In 1880, a two-story brick school house was built at a cost of $30,000 and Mrs. Gage served as the first teacher. However, the town’s population dropped the same year to 2,000. One after another the principal businesses began to close, citizens departed for more promising fields, chiefly to Leadville, and to Summit and Gunnison Counties, where new mineral discoveries had been found.
On April 26, 1882, a tragic incident occurred when Sheriff Edward N. Campbell was killed. When Campbell and his deputy caught two men, George Betts and James Browning, robbing a local residence, they tried to stop them and Campbell was shot. The two robbers, who also owned a Bluff Street saloon and brothel, quickly made their escape but were caught a few hours later. An angry mob took the men from jail and hanged them from the Ocean Wave Bridge, now the Ball Flats Bridge, the next day. It was the first and only lynching in Lake City.
The Armory Hall was built in 1883, which served as an opera house and the headquarters of the Second Battalion of the Colorado National Guard, known locally as the Pitkin Guards. Upstairs, several rooms were elegantly fitted out for the elite Hinsdale Club. Today, the building is used for city municipal offices and for large community functions, recreation programs, and the community teen center. It is located at 230 Bluff Street.
When the Ute-Ulay Mine closed in 1883 a severe depression set in, leaving only a small population. It remained this way until August 1889, when the Lake City Branch of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad made its way to the town, spurring another flurry of mining activity in the area. At that time, many of the former residents who had interests there returned, the old works were resumed and the mines reopened.
The Lake City Branch had the highest trestles on the entire Denver & Rio Grande narrow gauge line. The High Bridge at Devils Creek spanned the Lake Fork of the Gunnison and was 800 feet in length and 124 feet above the river.
After the railroad’s arrival, the editor of the “Lake City Times” said:
“The town has awakened from its long sleep; new people and new enterprises are coming in at a rapid rate; outside capital is coming to the rescue, and Lake City is on the eve of a prosperity such as it has never seen before. Mines that have been practically untouched for years are now being profitably worked under the impetus given by ample shipping facilities and cheaper rates; the stores and residences that have been so long vacant are rapidly filling up, and the patient people who have endured the horrors and the hardships of business inactivity for years now wear the smile of gladness and joy.”
In the late 1880s, Clara Ogden, one of Lake City’s most famous madams, built the Crystal Palace dance hall, located in the town’s red light district. Known as Hell’s Acre, the red light district featured a concentration of saloons, dance halls, and brothels. It was located on the south end of Bluff Street near the entrance to Henson Creek Canyon.
By 1890, 20 mines were shipping ore and on one occasion the Golden Fleece Mine shipped a single car of ore valued at $50,000. In 1891, the value of production at the Ute-Ulay Mine was $400,000. Mineral extraction continued through the 1890s, with a mid-decade slump brought on by the Silver Panic of 1893.
From 1891 through 1902 production of the mines around Lake City averaged more than $500,000 per year. The town’s population was 700 in 1900. But, by 1904, the major ore deposits had been exhausted and most of the mines were closed. Afterward, the population of Lake City steadily fell until it reached an all-time low of just 91 people in 1970.
Although prospecting and intermittent mining continued throughout the 20th-century, mining remained a weak economic factor, reflected by the county’s sparse population.
The railroad continued to serve Lake City until a precipitous decrease in mining activity in the mid-1920s caused the branch to begin losing money and abandonment was attempted in 1931. However, it was initially unsuccessful due to the loud protests from the Lake City residents. The Public Utilities Commission finally allowed the Denver & Rio Grande to give up the line and the last train left Lake City left on May 25, 1933. In August, the line was bought by the owner of the Ute-Ulay Mine at Henson. The company attempted to operate the branch as the San Cristobal Railroad by using a “galloping goose” (a flange-wheeled automobile). But this lasted only a year or so before the rails were pulled and sold as scrap.
Beginning in the late 1930s, Lake City’s tourism industry began to grow and a number of historic motor courts and small guest cabins were built that continue to stand today.
Today, Lake City is called home to about 375 people. It continues to hold the county seat of Hinsdale County and is the only incorporated town in the county, which is the most sparsely populated county in Colorado.
The city was made a National Historic District in 1978 and features over 200 historic buildings. A Lake City Historic Walking Tour is made up of 34 sites with interpretive plaques. The historic structures include homes, outbuildings, barns, churches, public buildings, motor courts, and the oldest operating courthouse in Colorado. For more information and guided tours, visit the Hinsdale County Museum at 130 N. Silver Street.
Visitors find endless outdoor recreation opportunities including hiking, fishing, hunting, boating, and more. The town is known by many as the jumping off point to five of Colorado’s fourteeners (14,000′ peaks) — Sunshine, Redcloud, Handies, Wetterhorn, and Uncompahgre.
Lake City is located on the west slope of the continental divide along Colorado Highway 149, northwest of Creede and southwest of Gunnison. It can also be accessed on the Alpine Loop National Backcountry Byway from Ouray or Silverton, with a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle.
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander, August 2018.
Hall, Frank; History of the State of Colorado, Blakely Printing Company, 1895