“Gold has an almost atavistic lure. People feel it has a panacea effect.”
Buckskin Joe was one of Colorado's earliest mining camps, having been settled in 1860. It was also one of the state's most colorful, with an eccentric cast of characters like Joseph "Buckskin Joe" Higgenbottom, Silver Heels the dance hall girl, and H.A.W. Tabor himself—before he became rich and famous.
Buckskin Gulch is even the site of at least three Spanish arastras (though I've only found one). An arastra is an ancient way to mill gold, dating to the sixteenth century. The method was simple: A stone basin is built near (or in) a stream bed; the material to be milled is placed in the basin. Then, large round stones are dragged in a constant circle around the basin, usually by mules, crushing the host rock and revealing the gold or other metal.
There is some debate as to who actually made the first strike here, and even this story is full of color. Some say it was Higgenbottom who made the strike. He was nicknamed "Buckskin" because of the leather animal hides he was fond of wearing. Although the more likely story (albeit an unlikely story) is that a man named Harris located the Phillips Mine while out hunting one day. It seems that—in true Beverly Hillbillies fashion—he located the mine while out hunting and shooting at a deer. Apparently his round hit the ground instead of the deer. While looking for evidence to determine whether or not he had hit the deer, he found color at the spot where his bullet entered the ground.
Try as he might to keep his find a secret, the rush was on. By 1861 more than five thousand fortune seekers descended on this spot, less than two miles from Alma, and Buckskin Joe became a town.
H.A.W. Tabor had a store here and was instrumental in building the county courthouse and securing the county seat until 1866. He even served as Mayor for a time. Father Dyer, the "snow shoe itinerant" pastor preached here, and Silver Heels, the dancehall girl become nurse danced in the Silver Heels dancehall. The town had a newspaper, a multiplicity of saloons and parlor houses, bunches of other businesses, and even a brass band which played every single night.
The Phillips Mine was the best of the best mines. It produced well over three million dollars worth of gold in four years. Then, rather suddenly, it stopped producing, and almost as suddenly, the place was deserted. A few folks stayed behind, but eventually they left too and Buckskin Joe become a ghost. One particular holdout, a man named Stancell became rich before he left just by digging through the Phillips' tailings pile.
No telling of Buckskin Joe's story would ever be complete without the most endearing tale of its rich history; that of Silver Heels. Silver Heels was a beautiful dancer in one of the local dancehalls. In addition to her physical beauty, she had a heart of gold, and so became a favorite of the miners who came to town on weekends to lighten their pockets. Nobody knows her real name; she was called Silver Heels because she wore silver shoes while plying her trade.
It seems that early in 1861, a group of sheep herders brought smallpox to town and soon there was an epidemic. Smallpox was a vicious disease which left most of its victims dead. The "lucky" ones who survived were left with pock marks over most of their body; some were blinded. Smallpox was eradicated in October 1977 but it wreaked havoc in countless mining camps during the nineteenth century.
Since there was no cure, the only solution was to wait for victims to die or recover, and so the majority of the town shut down and everyone went home to ride the epidemic out. It seems that most of the women left town, and only two nurses from Denver heeded the call for help. So naturally there was a great need for nurses willing to tend to the stricken.
Silver Heels answered the call and spent countless hours cooking meals, washing clothing, cleaning homes, and tending to the sick as best she could.
Finally the odds caught up with her, and Silver Heels became ill. Eventually she recovered, but was left heavily scarred by the disease. Afterwards, she could no longer return to her former profession, her physical beauty having been stolen from her. It seems she skipped out of town one night, never to be seen again. In later years, it was reported that a lone woman wearing a heavy veil often visited Buckskin's cemetery and placed flowers on the graves of those lost to the smallpox outbreak of 1861.
In a fitting tribute, a nearby mountain was named Mount Silverheels in her honor.
Buckskin Joe today is a very empty place. The foundation of the dancehall where Silver Heels danced is still visible in the trees near Joe Higgenbottom's Buckskin Mine, off to the left of Park County Road 8. Some mine structures are also still around, as is the huge Paris Mill just a mile further up the road. If you drive very slowly and are eagle eyed, you might just find one of those ancient Spanish arastras. It's off to the left in the stream bed between Buckskin Joe and the Paris Mill. You're more likely to drive right by it than you are to see it if you aren't watching carefully.
Most of the remaining structures were hauled away to be a part of South Park City in nearby Fairplay. I have long held a mixed opinion of South Park City. On the one hand, buildings removed from Colorado's mining camps (not just from Buckskin Joe, but others as well) and placed there have certainly been preserved. Countless numbers of people have seen seen and experienced them as a result. On the other hand, in reality, South Park City is an amusement park that is billed as a museum. Unlike the superb care that has gone into preserving Colorado's Animas Forks, Ashcroft, and Independence, California's Bodie, and Montana's Bannack, South Park City "preserves" history by removing and relocating the very history they claim to want to preserve. This strikes me as not terribly preservationist. Buckskin Joe is a very easy ghost town to reach along a well maintained, hard-packed dirt county road less than two miles from Alma. How much better would it have been to preserve the town in a state of "arrested decay" like the aforementioned ghost towns?
Certainly buildings that were constructed over a century ago that would have likely been destroyed by people, weather, fire, or simply time have been preserved in South Park City. As a "historical purest," however, I believe that history should be maintained and preserved in its place and not moved someplace else and renamed something different.
Opinions abound, but in the end, history is being preserved, and that's what matters.