Trip up to the mountain house with visits to a religious shrine, a mountain railroad and a silver mine plus sightings of wild buffalo and bighorn sheep
12.05.2013 - 14.05.2013 16 °C
For the first few days of my stay in Colorado we travelled up to my cousin's mountain house at Keystone in Summit County high up in the Rockies. On the way up into the mountains we stopped to visit Mother Cabrini's Shrine near Golden just off the I70 Freeway. Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini was born in Italy in 1850 and originally planned to do missionary work in China but the Pope asked her to go to the USA instead. The religious order of nuns she founded provided a lot of support to Italian immigrants and after her death she became the first American citizen to be canonized a saint by the Catholic Church.
Mother Cabrini is credited with founding 67 religious institutions across the USA and Americas. Her national shrine is in Chicago where she was based with this smaller one on a hill top on the edge of the Rocky Mountains. It amused me seeing my name in large white letters on a nearby hilltop although I am sure they should have spelt FRANCIS the female way with an 'E' rather than the male way I do with an 'I'.
Bison (also known as American Buffalo) roam right up to the fence beside the I70 Freeway out of Denver. We didn't seen any last time I visited a few years ago so I was keen to try and see them again as we made our way up into the mountains. At first it looked like I would again be disappointed but just as we decided to give up looking any further - there they were! Then a bit later it was bonus time as we passed some Bighorn Sheep on the hard shoulder, again something rarely seen.
We then passed through the 1.7 mile (2.7 kilometre) long Eisenhower Tunnel to go under the Continental Divide and entered Summit County. Summit County with its well developed ski-resorts such as Breckenbridge and Keystone is the busiest of Colorado's mountain areas. Although the local ski season had largely ended with spring just around the corner there had been a heavy fall snow only the week before I arrived so we weren't quite sure what conditions to expect.
The epicentre of Summit County is Lake Dillon (a reservoir which supplies Denver with fresh water) which was still largely frozen. Avalanche tracks could be seen on the nearby mountains where they had crashed down flattening trees in the forests below. Unfortunately there were a lot of felled trees since the last time I visited that had been lost recently to a pine beetle infestation which will take decades to recover but many had been saved by spraying. One thing that hadn't changed however was the beauty of the alpine meadows.
While in Keystone we went for a ride on the Georgetown Loop Railroad from Devil's Gate Station to Silver Plume and back again. The railroad was originally built during the local silver mining boom of the 1880s but closed down in 1939 before being re-opened by railway enthusiasts in 1984. During the summer the railroad runs 1920s steam trains which would have been a sight to see but unfortunately we were several weeks too early in the season to ride on one of them.
We were in one of the comfortable parlour cars instead of the open boxcar and had a very enjoyable ride through the mountains as the track gained more than 600 feet (183 metres) in elevation over a distance of 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometres) twisting and looping through trees and across several bridges to cope with the steep gradient. On the return trip to Georgetown we stopped at a small halt for a visit the Lebanon Silver Mine.
Work on the Lebanon Silver Mine began in 1869 and by 1876 there were 76 miners with 19 lodes under development although the really big seam it was originally excavated for 1,110 feet (335 metres) from the portal (entrance) wasn't reached until 1881. Our tour lasted about an hour and a half and took us over 900 feet into the mountain during which time we had many of the working practices and superstitions of the mine described to us and saw naturally occurring “silver pearls”, calcified hobnail boot prints and stalactites from over 100 years ago.
A lot of the miners came from the tin mines of Cornwall back home in the UK and I particularly liked the story about how the crusts of the Cornish Pasties they took down with them to heat up and eat were superstitiously left behind for the "knockers". Traditional Cornish Pasties were made by miners wives filled with beef, potato, onion and swede. They had thick crimped crusts which served as a means of holding them with dirty hands without contaminating the meal and were then discarded in the mine.. as an offering to the "knockers" or little people to not cause mischief and watch over the miners.
Afterwards we looked around Georgetown itself which is an elegant little Victorian mining town that feels like it has been left behind in time. It was founded in 1859 during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush and started to grow rapidly following the discovery locally of silver in 1864. Georgetown's main shopping street is 6th Street and the whole town is peppered with heritage listed buildings many of which have painstakingly restored such as the Town Hall/Police Station with its white bell tower, the Hotel de Paris and a couple of firehouses.
The following lunchtime before we made our way back to Denver on the I70 Freeway, there was just enough time to add another brewery to my list and sample the ale at the local brew-pub, the Dillon Dam Brewery.