Custer County began like many Colorado Communities, a pristine wilderness that provided Native Americans with a pleasant existence for centuries. By 1550, the Spanish Conquistadors had arrived in the Sangre de Christo Mountains to conquer lands, find riches, trade with Indians and convert them to Christianity. Then came the great explorers; Lieutenant Zebulon Pike in 1806 and Lieutenant John Fremont with renowned scout Kit Carson in 1845. Soon, mountain men and fur trappers followed, lured by the abundant wildlife in the lush Wet Mountain Valley. Some stayed to build trading posts, but no permanent settlement was attempted.
In 1869, the first pioneers, Elisha P. Horn, John Taylor and William Vorhis, arrived to claim a piece of rich ranch land. Each settled a separate corner of the valley; Horn at the foot of Horn’s Peak, Taylor on the banks of Taylor Creek and Vorhis by the future town of Dora. At that time antelope were still bold enough to chase Horn into his cabin and hungry trout seemed to snatch his bait before it hit the water.
The German Colonists
In 1870, an ambitious group of German colonists journeyed to the valley. Their leader, Carl Wulsten, promised to take them from the greasy, poorly ventilated factories, dirty alleys and cellars of Chicago to a new land and new hope. These strong, fair haired, young men and women traveled by train until the tracks ended. They continued by wagon and mule teams with a military escort from Fort Lyons. Naming their new town after Vice President Schuyler Colfax, the man who obtained the government sponsorship that made this mission possible, the group settled into “Colfax” fifteen miles west of Westcliffe.
It was believed to be the first effort of this kind ever organized in America and the new-comers were welcomed with great ceremony. There was however, considerable skepticism and Coloradoans waited for the outcome. These brave settlers started their new lives with the nearly impossible switch from factory work to farming. The mistakes made were to be expected; failed crops, mismanagement of funds and more. Perhaps the colony may have succeeded if the Homestead Act allowed groups to file as well as individuals. When a proposed amendment legalizing group filings was voted down, the Colonization Company folded. By fall of the same year, the original 100 families disbanded and the Colfax disappeared.
Some remained, finding individual success and claiming their own land. Carl Wulsten, one who did stay, worked as a mining engineer in the Rosita mines. He helped many residents of the area, including an Indian family he came across when he first arrived in Rosita. The family was mourning the loss of their son, killed in a bear attack. Wulsten set the father’s arm, broken in the struggle, and buried the boy. Carl and his wife, Gheana were well loved and widely respected. Carl passed on in 1913 and is buried in the historic Rosita Cemetery.
Rosita- “Little Rose”
Rosita’s mining history began in 1863 in Hardscrabble Canyon. Following a rumor, Si & Stephen Smith searched for the source of Joseph Doyle’s high grade silver ore. Doyle, a reputable mountaineer had died before he could cash in on his discovery. Banking on Doyle’s honesty, the Smith brothers examined the head of Grape Creek and Hardscrabble Canyon. The ore that was found contained both gold and silver and the Smith’s Mining District was formed.
The next find was made in 1870 by Daniel Baker, who showed passive curiosity and placed his ore specimens on his cabin windowsill. A dinner guest, Richard Irwin, coaxed him into revealing the discovery site and the two had the ore tested at the Denver Mint. The assay report was not encouraging, but did document small amounts of silver and gold in the sample. Irwin still dreamt of riches and returned with financing to organize the Hardscrabble Mining District in November of 1872.
Soon the town boomed and by 1875 the population had peaked at over 1,500 inhabitants. It boasted 400 buildings including a brewery for the thirsty miners. Real estate sold for a premium and the mines prospered, despite the obvious shipping challenges a remote mining camp presents.
In 1875, an illegal mine takeover by the seemingly respectable businessmen, Walter Stuart and James Boyd, sparked a violent war in the little town. Stuart and Boyd had dazzled the town with their extravagant lifestyles and great plans for a new Rosita Bank. After situating themselves quite nicely amongst the good citizens of Rosita, Stuart purchased some old worthless claims against the Pocahontas Mine. His hired gun, escaped convict Major Graham and twenty bar room brawlers, took the mine by force and dominated the town with their drinking, carousing and shooting. 100 angry citizens organized the Committee of Safety and a battle began. When the smoke cleared Graham had been dealt a fatal gunshot wound and the twenty guards scattered. Before a decision could be made about the fate of the two “businessmen”, it was discovered that Stuart had left town with all but eighty cents of the bank’s money. Walter Stuart was really Walter C. Sheridan, one of America’s most notorious bank robbers and forgers.
The folding of the Rosita Bank was the first in a series of events leading to the demise of the town. A fire in 1881 leveled most of the town, the Denver-Rio Grande finished it’s railroad tracks eight miles from the town and the new boomtown, Silver Cliff, took the county seat away from Rosita. Rosita was dying, but new life was coming to the rest of the county.
Querida – “My Dear”
Edmund Bassick had traveled the world prospecting and sailing. After squandering several fortunes, he had ended up a dirt poor laborer for the Centennial Mining company. After being denied credit for a package of pins, he and his wife seemed most deserving of the great wealth soon to come. His mining claim developed into the famous Bassick Mine. As the Pocahontas Mine declined, the Bassick’s production of gold and silver increased. People abandoned Rosita for Querida and Custer County’s rush continued. In 1879, the Bassicks sold the majority of mine stock to a group of New York investors. Their overly strict management practices lead to theft as ore was smuggled out by disgruntled employees and sold to local saloon keepers. The stolen ore was used to salt worthless mines that would be sold to gullible wealth seekers. A secret group called the Querida Protective Society was formed to facilitate the illegal fundraising and protect members from the domineering mining company. Charges were made against two Bassick officials in a threatening letter from the “Protectives.” The letter demanded the firing of the two men. The company responded with raises for each and the firing of the men who sent it. Tensions rose and a riot seemed eminent. Loyalties were split and those on the company’s side promised to “decorate the trees in the vicinity” with the society members if they did not leave immediately. Most left quietly and the remainder were shipped out in a wagon with instructions to never return. As with many mining towns the boom was short lived and by 1885 the mine had closed.
