Historic Hahn’s Peak escapes fate of Colorado ghost towns | SteamboatToday.com

Historic Hahn’s Peak escapes fate of Colorado ghost towns





Nancy Wiggins hangs laundry in the yard of her family's historic log cabin in Hahn's Peak Village on a Wednesday afternoon in August.
Tom Ross

— Nancy Wiggins stood in the yard of her family's historic log cabin in Hahn's Peak Village on a Wednesday afternoon in August performing a universal domestic chore for the second time in a week. Some might say Wiggins' chosen method of doing the laundry makes her an historic re-enactor.

Wiggins agitates her dirty laundry and that of husband, Bill, in the kitchen sink. Then she takes it outside and hangs it to dry from a clothesline strung over the bed of an antique Union Pacific Railroad luggage wagon.

Performing the labor-intensive task involves some mostly forgotten etiquette in regards to undergarments and clotheslines.

The Wiggins family's undergarments are carefully hung from the innermost strands of clothesline with less personal items of clothing, like T-shirts, hung on the outer lines.

"That way, people can't see them," Wiggins explained.

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You might do the same if you lived in Hahn's Peak, which attracts looky-loos from Steamboat Lake State Park across Routt County Road 129.

"Our neighbors, who live in the Mahler's cabin, tell us they see people peaking in the window," Wiggins said.

The rustic cabin with its vintage green mud room is hard to resist even before one learns of its history. Long the home of the unofficial mayor of Hahn's Peak, Herman Mahler, the cabin was a saloon (more than once), a gold assay office and a U.S. Post Office.

Mahler died in 1969 and is buried just a mile or so down the county road in the direction of Clark, in the quaint Hahn's Peak Cemetery. He will long be remembered for holding the community together in an era when it could have gone into decline.

The little village has a year-round population of maybe 50 souls, when you count some households outside the village proper, Hahn's Peak Historic Museum Director Carolyn White estimated.

That's in contrast to the end of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, when Hahn's Peak and the nearby mining camp of Bug Town were home to as many as 5,000 people. During the height of the gold mining era, Hahn's Peak was the seat of government in Routt County.

Gold was discovered in the area now known as Hahn's Peak in 1861, but the Civil War brought any prospecting to a halt. The search for gold resumed in 1867 when the ill-fated Joseph Hahn party found its way to the Elk River Valley from Middle Park. Placer mining, in loose rock and gravel, had grown by 1870 with the arrival of a larger group of prospectors led by Bibleback Brown, who set up sluicing operations.

The arrival of miners as employees of well-financed mining companies began in about 1905, when James Farwell and his partners oversaw the construction of a ditch to carry water from the Elk River to expand operations.

Later, more ambitious miners carved length tunnels — the Royal Flush Mine bored into the side of Hahn's Peak itself — but the gold, what little there was, was locked up tight in the ore.

Current North Routt resident Tim Magill can trace his lineage to a prominent miner. His grandfather Patrick "Paddie" Magill came to the United States from Ireland with three brothers. The brothers worked their way west working for a railroad.

Patrick Magill was the superintendent on the Royal Flush Mine that bored several thousand feet into the side of Hahn's Peak itself, and his grandson still has his logs of mining activity.

The Royal Flush, when it was productive, yielded as much as 12 ounces of silver to every ounce of gold, Magill said, but that doesn't account for the amount of rock the miners had to drill through to reach it. The problem was getting it out of the ore.

"Up here, the problem was transportation to smelters," Magill said. "The vast (proportion) of the gold ore was in the pyrite, and you had to refine it. They would condense it the best they could and then ship it. But the nearest smelters were in Encampment (Wyo.) 35 miles away."

By 1912, when Steamboat Springs wrested the county seat away, Hahn's Peak was beginning to wither. Tough ranch families trickled in, but at 8,000 feet, winters were longer in the Willow Creek Basin and outfits such as the Wheeler Ranch struggled to make it.

By the end of World War II, the future of Hahn's Peak Village appeared precarious.

The promise of Steamboat Lake

It was probably a couple of dreamers, renaissance Elk River Valley rancher and dam builder John Fetcher, and state "Wildlife Conservation Officer" Bud Hurd, who may have saved Hahn's Peak from decaying into a fallen down ghost town with their plans to build the reservoir that became Steamboat Lake.

Today, it is surrounded by one of the most popular Colorado state parks of the same name. Steamboat Lake State Park attracts more than 400,000 visitors annually, and although the prime camping season is short, an annual influx of autumn hunters and winter snowmobilers and Nordic skiers delivers a fairly steady flow of cash to the North Routt community.

It is the Hahn's Peak Historical Society that keeps the appealing history of Hahn's Peak alive for park visitors with its fine little historical museum, the historic Wither Cabin, right across the dirt street from the museum, and the beautifully preserved Hahn's Peak District 34 school house.

The Wither Cabin is considered the oldest house in the village. No one is sure of the precise date when it was built, but a contemporary family member found a copy of the Denver Republican newspaper dated Oct. 25, 1896, in the cabin. The Historical Society estimates it was built in the 1880s.

