Ghost Stories

Nostalgic call of the Old West leads to remote Rocky Mountain mining camp
travel, lifestyle, history, culture
Written By Adam Van Brimmer
Photography By Matthew Stephan

The saloon’s scarred bar stands as the Dunton, Colorado, census report. Carved into the room-length counter are hundreds of names, some going back nearly 130 years. The handles belong to miners, cowboys, hippies, bikers and at least one notorious outlaw.

Local lore holds that Butch Cassidy left his mark on the saloon’s altar one summer night in 1889. He holed up in Dunton, a small mining camp located along the banks of the West Dolores River in the Colorado Rockies, to hide from a posse. He bellied up to the bar—and put knife to wood—to celebrate his robbery of the San Miguel Valley Bank, the first heist of Cassidy’s storied criminal career.

“We know he robbed the bank in Telluride and escaped over the mountain and that he hid out somewhere,” says Ramon Serrano, the saloonkeeper. “Dunton is just over the mountain from Telluride and was small and pretty inaccessible. Seems like a logical spot to hide.”

Every Old West ghost town needs a storied specter, and Cassidy is Dunton’s. Yet the town’s nod to the kitschy romanticism of a long-embellished era ends with the crudely carved Y in Butch’s family name.

Want staged gunfights every hour on the half hour? Try Tombstone or Dodge City. Long to pan for precious metals in salted creeks? Head to Goldfield or Silverton. Desire a more authentic peek into America’s frontier past? Visit the look-but-don’t-touch museum towns of Bodie, California, or Grafton, Utah.

Dunton is for travelers searching for something more than a T-shirt. The town is now a resort with cabin accommodations for 44 guests, a saloon that doubles as a dance hall and dining room, a library, and a bathhouse for the hot spring that bubbles out of the earth at the edge of the valley.

Purists might nitpick the details of the restoration and modernization of Dunton. But for those like Erik Smith, who as a child snuggled in his grandfather’s lap to listen to readings of Louis L’Amour novels, a few days at Dunton is a true Wild West experience.

The Old West wasn’t all gunfights and poker games, after all.

“This is probably a much more accurate portrayal,” Smith says. “More charming, for sure.”

Wild History

A fascination with the Old West is ingrained in generations of Americans and Europeans. Novelists like L’Amour, Zane Grey and German author Karl May, and films starring John Wayne and Clint Eastwood spur the imagination with tales of the Wild, Wild West.

Beyond book pages and the silver screen, though, the Old West has largely been lost. Trading posts located along transportation routes grew and evolved through the years and today are modern towns and cities. The rest were abandoned once the mines played out, the fields dried up, or new roads opened.

Dunton was founded where the West Dolores River cut a rare flat spot through the mineral-rich San Juan range of the Rockies. The camp sits at an elevation of 8,800 feet and the surrounding peaks, known as “14ers,” stretch to 14,000 feet. Mine shafts plumb the depths of the surrounding mountains. Gold and silver claims dubbed Smuggler, Brooklyn, American and Emma attracted prospectors beginning in the 1880s.

The Emma mine turned Dunton into a tiny boomtown. Located a quick horseback ride downstream from the camp, the Emma was developed by East Coast investors, with the ore moved across the valley on mine carts and out of the mountains by wagon or pack animals. The nearest rail connection passed through the valley 9 miles away.

Richer strikes elsewhere eventually led to the Emma’s closure and Dunton’s abandonment. The hillside above the mine’s entrance was dynamited to seal off the shaft. A pile of boulders and a solitary spruce tree perched precariously on the mountainside mark where Dunton’s original residents reported for work each day.

Two Duntonites refused to take their pickaxes and move on once the Emma closed. Joe and Dominica Rosario liked the neighborhood so much they bought the whole town in 1918. They leveraged the nearby hot springs and turned Dunton into a dude ranch and mineral spa, beginning Dunton’s history as a vacation getaway. Hippies and nudists made Dunton into a commune in the 1970s. A group of Hell’s Angels motorcyclists moved in later that decade and transformed Dunton into the lawless, Wild West outpost it never was.

The town’s location was too remote even for the biker gangs, though. By 1990, Dunton was a ghost town, waiting to be rediscovered by the heir to a German household products fortune and his Austrian collaborator.

The duo bought the town and most of the surrounding valley in 1994 for US$1.2 million. Almost a decade later, they debuted their vision of an Old West ghost town. The reinvented Dunton in no way resembled what one would expect from a pair raised on Karl May novels who once moonlighted as Hollywood producers.

“What struck me the first time I saw Dunton was its authenticity—the Old West was still all there,” says Christoph Henkel, Dunton’s co-owner along with partner Bernt Kuhlmann. “We didn’t have to do anything other than not change it.”

Town and Treasure

Dunton retains a 19th-century charm. The county road that passes by the town is dirt and gravel and sees more elk, deer and cattle than cars. The town thoroughfares are closed to vehicles, and there are no tacky observation decks from which to admire the waterfall on Dunton’s edge or the meandering West Dolores.

