“When I’m through and the cleanup is weighed, I hope there’s an honest profit paid. May the mill-man speak not of laurels won, but simply say, 'Twas a good mill run.'”
"I know where there's a whole mountain of that stuff!" shouted Samuel Conger in response to a Union Pacific guard's warning to drop a rock he had picked up to examine. Conger found himself in Laramie, Wyoming and happened upon on a train car carrying rich ore from the Comstock Mine in Nevada.
Eight years earlier, he was hunting on Caribou Hill four miles above Nederland and had discovered rich silver float. Not having any idea what he had found, he went on his way. Almost a decade later, all the pieces came together after his encounter with the train guard. He rushed back to Colorado and relocated the outcropping. Working through the winter of 1869, he and five partners discovered the greatest silver vein in the region.
By the summer of 1870, events accelerated. Caribou had been platted, and a government was elected. Soon the town was crawling with fortune seekers. Several thousand came and decided to stay. Businesses of every kind were present, a school was built, and a newspaper was published. Two of its hotels, the Sherman House and the Planter's House were so posh that they were well known from coast to coast. Another renowned hotel, the Todd House was located outside of town in Caribou Park. Several attempts were made to establish a Red Light District, but the good citizens of Caribou wouldn't have it. They ran off the purveyors of flesh several times. Eventually they moved out of Caribou and set up shop two miles down the road. The meadow where they plied their trade would become the town of Cardinal. Cardinal eventually got a connection to the railroad. Caribou did not.
Some of the richest silver mines in Colorado were located here: The Caribou, the Conger, the Poorman, the Idaho, the No-Name, and many more. In 1873 the Caribou Mine—Conger's original discovery—was sold for three million to Dutch investors. The camp's major properties as a whole produced almost half-a-million dollars in 1875 alone.
Life was hard in a town perched at 10,500 feet. It was always windy and cold most of the year. It was commonly called "the place where the winds were born." Substantial, well-built buildings had to be braced against the wind to keep them for falling over. The snow was so bad in the winter that twenty-five foot drifts were not uncommon. Guests in the Sherman House recalled needing to leave the hotel through the second or even third story windows. If the snow and the wind weren't bad enough, the town is built on an iron dike which attracts lightning furiously and frequently during electrical storms.
Epidemics of scarlet fever and diphtheria took a harrowing toll on the population. Caribou's graveyard is full of children and even entire families who succumbed to the diseases. Sadly, in the years after the town was abandoned, treasure hunters and vandals alike completely destroyed Caribou's lonely graveyard.
Caribou's biggest problem wasn't the lack of high paying ore, but rather the lack of an easy way to get it out. Because transportation was so costly, the return on the investment was not what it should have been with such high grade ore. The town lobbied endlessly for a railroad connection, but it was not to be. The closest they got was when the line arrived in Cardinal. Fortunes really began to turn in 1879 when a forest fire nearly wiped the town off the map. Caribou was rebuilt, but not to its former glory, as the price of silver began to decline. The silver panic of 1893 was another massive blow to a town whose primary reason for existence was silver mining. Then, in 1900, another fire finally did Caribou in. There simply wasn't a reason to rebuild little Caribou, and over the next few years, it slipped quietly into history.
Mining continued on at Caribou well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, though certainly not to the degree that it did in the nineteenth.
Thomas Scott Hendricks, or "Miner Tom" as he liked to be called was Caribou's most famous latter day miner. He owned both the Caribou Mine and the Cross Mine barely outside of Caribou. He worked them for decades until his death on January 6, 2020 at the age of seventy. At twenty one, he started the Caribou Mining District, and by 1980 he had more than fifty employees working these mines. He never looked back and never stopped working in his beloved Caribou. He was happiest in Caribou. He was fittingly interred in Caribou's cemetery.
Caribou was my first exposure to Colorado's ghost towns and mining camps. She will forever be remembered in the hearts of those of us who love this place.