Buckskin Joe, Colorado – Gone & Back and Gone Again

Joe Higgenbottom, the man for which the settlement of Buckskin Joe was named. Photo courtesy ghphotography

Joe Higgenbottom, the man for which the settlement of Buckskin Joe was named. Photo courtesy ghphotography

Buckskin Joe, established in 1859, was just northwest of Fairplay on Highway 9, near the present-day town of Alma, Colorado. 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.

The 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.

At its zenith, the town of Buckskin Joe sported saloons, 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 Father Dyer.

In August 1861, Horace and Augusta Tabor loaded their supplies, groceries and household merchandise and moved to Buckskin Joe. Their 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 affairs.

Buckskin 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 Leadville 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.

Buckskin 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.

Tabor's Old Store, Buckskin Joe, Colorado

Tabor’s Old Store, Buckskin Joe, Colorado

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 reveals 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 the cemetery.

The Legend of Silver Heels

Buckskin Joe Hotel and Dance Hall

Buckskin Joe Hotel and Dance Hall

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 smallpox 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.

All 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 Buckskin Joe cemetery that many thought might have been the missing Silver Heels.

Miners in Buckskin Joe in the 1890's

Miners in Buckskin Joe in the 1890’s

The 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 ghost-like 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 mountainside.

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.

The New Buckskin Joe

The "new" Buckskin Joe, Colorado

The “new” Buckskin Joe, Colorado

In the 1950s Karol Smith desired to restore Buckskin Joe but did not find the people he needed to help him in his effort until sometime around 1957. It was at this time that he met Don Tyner and Malcolm F. Brown. Brown was an art director at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and Tyner was the owner of the Royal Gorge Scenic Railway. Each was interested in the rebuilding of Buckskin Joe. It was decided the rebirth of the mining city would take place next door to the Royal Gorge Scenic Railway.

The investors purchased land approximately eight miles east of Cañon City where the town of Buckskin Joe was recreated.

Each building and structure represented the actual buildings from the original town of Buckskin Joe and all were original buildings from various ghost towns in the region. As each structure was acquired, it was dismantled at its original site, transported to the new site, and reassembled. Each structure was chosen to represent a different type of building, such as a saloon or a jail. The main townsite is a long street with another street heading at right angles between the main street and the Royal Gorge Railroad.

Restaurant-Saloon at the the "new" Buckskin Joe

Restaurant-Saloon at the “new” Buckskin Joe

Buckskin Joe opened in 1958 to the general public. The Tabor building was actually moved there from the original town of Buckskin Joe. It was the last remaining building at the time. In each case, an effort was made to maintain the atmosphere of a mining town in the mid-1800s. No modern vehicles were permitted on the streets and the dress of the inhabitants was like that worn in the “good old days.”

Until 2010, the spirit of the Old West exploded to life at Buckskin Joe Frontier Town & Railway. The park combined actual Colorado history with family entertainment, creating a truly unique experience. This authentic old west town was brought to life with hourly gunfights, some historical and some humorous, exciting live entertainment, barnyard animals for the kids, numerous buggies and wagons and one Concord type stagecoach. John Wayne was shooting movies here in the early ’70s, and as recently as 2001, the History Channel was filming a documentary entitled “The Haunted Rockies” on location.

In the summer of 2010, Karol Smith announced he was selling the tourist attraction to an unknown buyer who was more interested in the historic structures than the actual town itself. In August of 2011, it was revealed that the buyer was Billionaire William Koch, who moved most of the buildings to his private Colorado ranch.


Tabor Store at Buckskin Joe, Colorado

Tabor Store at Buckskin Joe, Colorado

©Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated May 2017.

Also See:

Ghost Towns & Mining Camps of Colorado


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