Electricity is new to the canyon, courtesy of Henkel and Kuhlmann. Mobile phones are nothing more than glorified alarm clocks, as cell service ends near the foot of the West Dolores valley. GPS devices are useless in the narrow gorge.

Henkel and Kuhlmann restored and modernized the abandoned buildings on site and brought in period cabins they located elsewhere. They filled the library with an eclectic collection of literature, including a complete set of May novels written in German.

The proprietors stocked the West Dolores with trout, built stables for horses, and carved hiking trails through the surrounding mountains. Originally envisioned as an anchor for a vacation home community, Dunton’s charm and beauty eventually led its owners to alter their plans. The resort opened in 2001.

“The longer we were there, the more we realized how terrible it would be to have all these new houses and people around the town,” Henkel says. “We decided to use it as a family and friends retreat for several weeks a year and rent it out the rest of the time.”

Dunton’s authenticity does not extend to the rough, frontier lifestyle of past residents. Visitors soak away their troubles in the hot spring waters piped to several pools on the property, including one in a cozy bathhouse complete with fireplace. The culinary delights and house wines, made from grapes grown locally at Sutcliffe Vineyards, rank Dunton among the best food lover’s hotels in America, according to bon appétit magazine.

For the outdoorsman, Dunton is a playground. The West Dolores River teems with trout and passes close enough to town a fly fisherman can cast from the porch of one of the cabins. Downstream, the river snakes through a meadow before trickling through a narrow stretch of the valley. Both sections are part of the Dunton property. Hiking, snowshoe, cross-country ski, mountain bike, fat-tire bike and horseback riding trails extend like spokes from Dunton’s main street.

Fly-fishing and ski excursions, snowmobile and rafting tours and rock-climbing outings can be arranged through Dunton’s partnerships with nearby outfitters Telluride Outside and San Juan Outdoor School.

The area’s gold deposits may be played out, but Dunton remains one precious ghost town.

“We didn’t come for a ghost town experience, we came for the peace, quiet and the hot springs,” says Marcy Higbie, a Houston, Texas, resident who visited Dunton along with her adult daughter. “They have a little something for everyone.”

Old West Haunts
Go Back in Time in These Ghost Towns

Where: Bodie, California

Vibe: Arrested Decay

Allure: Prospectors founded this gold mining boomtown on the edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1859. The population swelled to 10,000, and the town was so lawless its residents were known as “Badmen from Bodie.” The mines played out in the early 1900s, and Bodie was all but abandoned by 1932. The California Department of Parks and Recreation turned the town’s remnants into a state historic park in 1962. Today, visitors stroll the deserted streets and peek into buildings preserved as they were left.

Where: Bisbee, Arizona

Vibe: Cosmopolitan

Allure: This copper mining capital smacks of commercialism, with its mine tour and its “museum of the bizarre.” Yet turn-of-the-century Victorian architecture and a vibrant arts culture balance out the kitsch. Bisbee is located in the Mule Mountains near the Mexican border and was once known to be among the richest mineral sites in the world. Miners chiseled more than 8 billion pounds of copper from the surrounding hills.

Where: St. Elmo, Colorado

Vibe: Time Warp

Allure: This railhead town in the Sawatch Mountain range is still home to a handful of residents. The Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad moved freight through the area and nearby mines produced silver, gold, copper and iron. The railroad abandoned St. Elmo in 1926, and most of the inhabitants followed. Private owners have maintained the wooden sidewalks and many of the town’s buildings, including a general store, church, school building and cabins, over the years.

Where: Gold Point, Nevada

Vibe: Real and Rough

Allure: Cattle and silver, not gold, put Hornsilver—later renamed Gold Point—on the map in the late 1800s. The boomtown was more of a tent city and went bust when silver prices bottomed out. Two Old West aficionados began buying up the abandoned wood-frame buildings in the 1960s and today operate a bed-and-breakfast and museum, and stage parties and Western shows. The B&B is a collection of rustic, simply furnished cabins.

Where: Virginia City, Montana

Vibe: Living History

Allure: This town’s residents dress much the same today as they did in the 1860s and reenactments and player shows are part of the daily routine. The 300-structure city was founded after prospectors passing through the area discovered gold in a creek along the Alder Gulch. An heir to the General Mills fortune, Charlie Bovey, bought many of the structures starting in the 1940s, restored them and turned Virginia City into a living history exhibit. The state of Montana bought the properties from Bovey’s son in 1997 and carries on the legacy.

Where: Frisco, Utah

Vibe: Archeological Ruins

Allure: Once compared to Sodom and Gomorrah, this mining town attracted pioneers who considered gunfighting a sport. A massive cave-in closed the silver mine in 1885 and led to the town’s abandonment. Utah State Route 21 passes along what’s left of the town, a series of ruins highlighted by five beehive-shaped charcoal kilns, crumbling buildings and an eerie cemetery.

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