The school was built in 1911 and opened with a gala Christmas party. The last year students attended class there was 1942. Since then, the school has continued to host dances, weddings, funerals and a pre-Thanksgiving dinner. The school was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Residents still gather at the schoolhouse for a traditional pre-Thanksgiving dinner, museum director Caroline White said. If you're persuasive, you might get her to play a few measures of music on its vintage upright piano.

Marge Eardley has been president of the historical society since 2003. She said its share of revenue from .3 mills of property tax — dedicated by a vote of county residents to support historical museums throughout the county — has been instrumental in the ability of Hahn's Peak Village to preserve its history. In 2014, the total revenue generated for museums in Routt County was $293,762.

"It's made a huge difference," Eardley said.

With the help of property tax revenues, the museum was able to build an enclosed exhibit containing an original stagecoach that once linked Hahn's Peak to Steamboat and the railhead at Wolcott on the Eagle River.

But the history buffs of Hahn's Peak have also found a modest, but entrepreneurial, way to keep the money coming in. On a crystalline morning in late June, retired air traffic controller Dick Wetterberg was in a little wood lot in front of his modern cabin in the upper end of Hahn's Peak Village.

"There's no stress in Hahn's Peak Village," he told a visitor.

Wetterberg worked steadily, feeding dried lengths of pine and aspen into a mechanical log splitter. The firewood wasn't for his personal wood-burning stove but for campers at the state park. Bundled and stacked in front of the museum, they sell for $5 and have become a significant generator of income for the historical society.

History preserved in Hahn's Peak

Hahn's Peak has seen a 19th century gold strike struggle along for decades before finally petering out. It has seen the county seat taken away, but still it survives as a community thanks to a bustling state park and a relative handful of people who cherish its history.

And best of all, it's not a Colorado ghost town.

And though the town's history museum has become a cultural amenity to the park, Hahn's Peak Village has also avoided becoming "touristy." There's no salt water taffy for sale, no T-shirt shops nor any trinkets made in another country.

To be sure, new "for sale" signs pop up in front of historic cabins and modern homes at the end of most long winters. But White and Wetterberg agree that young families, as well as a fresh crop of retirees, have been moving into the community.

Devoted Hahn's Peak Village resident Charlton Stephens, who is also a member of the historical society, said the group is worried about a lack of fresh blood — young people who might take an interest in preserving the region's heritage. The ultimate fate of Hahn's Peak Village as a historic gold mining town may rest upon the willingness of a new generation to serve as its caretakers, he said.

For now, the ties to history remain strong in Hahn's Peak Village.

The Wiggins' cabin was originally "laid up in 1885" and occupied by Routt County's first treasurer William McKinley, who took on his official duties in 1902 at a time when Hahn's Peak Village was not only Routt County's most populous town but the county seat of a territory that encompassed both Routt and modern day Moffat County, stretching all the way to the Utah line.

The cabin was partially burned in the 1910 fire that destroyed the Larson Hotel next door, according to the Hahn's Peak Historical Society. The cabin was rebuilt that same year reusing burned timbers from the fire.

"My dad, Al Wiggins, bought the cabin and two lots in 1951 for $150, and he said he overpaid for it," Bill Wiggins said. "The front door was off the hinges, and animals had been using it."

Al and Bill's mother, Rilla, a longtime correspondent for the Steamboat Pilot, were content to spend summers without modern conveniences.

"We didn't get electricity until the mid 1950s, and we hauled water from the community spring and used an outhouse for much longer," Bill recalled. "Finally, in 1970, Dad drilled a well out there."

Hahn's Peak Village has always been a place where history has been preserved.

Mysterious fate of Joseph Hahn

Joseph Hahn, the German immigrant who was the namesake of 10,400-foot Hahn's Peak, first came to Colorado and prospected for gold near Georgetown in 1860. He returned and found his way to Middle Park, and in the fall of 1862, ultimately found traces of gold on the headwaters of Willow Creek in what is now Routt County.

Hahn's prospecting was interrupted by the Civil War, but he returned with two partners, Captain Way and William A. Doyle, in 1865.

They reappeared in 1866 as members of a party of 50 to 60 men, according to the Historical Guide to Routt County, published by the Tread of Pioneers Museum. The party had made a late start and failed to accomplish much before leaving the area in October. Only Hahn, Doyle and Way remained behind.

Captain Way was chosen to set out to secure winter supplies for his companions and took all the gold in camp with him. But Way never returned, leaving Doyle and Hahn to survive on wild game.

The two men had grown desperate by the third week in April and set out on snowshoes in a vain attempt to reach civilization. Doyle was rescued by three men near the confluence of the Blue and Colorado rivers near present day Kremmling. But Hahn had collapsed and died on the banks of Muddy Creek on April 30, 1867.

