The Secrets the San Juans Still Whisper
by Heather Blanton
Originally appeared in Cowboy Kisses
Most authors have an idea for a story FIRST then they go and research it. I did all the research for my best-selling novel A Lady in Defiance years before I ever imagined the saga of three good, Christian sisters taming a bawdy mining town. I still find the research haunting me.
In the summer of ’93, my husband and I packed up everything from tents to guns (yes, you used to actually be allowed to travel with them in your luggage), flew to Denver, rented a jeep and started exploring the mountains. Even though we drove all over the state, from Denver to the four corners area, what captured my heart were the ghost towns high up in the San Juan Mountains. Silverton, Durango, Ouray, and Telluride are the well-known, vibrant, little towns in the area. The ghost towns you’ve probably never heard of, though, are Mineral Point, Alta, Animas Forks, and St. Elmo, to name a few.
Now, considering that 1993 was practically the Dark Ages, we planned our trip using a 1963 travel guide, Jeep Trails to Colorado Ghost Towns by Robert Brown. The dang thing was out of print at the time and I had to special order it. But it was RICH with the history of these forgotten settlements, abandoned dreams, and unfinished stories. I was captivated by the lonely, remote ruins that once-upon-a-time had fed the dreams of both the courageous and the cowardly, the greedy and the generous, the noble and the cheaters.
The story that fascinated me the most was the tale of George Jackson of Missouri. He came west to Colorado in 1859 and discovered gold near Idaho Springs. He left (with his gold) to fight in the Civil War and then start a farm. Gold Fever never left him, though, and he returned twelve years later with a group of prospectors. They discovered more gold, somewhere near Middle Park. Allegedly, he and his group squirreled away over $10,000 in gold dust, buried in buckskin bags beneath their cabin.
Late in the fall of ’71, the prospectors were attacked by Indians but managed to hide, and the survivors slithered their way out of the mountains, the gold still lying in its hidden grave. Overjoyed to have survived, the remaining men decided they’d had enough of the San Juans and headed east—except for Jackson. As soon as the snow melted—reportedly in June—he rounded up a friend and headed back to the camp, but never made it. On the way, he pulled a gun from his sled to shoot at a coyote and shot himself right between the eyes.
Fast forward to 1912. Ray Peck, a supervisor with Routt National Forest investigated with the help of an unnamed local mountain man. They found the aspen tree in which Jackson had carved his name. Evidence of habitation and mining activities were deteriorated but evident.
Eager as beavers, they started digging. And they dug till they were blue in the face but the pair never found the buckskin bags full of gold.
The cache is still up there in those beautiful, dangerous mountains, waiting for someone to come along and find it –to finish the story.