Historical Society in the basement of Denver’s First Baptist Church on 14th and Grant in Denver. At one such lecture in January 1958, a man named John Farr got up to make an announcement before the main speaker began: “All of you who might be interested in forming a ghost town club, please stay after the meeting.” There were some one hundred people there for the program that night and, when the lecture concluded, every single one stayed.
All thought a ghost town club was a great idea, and much discussion proceeded regarding what such a club would do. Some thought railroads, toll roads, or old passes should be included, but it finally was agreed that those other subjects would naturally follow the ghost town theme. Some also thought the club would run out of places to visit in a short time; certainly no one dreamed it would last 60 years and still be going strong.
Agnes Wright Spring, the Colorado State Historian at the time, had suggested to John that he bring up the idea of a ghost town club that evening. Upon seeing the interest it generated she wrote an article for the Rocky Mountain News and gave a date for the first meeting: March 3, 1958. The location would be the same church basement room used by the Historical Society.
The program for the first meeting of the Ghost Town Club of Colorado was presented by Robert L. Brown and featured two of his 8mm movies with music and narration: “San Juan Holiday” and “Jeep Trail to Timberline.” The remainder of the time was spent electing officers and planning future meetings. Dr. Gerald Coon was the first president; Jack Morison, a Denver schoolteacher, would be vice president and program chairman; and Gary Balliet was the first treasurer. We all paid our dues of $1.00 that night and the GTC was off and running.
John Farr never joined the club he had proposed, nor was he present at any of the meetings. Soon after he got the ball rolling with his announcement at the Historical Society meeting, the insurance company for which he worked moved him off to jobs in Montana and the Dakotas, and he never had the chance to participate in the club. He later relocated to Encampment, Wyoming, where he resides today and remains very involved with their historical old-town museum.
Over the many years of Ghost Town Club fellowship, lectures, and field trips, I have found that this organization has probably had the greatest influence on my life of anything I have done. Many other members have expressed similar feelings. The Ghost Town Club has proven to be a grand adventure over these many years and a heartfelt thanks goes out to John Farr for getting it all started.
What are you waiting for?
It’s not too late to share your ghost town memory. Don’t feel pressured to write a novel–just set down a few paragraphs on one sheet of paper. Your story can be about ANY ghost town visit and does not even need to be GTC-related. There are a wide range of topics you can consider sharing, for example: my tale about the letter of lost love found in an Oregon ghost town (February 2018 Gazette); Nancy Smith’s recollection of an anniversary celebration on a GTC trip (August); and, Ron’s offering this month about the GTC’s founding. So what are you waiting for?
Please email your tale to me. If you send it through the USPS, please be sure to keep a copy for yourself just in case. (Note: For consideration of inclusion in the Gazette, the story must be an appropriate length. Or at least suitable for a Reader’s Digest condensed version.)
Letter from the President Ethan Knightchilde, August 2018
Later this month, the September-October issue of Colorado Life Magazine will hit the stands. Barring unforeseen circumstances, an article about the Ghost Town Club and its 60th Anniversary should be right up front in the “Sluice Box” column–the first a reader (and possibly future member) will see. I have not read the piece, as journalists typically don’t share with their subjects before publication. However I did suggest to writer-editor Matt Masich that he should contact Ron Ruhoff, who was there before there was a “there” there, and so could speak firsthand about our origins and first 60 years.
About that “first 60 years:” I believe it safe to say that the club has endured because it is important to each of us and is much more than the sum of its parts (i.e., us). People protect the things they love, and so the club has continued even as members have come and gone. But attracting new members is the only way to ensure it continues to do so; additionally we must be prepared to adapt to meet their expectations when necessary, so that they remain members. (Since history is littered with organizations that remained stagnant or intransigent and so perished, I won’t dig up the dinosaur analogy and how the specialization that made them successful didn’t allow them to adapt to rapidly changing conditions.)
While it is my sincere hope that the article will bring new members our way, nothing is guaranteed. But…when you think guests might arrive at your home, don’t you usually tidy up a bit around the house and make yourself presentable if and when they do? Let’s take the same wise course of action and make sure that any guest’s first impression of us is the best we have to offer. We must show that we are an ACTIVE membership, the majority of which not only show up at meetings for entertainment and socializing, but also participate in some combination of the following:
Field Trips – First, pause and remind yourself of your past or present spirit of adventure. Even if you can’t or don’t want to lead, surely you have ideas, suggestions, or advice for those that can or do, especially if the proposed trip retraces some or all of a route you once traveled?
Programs – If I personally could start filming a theatrically released documentary about ghost towns without even knowing about the GTC until the movie’s production was nearly complete, then some of those who have been exploring the echoes of the West far longer than I should be able to create a program for their fellow members. Do something with those photos and slides!
