Buckskin Joe - Gone
& Back and Gone Again
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Buckskin Joe, established in 1859, was just northwest of Fairplay on
Highway 9, near the present-day town of Alma,
Like many mining camps that flourished during the Gold Rush, Buckskin
Joe was formed as a mining district by a small group of prospectors
when placer gold was located in the river nearby.
group of prospectors was led by an eccentric man named Joseph Higgenbottom,
who wore buckskin clothes and was therefore called "Buckskin Joe."
Despite attempts to officially name the
settlement Laurette, (for Laura and Jeanette, the wife and daughter of
Old Man Dodge who wielded some influence in the area) it was called Buckskin
Joe by most, and the name stuck.
News of the gold discovery quickly spread
and by the spring of 1860, other miners began pouring into the new
settlement. One mining claim made by a man named Mr. Phillips
originally did not look rich, and Phillips, a drifter, soon moved away
without further development. Buckskin
Joe claimed Phillips discovery for his own, but, he, too,
soon left the area for the San Juan Mountains, trading the claim for a
revolver and a few other articles.
Too late for Mr. Phillips or Buckskin
Joe, the claim was discovered to be rich and it wound up
providing much of the ore for the mill that was later built. Sluice boxes were built and considerable gold was recovered from the
creek bed. To crush the soft ore from the load, the old Spanish method
of arastras was employed first.
Joe Higgenbottom, the man for which the settlement of
Buckskin Joe was named. Photo courtesy ghphotography.
At its zenith, the town of Buckskin
gambling halls and traveling minstrel shows. The street was lined with
stores, saloons, an assay office, a courthouse, a mill, and three
hotels. It boasted such famous inhabitants as
Horace and Augusta Tabor and
In August 1861, Horace and Augusta Tabor loaded their supplies,
groceries and household merchandise and moved to
store soon became the areas most successful. During the next seven
years, Horace invested in local mines and became the postmaster. In
reality, Augusta ran the post office although she could not legally
hold that position. Meanwhile Horace became increasingly involved in community
Joe had itinerant preachers, the most famous of whom
was Father John L Dyer, a Methodist from Ohio whose circuit covered Fairplay, Park City, Buckskin
Joe and Breckenridge. To stretch parishioners'
contributions in the early days, Dyer would prospect when not in the
pulpit. As easy placer findings vanished and the cost of staples
soared ($40.00 for a bag of flour), Dyer added mail carrying to his
church duties. He trekked weekly from Mosquito Gulch and Buckskin
Joe over passes to
and Breckenridge. Neither winter nor the absence of improved roads
deterred him. Often on skis ten feet long with 30 pounds of mail on
his back, Father Dyer would climb through deep snow and wind-swept
alpine heights to dispense his earthly and spiritual messages.
Joe began to thrive and by 1861 had a population of 2,000. In
1862 it became the county seat, an honor it retained until 1867, when the
courthouse was moved to Fairplay. The settlement boasted a newspaper, a
post office, and two banks, in addition to the saloons,
dance halls and gambling houses.
The mining district reportedly produced 16
million dollars in gold from 1859 until the mill closed in 1866. After
the mill closed, most of the people left to seek their fortune in
other mining camps and towns throughout the Rocky Mountain West.
A few stalwarts remained. One was J.P.
Stansell, who made a fortune working the leavings of the Phillips Mine
long after the miners left. Another was Horace Tabor
who would later make his fortune in Leadville.
All that is left of the original Buckskin Joe is the cemetery and its memories. Close inspection
of the tombstone dates reveal a cemetery population boom in 1861 and
1862. The cemetery, which is down the road on the right
from the settlement, also reveals the struggles of the miners and
settlers. The stone grave of young Thomas Fahey records that on
a blustery February day he left his cabin to go to his mine and did
not return. His body was found the following June.
Many of the miners were immigrants from
Europe. Images of home and echoes of their languages can be seen on
some stones. The stones and gravesites with their ornate rails and
gates exhibit a craft and workmanship that outlasted the modest
cabins and other structures in the town. The town of Alma still uses
Store, in 1940, Photo courtesy
Denver Public Library
Buckskin Joe Hotel and Dancehall in 1940
The Legend of Silver Heels
A local hero and legend emerged in the
town in 1861 -- a dance hall girl named "Silver Heels." From the day she stepped off the stagecoach atBuckskin
Joe, her beauty captivated the entire mining camp. Her real
name was never known, for the miners had long since dubbed her "Silver
Heels," perhaps for her dance shoes or her enchanting performances. In any event, the beloved Silver Heels prepared to travel on after a
few nightly performances, but when the miners showered her with gifts
and begged her to stay, she agreed.
In the winter of 1861, the deadly disease
small pox invaded the mining camp. The epidemic swept through
the town and miners and families became very ill, almost overnight.
Within a matter of days, the rutted dirt road to the cemetery became
lined with the living carrying the dead up the hillside for burial. The citizens of
Buckskin Joe sent to Denver for nurses, but none came. All who could
help did so, including Silver Heels. Especially Silver Heels.
through the deadly horror of the smallpox explosion, Silver Heels stayed
in cabin after cabin, nursing the sick, caring for the families, burying
the dead. By the spring of 1862, the worst was over, at least for the
mining camp of Buckskin Joe. In the aftermath, Silver Heels had vanished. The surviving miners searched
the entire mountain area. Her cabin was clean, yet she was gone. She had
not left by stage or horse. Some say she, herself, had contracted
smallpox, leaving her once beautiful face horribly scarred. A few
years later, it was said that a heavily veiled woman was seen in the
cemetery that many thought might have been the missing Silver Heels.
people of the area named a mountain "Mount Silver Heels" in gratitude to
this brave woman.
Legend has it that Silver Heels has never
left. Several members of the community claim to have seen the
presence of a heavily veiled woman, dressed all in black walking through
the cemetery. Carrying flowers, the once-beautiful Silver Heels has
been seen and her presence felt for over a century. The ghost
is said to vanish into the mountain air if approached. Once so
beautiful, but then scarred, she was still loved, she just didn't know it.
Another restless spirit is said to inhabit the bones of J. Dawson
Hidgepath. The man came to Fairplay to find gold and a wife, but instead
found tragedy. In July 1865, Dawson's broken, lifeless body, was found at
the bottom of the west side of Mount Boss, where he had apparently fallen
several hundred feet while trying to prospect for gold on the
Miners in Buckskin Joe
in the 1890's
Soon after his burial, Dawson's bones were discovered on the
bed of a prostitute in the town of Alma. Believing a tasteless prank had
taken place; townspeople reburied the bones in Buckskin Joe
Cemetery. Nevertheless, time after time again, the bones showed up
at the house of some "fair lady." By 1872, Dawson's bones were the
talk of the state, and people were throwing them down outhouses to get rid
of them. What really went on is almost impossible to determine today, but
whatever "force" kept Dawson's bones from staying buried is said to still
reside in the old cemetery.
Continued Next Page
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