As Rosita was being deserted, an odd black cliff drew prospectors to what soon would be Silver Cliff. Robert Powell, R.S. Edwards and George S. Hafford were the fortunate ones this time. The three had gathered some of the dark, greasy rock from the low cliff and melted it into something resembling silver. It was in fact 75% silver. Horn Silver as it was called started a new frenzy. Shanties and tents sprang up, buildings were dismantled and rebuilt in Silver Cliff and the tide of hopefuls began anew. Stages and freight wagons brought businessmen, gamblers and painted ladies to the ongoing celebration. Saloons, casinos and dance halls kept a lively pace while ore poured out of the valley.
By June 1880, over 5,000 people settled in and a thousand more searched the nearby hills for their own find. Numerous mines opened with proud names such as Bull Domingo, the King of the Valley, the Gray Eagle, the Lady Franklin and the Song Bird. After a time the fever gave way to reason and a quickly formed government began to establish a more civilized society. Silver Cliff was incorporated in 1879. Elections were held and a plat was filed. Permanent buildings were erected and a more conservative group of people settled in.
Among the new respectable residents was Lew Sing Kee, a devout Christian, teacher and mentor to the troubled youth of the community. Kee earned his fortune through honest labor in his Chinese Laundry, which he operated until his death in 1927. During his 42 years in Silver Cliff, he counseled troubled citizens, taught Sunday School in the Presbyterian Church and demonstrated an uncanny rapport with children and teens. No one knows how he did it, but after a visit with him, Kee managed to reform even the worst troublemakers into fine upstanding citizens. He remains to this day a legendary example of benevolence.
In 1881, a narrow gauge railroad track was completed. Excitement built as the Denver and Rio Grande carved its tracks through the canyon of Grape Creek. Joyous banquets, speeches, balls, railroad excursions and mine tours continued for days, but some saw a flaw in the plan. The tracks stopped a full mile west of town.
Quietly, but with great pace, the new town of Westcliffe was built at the end of the railroad tracks. Famed developers Dr. William Bell, founder of Manitou Springs and General Palmer, founder of Colorado Springs, planned the town before the completion of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad line. Land was purchased and the town was named after Bell’s hometown in England. Westcliffe pulled the energy from Silver Cliff and emerged as the central town in the Wet Mountain Valley. By 1890, the gold and silver had diminished and Rosita, Querida and Silver Cliff were nearly gone. Westcliffe began to thrive as the supply center for local ranchers and farmers. Prosperity returned to the valley as the ranching history began.
The large cattle herds started to arrive in 1870 with Edwin Beckwith’s herd of 1,500 Texas cattle. He settled into the lower end of the Wet Mountain Valley while Brann & Co. moved in on the eastern side. John Lapham of Pueblo came in the fall with a herd bought “on shares” with George Chilcott. The valley was prime land for growing hay and raising livestock. A quieter boom was starting and by May of 1880, there were over 13,000 head of cattle at ranches throughout Custer County.
The most successful cattlemen were the English brothers, Elton and Edwin Beckwith, whose herd would grow to 7,000 head of cattle and 200 horses. Their 2,300 acre ranch was granted to the Beckwiths in a document signed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1874. With their prosperity, they built a magnificent mansion complete with a port cohere. Elton and his wife, Elsie traveled worldwide and their house was lavishly furnished with exotic decor. Despite the fine furnishings, Elsie lacked her husband’s enthusiasm for the country and the Beckwiths split their time between Custer County and Denver. They had one daughter who disgraced her parents by eloping with an “unsavory” man in Denver. As a result, they left their Denver home and returned to the valley.
The One Room Schools
With the influx of more permanent residents, the need for education took notice. Early education was tended to in a church in the Colfax colony and a log cabin four miles southwest of Silver Cliff. As the county grew, so did the demand for education and in the fall of 1879 the first school districts were formed. It was decided that schools should be no more than five miles apart so that each child had a school within walking distance. This resulted in twenty-four one room schools and two classrooms in private homes. The teachers recruited for these positions were required to be single and signed contracts stating that they would resign if they married. They were paid little, but often received room and board from the locals as an incentive. Morning started an hour before students arrived with the building of a wood fire and the raising of an American flag. All ages learned together, with older ones helping the youngsters. At the end of the day, the teacher would clean the school house, bring in firewood for the next day and check the chimney to make sure it was not clogged with soot.
As mines closed and the depression reached the valley, the population dwindled. World War II created a shortage of teachers as they left to work in aviation and munitions factories. Emergency teaching certificates were issued to ranch wives and young mothers, but the era of the one room schoolhouse was coming to an end.
Today in Custer County
The frenzied gold rush days have passed and the more peaceful days of ranching continue. Today, Custer County has eight Centennial Farms. Each historic farm (ranch) is still operated by the same family that established them over one hundred years ago. These families along with Carl Wulsten, Lew Sing Kee, the Beckwith brothers, the dedicated one room schoolhouse teachers and many others have shaped the county into the rare, close knit and caring community it is today.