Committees, Officers, and all those who keep things running – Each year it has become increasingly difficult for the Nominating Committee to find members willing to commit. The most obvious recent example is the search for 2018’s VP, when there was no candidate to present to the membership for approval along with the other officers. Imagine what would happen if NO ONE had stepped in. None of us want a program-less meeting; and I am sure we can all agree that it is unfair to continually ask more of those whose names consistently appear on the officer and committee rosters. Please consider submitting your name for a 2019 officer role in advance of the Nominating Committee’s work (which begins soon), especially if you have never served before or have not for many years. You’d be surprised at how fulfilling and fun it can be.
We are a club formed and maintained by those who share a common love of history and the Old West. When something in your life is always present, it may take some reflection upon past memories to make you realize why that particular something has maintained its importance in your life. Take a moment to think back and remember what brought you to the GTC and kept you here. (Judging from the conversations I overheard at the banquet, I have no doubt that there will be plenty reminiscing over Kodak moments as we gather at our 60th Anniversary picnic and enjoy each other’s company.) As you reminisce, consider the impact of the events you are recalling–an impact so great that details remain crystal clear in your memory years or even decades later.
The legacy of the club, of the members who are no longer with us, and of those who have been with us for more years than they might care to consider resides solely in our collective hands. It is our duty to pass it on to our newest members and to those who have not yet found their way to us.
When I traveled around Colorado for Ghosts of the West screenings, I encountered so many people who, like us, have a glimmer of “the West in their eyes.” I hope the Colorado Life article proves to be another way to reach them. But the burden is on us to put our greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts heads together, and think of other ways to lead them there. I hope you will commit to joining me in that effort.
Tidy up and look busy. Guests might arrive any day.
~ Ethan Knightchilde, August 2018
Letter from the President Ethan Knightchilde, July 2018
“It’s A Great Story But…”
Independence Day, secession, foreigners & hyperbole in the Old West
Last month I speculated that perhaps more people might be engaged with history if events were presented in a story format. Even when summarily told, an historical tale is able to spark interest and inspire one to delve deeper in a search for details.
However, details can prove elusive for many reasons. Consider that those living beyond the frontier often experienced a deep feeling of isolation; entertainment options for distraction were severely limited; and, particularly when news was local, many papers of the day considered their duty as town booster to be of greater importance than inconvenient facts. As a consequence events were often embellished; tales grew in the telling; and, details that sprang from the imaginations of storytellers eventually became factoids. Thus the history of the Old West is replete with exaggerated accounts of wild discoveries, lost mines, epic confrontations, and inflated population figures that would have made even the town boosters and editors of the day blush.
If tall tales stemmed from frontier folks’ sense of isolation, so too were the Independence Day celebrations that went on far longer and more intensely than many generations since can imagine, and which helped even fiercely independent souls feel connected to their countrymen back in the States. Parades and firecrackers were common, as well as orations that included readings from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, toasts to almost everything, setting off of gunpowder, foot races, horse races, drilling competitions, climbing greased poles, and contests to capture oiled pigs.
I mention obfuscation and July 4th celebrations to better frame this month’s anecdote.
Founded in 1849 Rough and Ready, California, had been named after recently-elected President of the U.S., General Zachary Taylor, who bore the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” during the Mexican-American War. Tales say that most of the townspeople were Southern-sympathizers who objected to California’s entry into the Union as a free and undivided State, but especially to a government-imposed mining tax on their claims. And so on April 7, 1850, residents voted to secede from the United States and found The Great Republic of Rough and Ready. Then something funny happened on the way to the forum: miners from the new republic were denied the purchase of alcohol at a nearby town on the grounds that they were foreigners.
Rough and Ready voted to rejoin the Union just in time to celebrate Independence Day.
To be sure it’s an interesting tale that invites one to delve further, but one will find that the facts here are very muddied. At first glance the objectionable tax seems to be the Foreign Miners Tax. However that little legislative slice of heaven was aimed at Chinese and Mexicans. Additionally, the bill was only signed into law six days AFTER Rough and Ready’s secession on April 13, 1850, and only became effective on June 1. As to California Territory entering the Union as a free and undivided State—well, that didn’t happen until September 9, 1850, five months and two days after secession.
Some sources state that Rough and Ready remained independent for more than a year as opposed to a few months, and did not rejoin the Union until July 1851 rather than 1850. Others state that hostilities did not officially end until 1948, when the town wanted a post office. But that usually ignores the fact that a post office had been established there in 1851 and has served the town with few breaks since.
As the saying goes, “Fiction is history that did not happen, and history is fiction that did.” Now it’s your turn to share a unique story about one of your ghost town visits, but please… don’t let entertainment get in the way of the facts.
~ Ethan Knightchilde, July 2018
P.S. To clarify: Your tale can be about ANY ghost town visit and does not necessarily need to be GTC related! Don’t feel pressured to write a novel–just set down a few paragraphs on one sheet of paper! (See my letter in the February Gazette for an example of just how short it can be.)