Much historical confusion surrounds the town of Carson which sits three and a half miles up Wager Gulch at the very top of the Continental Divide.
The most accepted version of the story says that Christopher Carson located the very rich Bonanza King mine a mile future up Wager Gulch, well above timberline in 1881. The town of Carson was settled the following year and its founders believed it would become the most spectacular camp in the San Juan Mountains.
The problem was (and is) transportation.
In the beginning, there were virtually no good roads into the town. By 1897 a crude wagon road was built up Lost Trail Creek, but it was often impassable. This, ultimately was Carson's Achilles' heel. Had the town had good roads to ship out its ore, it may well have become the spectacular camp its founders thought it would.
This part of the story is not in dispute.
Most historians agree that Carson was one town, but divided into separate locations. The town itself with its businesses and homes was located just below timberline at 11,558 feet. Most of the mines (including the Bonanza King) were located a mile further up Wager Gulch, well above timberline at 12,283 feet.
A slump occurred in 1893 with the repeal of the silver act, but Carson managed to hold on for a few more years after the gold producing Bachelor Mine was discovered at the lower town in 1896. By 1901, however, its mines had reached their peak and the inevitable decline set in. The decline, along with the bad roads, and the reality that at this altitude it was impossible to work the mines in the winter lead to Carson's demise. By 1902, the town was deserted.
This is where the confusion in the story sets in. Some question whether or not Carson was ever actually one town at all.
Some accounts suggest that the upper town was actually Carson's first location. As mentioned previously, the Bachelor Mine was discovered in 1896 at the lower town. Because the upper town—a silver town—was all but dead by 1896 owing to the silver panic, the town's residents picked themselves up, moved a mile down the road and built themselves a fine new town near the Bachelor Mine. The original location thus became known as Old Carson, while the new town became—you guessed it—New Carson. This take on the story still suggests that Carson was deserted by 1902 after the gold played out.
A third take on Carson's history says that the lower town never had anything to do with Carson (the upper town) at all. This version suggests that the Bachelor Mine was actually located around 1905, long after Carson was deserted. As a result, a town named Bachelor Cabins was built at the lower location and the mines were worked until at least 1915. Some evidence supporting this story does exist. The age of the construction at what may be the newer town of Bachelor Cabins doesn't appear to be as old as the construction of the upper town which may have been Carson. While almost nothing remains today of the upper town, the lower town is in decidedly better repair with several buildings still standing. It should also be noted, however, that local residents have strived to stabilize and protect the lower town (including putting new roofs on the buildings that still stand) and that may be the main reason it is in much better shape.
Nobody really knows what the true story is, but most historians would agree that the first version of Carson's history is likely to be the truth.
The road up Wager Gulch to Carson today is not a lot better than it was when it hindered Carson's progress. It is considered to be one of the worst four-wheel-drive roads in the state.
Historian and author Robert L. Brown described it best in his book Jeep Trails to Colorado Ghost Towns:
"The generally hazardous nature of this ore-wagon obstacle course would easily rank it beside the routes to Holy Cross City, or across Williams Pass, as one of the worst Jeep roads in the state. There are streams to ford, soft peat bogs to sink down into, huge boulders and rock outcroppings to be driven across."
The road has improved some since Mr. Brown's book was published, but a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance is still a must. Either that, or a good pair of hiking boots.