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Town View 2004

 

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Main Street c1950

 

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Lake City, CO
Elevation 8,671 feet.

Lake City is an 1870ís mining town, located in a valley formed by the convergence of Henson Creek, and the headwaters of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.  The picturesque community is surrounded by majestic, 14,000 ft peaks, and tall, old growth Cottonwood trees line the highway through town.  Though known as the snow mobile capitol of the world during the winter, Lake City also brims with tourism in the summer months, with trout fishing being one of the main attractions.  The nearby location of Lake San Cristobal enables visitors to fish to their heartís content.  The lake, one of the largest natural bodies of water in Colorado, is well known not only for its rainbow and brown trout, but also for its sheer beauty.  Just below San Cristobal Lake, the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River offers very good dry, fly-fishing, and some decent fishing holes are also located right in town.  Hinsdale County produced more than ten million dollars worth of silver, gold, copper, lead, and zinc, during the boom years, so the mines of the area were some of the more extensively developed mines in the region.  The Creede Underground Mining Museum, located in 23,000 square feet of tunnels, rooms, and bays, displays artifacts and historical photos from the mining campís heyday.

 
HISTORY

The total population of Lake City never exceeded more than 5,000 at any one time, but that number of people often lived there during the boom years.  The attraction of the west, with its promise of easy riches, was tempting to many, thinking they could just scoop up a few buckets of gold or silver and live happily ever after. They had no idea of the hard ships that lay ahead of them. The rich ore was there, but even experienced prospectors and smart miners found that it took not only much grueling labor, but also some operating capitol, and a well thought out plan, in order to extract the ore.

The history of Lake City is a bit different from the ďnormalĒ mining town of its era.  Like all boomtowns, Lake City had its share of lawlessness, but was still able to avoid the usual onslaught of brothels, gambling, gunfights, and other forms of crime.  This was because from the very beginning, it attracted a generally higher class of settlers than other mining camps.  Lumbermen, ranchers, miners, professional people and businessmen saw  Lake City as a place to call their permanent home.  By 1877 the town was defined largely by its robust religious community, consisting of four churches; Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopalian, and Catholic. 

Many legendary outlaws of the era are known to have been in Lake City; Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Poker Face Alice, Bat Masterson, and Soapy Smith all road through and occasionally shot up the town, but never hung around for long.  It seems the law was a little stricter in Lake City than in most mining towns, and thus kept these criminals from trying to pull off any major crime in the area.  Not to be outdone, Lake City has managed to have some very unique crimes all the same, one of the most interesting is the tale of Alfred Packer, the human cannibal.

The factual story of Alfred Packer has never been completely separated from the exaggerated legend, but historians have agreed on a basic outline of the story.  During the winter of 1874 Packard was hired to guide five prospectors over the mountains from Ouray.  Packard, already having served some jail time in Salt Lake City for counterfeiting, really knew nothing about the rugged San Juan area, but the unsuspecting prospectors hired him readily.  It was a very severe winter.  They were soon lost amongst the giant snowdrifts in below zero temperatures.  Game was nowhere to be found and the supplies soon ran out.  By the time the men had reached the foot of Slumgullion Pass, they had already boiled and eaten their moccasins. 

Six weeks later, Packer, traveling solo, showed up at the Los Pinos Indian Agency, 76 miles from Lake City.  He said that he had lost the other travelers during a very heavy snowstorm.  He had no idea what had happened to them.  Strangely, Packer didnít look mal-nourished, and didnít even ask for any food. His first concern was whiskey.  He had lots of money to spend at the saloon, and several wallets in his pockets. 

When the Indians found strips of human flesh along Packerís trail, they formed a search party.  At the foot of Slumgullion Pass, the bodies of the men were found.  They appeared to have been killed in their sleep, and all showed very strong evidence of having been cannibalized. 

Packer took off and disappeared for nine years, but he was eventually found and tried for the murders. He said that he had come back to camp after hunting to find one of the prospectors had gone crazy and had killed the other four, and Packer had to kill him in self-defense. 

