“They wonder much to hear that gold which in itself is so useless a thing, should be everywhere so much esteemed, that even men for whom it was made, and by whom it has value, should yet be thought of less value than this metal.”
The town of Argentine came to its final, inevitable demise in the winter of 1898. It had been coming for some time. The decline started with the silver panic of 1893; most everyone left around that time, since silver was Argentine's primary reason for existing in this high, desolate landscape. That fateful winter, a massive snow slide came roaring down the mountain above Argentine. Most of the town was destroyed. Along Argentine's main street today, only a tiny number of buildings remain. All the rest are gone. The sheer number of foundation depressions gives evidence as to how much was lost.
Argentine changed its name three times in its history. Each time, the change was due to a resurgence of activity.
The place started at the foot of Argentine Pass, just barely below timberline, as Decatur in 1868 and was named for the very mysterious "Commodore" (as he was called) Stephen Decatur. The ore was of low quality, however, and the cost of shipping it out was prohibitive. Thus Decatur didn't amount to much in the beginning. It wasn't until 1879 when the Pennsylvania Mine was located that the town took off. There were several other mines along Peru Creek. These included the Peruvian Mine, located just outside of Argentine, the Delaware, Queen of the West, and the Revenue Tariff. But the Pennsylvania Mine was the best, producing more than three million dollars in its day. It paid so well that it warranted the construction of a multi-story mill, which can still be seen today. The mine was still being operated well into the twentieth century when author and ghost town historian Muriel Sibell Wolle visited the site.
Because it was primarily a silver town, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 leads to the demise of Decatur. But this isn't the end of the story. When other metals were discovered, including copper, lead, and gold, the town was reborn, this time as Rathbone. Government regulations require that if a post office is abandoned, should it ever reopen, it must be given a new designation. Because Decatur had a post office which was abandoned, the post office, and the name of the town was officially changed to Rathbone. A short few years later, the snowslide of 1898 destroyed Decatur-Rathbone, leaving only the mine workings on the mountain west of Peru Creek. After the cleanup, mining continued, and some rebuilding was done, but only to a point. Much of the excitement had long since passed. It made more sense to provide the necessities of life for the miners working the mines than it did to rebuild an entire town. This last time it took on its final name, that of Argentine named for nearby Argentine Pass, which in turn took its name from the East Argentine Mining District.
"Commodore" Stephen Decatur is one of those mysterious characters of western mining lore that gave the frontier its color. Ultimately the truth about Decatur is known only to him, and he isn't talking. Like so many others, seeking their fortune, he migrated to Colorado in 1859 during the gold rush. Approximately twenty years prior in the 1840s, he just up and disappeared. He had been a well-liked Professor in Poughkeepsie and had a family in New Jersey, including a wife and two children. But one day, he just disappeared. After arriving in Colorado, he served, for a time, in the territorial legislature using the name Stephen Decatur. Then, in 1868, he founded the town of Decatur at the foot of Argentine Pass.
In the meantime, the Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, William J. Bross (who had an older brother named Stephen), got wind of a man in Colorado who looked shockingly like the good Governor. He immediately made a trip to Colorado and confronted Decatur, declaring that this mas was indeed his long-lost brother. Decatur, however, angrily denied the claim (despite apparently prominent appearances to the contrary).
While it is said that he eventually admitted the relationship privately to a close friend, publically "Commodore" Stephen Decatur Bross always denied the Governor's claim and took his secrets to the grave. He is buried in Rosita, Colorado.
"Commodore" Stephen Decatur Bross was a significant figure in Colorado history. He was a successful prospector and miner, he was one of the chief builders of Argentine Pass, he founded several towns, he served on the legislature. Just as Stephen Bross disappeared and changed his name to Decatur, the town of Decatur has mostly vanished.
Neither will be forgotten.