Animas Forks, one of the mining centers in the San Juan Mountains that was born out of gold fever and died when the fever ran its course, is glittering again today.
A celebration will honor both the restoration of the nine surviving buildings in the ghost town 12 miles northeast of Silverton and the 25th birthday of the Alpine Loop, 65 miles of unpaved road that links Animas Forks, Silverton, Ouray and Lake City.
The structures – four houses, the jail, a carriage house and three buildings of speculative use – are all that remain of a community that in its heyday boasted a hotel, general store, post office and newspaper.
Sweeping fires in 1891 and 1913, cruel winters at 11,200 feet elevation and vandalism took their toll.
The effort to rescue a period of mining history from the march of time has been a decades-long labor of love by community members and organizations.
Community interest has been instrumental in keeping Animas Forks alive materially as well as in memory, said David Singer, the principal of Silverton Restoration Consulting and the project manager. He did the drawings and construction specifications.
“It’s been a community stewardship,” Singer said. “In the 1970s, there was Animas Forks Day when townspeople would work on a project there. The historical societies of San Juan, Hinsdale and Ouray counties also took an interest in the project.”
The first cabin in Animas Forks, at the confluence of two draws that contribute the first water to the Animas River, was built in 1873. A decade later, the town had a population of more than 450 residents.
Animas Forks enjoyed a little more than 25 years of prosperity, but the gold and silver that put it on the map petered out shortly after the turn of the century.
Stabilization of the crumbling mining center got a boost in 1998 when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the San Juan County Historical Society joined forces to stabilize the site. A grant to San Juan County initiated restoration of dilapidated structures.
The involvement of the San Juan Mountains Association and the Mountain Studies Institute brought monitoring, maintenance, visitor services and financial support to the project.
The jail, which dates from 1882, is the oldest survivor. It is board-on-board construction – stacked planks notched on the ends, with no studs. The gabled roof also is board-on-board.
In restoring the original look to the jail, the flat roof installed 30 years ago as stopgap protection against the elements has been removed and the identifying board-on-board gabled roof will be replaced.
A series of land swaps involving San Juan County, the BLM and Sunnyside Gold Corp., ending in 2011, allowed the final restoration push in 2013 and 2014.
All entities in the project have local ties. They are BLM archaeologist Bruce Bourcy, Jon Horn from Alpine Archaeology; project manager David Singer from Silverton Restoration Consulting; Reynolds and Associates Engineering; Klinke & Lew Construction; Marcie Demmy Bidwell from Mountain Studies Institute; and Heather Bailey at the State Historical Fund in Durango.
Silverton Restoration Consulting has coordinated work carried out by Klinke & Lew Construction during the last two years. Five buildings were finished in 2013, the rest in 2014.
In general, restoration includes bringing buildings to plumb, bringing back their original look, improving site drainage, installing masonry piers and footings, replacing floor diaphragms and improving access to the sites.
Funding the work of the last two years were the Colorado State Historical Fund (grants worth $120,180 and $115,000) and the BLM (grants worth $65,000 and $30,000).
Restoration is suspended early in Animas Forks because at 11,200 feet elevation, snow can arrive in September. Only last year, the storm that brought severe flooding to Front Range communities dumped snow in Animas Forks.
Early snow was a constant for early residents, who would suspend activities and spend the winter in Silverton. In 1884, a three-week blizzard dropped 25 feet of snow on Animas Forks.
Bev Rich, chairwoman of the San Juan Historical Society, recalled that numerous community groups have contributed day labor and money for more than 40 years to preserve the ghost town.
Material support and encouragement came from outside groups, too, Rich said. She mentioned the Ghost Town Club of Colorado, a statewide group founded in 1958 that has contributed financial and on-site help.
“If we hadn’t intervened, there would be nothing but a pile of wood out there,” Rich said.