Boom. Bust. Boom. Bust. This, said Grant Houston—Lake City historian and owner of the local paper—was largely the story of the city prior to the steady rise in tourism that began in the 1920s and 30s. Although Lake City’s mining heyday was brief (1876-77) it’s population at that time, four thousand, was ten times what it is today. Now few mines remain active. But on a beautiful summer Sunday like today, the surrounding mountains look down on a town lively with both tourists and residents: a few take softball practice in the park; cafes and restaurants enjoy a steady flow of clientele; bicycles, motorcycles, and Jeeps pass each other on the streets; and a laughing crowd of parishioners tumbles out of the picturesque Presbyterian church.
Grant led us through a tour of downtown, imparting to us a fraction of his vast knowledge of the town’s history and architecture. Perhaps one of the most important things we learned from him was that this is a community that, ever since its inception in the 1870s, has maintained a deep sense of pride throughout its ups and downs. Unlike some makeshift mining towns, Lake City was a place where people intended to stay. Evidence of this attitude lines the very streets: majestic cottonwoods planted over a hundred years ago form shady promenades, the wind sighing through their leaves and tossing around remnants of this year’s snowy seeds. You don’t plant trees if you don’t intend to make a place of where you live, a place that grows and changes as you do.
After our tour, we drove the winding three miles of dusty gravel road to the site of the Ute Ule mine, named after the area’s first inhabitants, the Ute Indian tribe. (The first prospectors were trespassing, but they quickly convinced the government to buy the land from the Utes.) It is a hauntingly beautiful place. The mountains, the reddish earth, the blue-green river, the scent of wild roses blooming along a dry, rocky hillside. Layered over that, a sunken roof, shattered windows, crumbling buildings still filled with stuff dating from various decades. Tall wooden structures, once part of the mill, looming over the rushing river below an old dam. It all looks both precarious and settled—like the structures have grown into and out of the landscape, while the landscape, the river and rocks and scrub, has slowly begun to digest it.
I walked past an open mine shaft with the date 1926 etched above it. A wide exhalation of cold air flowed out of its dark mouth. I looked up at the cliff face, and suddenly I saw what my eyes hadn’t yet picked out of this complicated landscape: the mountain pocked with holes, all of them, like this one, breathing.