But the evidence strongly suggested that Packer had taken an ax to the men while they slept.  He was convicted and sentenced to hang.  Packer maintained his innocence, sticking to his story, and won a new trial through a legal loophole.  In 1886 he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to spend forty years in hard labor camp at Canon City. He was paroled in 1906 and died of natural causes a year later.

The site where the bodies were found is now known as Cannibal Plateau.  Lake City remembers Packer by hosting an annual Alferd Packer Jeep Tour and Barbecue, and the cafeteria in the student union at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is called the Alferd Packer Memorial Grill.

 

LAKE CITY TODAY

Lake city is a great place for fishing, as well as being the snowmobile capitol of the world.  It also draws tourists from all over the world.  In Lake City you can rent a jeep, a snowmobile, a boat, or a horse, and tour some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Accommodations range from authentic log cabins and fancy motels, as well as camping at Lake San Cristobal.  You can, fish, hunt, hike, rummage through antique shops, explore old mining camps, study rock formations, and at the end of the day dine in delicious restaurants. 

Snowmobile season starts in November.  Groups ride over the mountains from Lake City to Creede and back.  Ice fishing is also popular, when one is not snowmobiling.  You simply cut  holes in the thick ice and drop in your line, the process of which yields sizeable fish. There is also a miniature poma-lift ski run at the edge of town that the locals use.

There is no overcrowding or air pollution in Lake City, because only 4% of the land is privately owned.  The rest is either national forest or controlled by the Colorado Bureau of Mines.  In population density, Hinsdale is the smallest county in the U.S. and is often called ďtiny Hinsdale CountyĒ.

Lake City can be reached by State Highway 149 (from U.S. Highway 50 just west of Gunnison) or from Creede and U.S. Highway 160 via State Highway 149. 

 

RAILROAD HISTORY

In 1881 the D&RG built its Marshall Pass line into Gunnison and plans were on the books to extend a branch line to Lake City. However, the railroad took a while to actually build the tracks into town. After the great expansion of 1880-81 the railroad had to catch its breath and pay off some of the heavy debt accumulated by the construction. Then, in 1883 General Palmer resigned from the helm of the D&RG and the new management, Fredrick Lovejoy had a little different attitude about the railroad. The focus changed to generating income from the existing facilities and all new construction was stopped. 

During the mid 1880's, Silver was being hauled out of Lake City, but it was small amounts and that coupled with the low passenger traffic meant the railroad would still delay construction of a branch line. It wasn't until 1889, when David Moffat was running things, that the tracks were finally laid into Lake City. 

Life stayed at a quiet, peaceful level for Lake City. It never really had a boom period like so many other towns in Colorado. The mineral wealth was never that good in the area and therefore the place somehow escaped the typical "rowdy" period as so many other towns experienced. There was never a lot of bars or red light districts in Lake City. A number of Churches prospered in the area and things were good.

The railroad produced a fairly steady income from Lake City but eventually it slowed until in 1933 the line was abandoned by the D&RG. This led Mike Burke to try his hand at passenger service as the San Christoball Railroad using the old facilities. He ran a gasoline powered motor car with a Pierce Arrow body that was similar the to famous Rio Grande Southern "Flying Goose." Burke's adventure was a failure and in 1937 he ended up selling his motor car to the RGS.

 

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Lake City rail yard c1890

 

LAKE FORK BRIDGES

The trackage from Gunnison to Lake City had some spectacular spots along its way. Starting at the confluence with the mighty Gunnison River at the depth of Black Canyon, the railroad traveled through a spectacular series of bridges and canyons. At one time there was as many as four bridges at the interchange where the Lake City branch line left the main route. Two of the bridges were for the railroad and two for the highways. As the railroad wound up the valley of the Lake Fork towards Lake City, there were some great wooden trestles including one that was 113 feet high and over 800 feet long. 

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Lake Fork confluence with Gunnison c1930.

 

 

SLUMGULLION PASS

If you travel south of Lake City you go over Slumgullion Pass and can eventually arrive in Creede on the other side of the mountains. The word slumgullion also refers to a type of whale blubber refuse. But, the mountain men also knew it as a type of stew made by throwing whatever was on hand into a pot.

 

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