Hahn's remains weren't buried near the spot where he had fallen until November. But no traces of the grave site, reportedly marked by a broken snowshoe, remain. And Way never explained himself.

Sheriff captures Wild Bunch outlaws

Outlaws Dave Lant and Harry Tracy, members of the famed Wild Bunch, known to hide out at Hole in the Rock in southern Wyoming, escaped from the Utah state penitentiary in spring 1898 and headed toward wide open Brown's Hole in Northwest Colorado.

Along the way, they wantonly killed two men, Willie Strang and Valentine Hoy. The sheriff from Vernal, Utah, apprehended the two men along with other outlaws, and as Hoy was killed in Colorado, the two fugitives were turned over to Routt County Sheriff Charlie Neimann.

The sheriff took the suspected murderers to the jail in Hahn's Peak known as the "bear cage." Tracy and Lant languished in separate cells in Hahn's Peak until March 24, 1898. On that morning, Lant succeeded in breaking through to Tracy's cell.

When Sheriff Neimann entered with Tracy's breakfast, the fugitives ganged up on him. Neimann was struck over the head and fell unconscious to the floor. The prisoners took his keys, unlocked the cell door and took off on foot, but not until they gave him a good beating, stole his cash and tied him to the bed.

When Neimann came to, he called for help, the lock was pried off, and he wasted no time pursuing the escaped prisoners. He followed their trail to Steamboat, where he boarded the stagecoach for Wolcott. Along the way, two men flagged the stage down seeking a ride. Tracy and Lant walked right into Neimann's trap, and this time he took the prisoners all the way to Aspen where the jail was more stout.

The resourceful outlaws escaped once again, this time after Tracy whittled a fake gun from wood and wrapped it convincingly in tin foil. He used the "pistol" to fool the jailer into releasing the outlaw and his partner.

If you want to read the full account of how Routt County Sheriff Neimann recaptured the violent outlaws, look for Charles Kelly's book, "The Outlaw Trail: A History of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch," University of Nebraska Press.

Hahn’s Peak columnist Rilla Wiggins

Hahn's Peak resident since the 1950s and faithful Steamboat Pilot correspondent Rilla Wiggins was a naturalist at heart.

Similar to the columnists from South Routt and Hayden, she was eager to report social happenings and the comings and goings of neighbors' relatives. But Rilla delighted most in recording the blossoming of the wildflowers.

She reported on an uncommonly robust wildflower season in the July 16, 1997, edition of the newspaper.

"There are huge clumps of harebells along the highway with great long stems filled with much bigger bells than usual," she reported. "Just spectacular!"

Hahn’s Peak fire lookout

The historic Hahn's Peak fire lookout has fallen into disrepair, but help is on the way.

Denver-based HistoriCorps Colorado is teaming up with the U.S. Forest Service, Historic Routt County and the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps to rebuild the fire lookout, which has not been in use for decades. The roof, stone masonry and window portals will be rebuilt using pioneer techniques and indigenous materials.

Work is tentatively scheduled to begin in early September. Former Steamboat Springs resident Townsend Anderson, who was instrumental in the restoration of the historic More Barn and adjacent Yock Cabin here, is the executive director of HistoriCorps.

For more information and volunteer opportunities, visit historicorps.org/hahns-peak-fire-lookout.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

Mysterious fate of Joseph Hahn

Joseph Hahn, the German immigrant who was the namesake of 10,400-foot Hahn’s Peak, first came to Colorado and prospected for gold near Georgetown in 1860. He returned and found his way to Middle Park, and in the fall of 1862, ultimately found traces of gold on the headwaters of Willow Creek in what is now Routt County.

Hahn’s prospecting was interrupted by the Civil War, but he returned with two partners, Captain Way and William A. Doyle, in 1865.

They reappeared in 1866 as members of a party of 50 to 60 men, according to the Historical Guide to Routt County, published by the Tread of Pioneers Museum. The party had made a late start and failed to accomplish much before leaving the area in October. Only Hahn, Doyle and Way remained behind.

Captain Way was chosen to set out to secure winter supplies for his companions and took all the gold in camp with him. But Way never returned, leaving Doyle and Hahn to survive on wild game.

The two men had grown desperate by the third week in April and set out on snowshoes in a vain attempt to reach civilization. Doyle was rescued by three men near the confluence of the Blue and Colorado rivers near present day Kremmling. But Hahn had collapsed and died on the banks of Muddy Creek on April 30, 1867.

Hahn’s remains weren’t buried near the spot where he had fallen until November. But no traces of the grave site, reportedly marked by a broken snowshoe, remain. And Way never explained himself.

Sheriff captures Wild Bunch outlaws

Outlaws Dave Lant and Harry Tracy, members of the famed Wild Bunch, known to hide out at Hole in the Rock in southern Wyoming, escaped from the Utah state penitentiary in spring 1898 and headed toward wide open Brown’s Hole in Northwest Colorado.

Along the way, they wantonly killed two men, Willie Strang and Valentine Hoy. The sheriff from Vernal, Utah, apprehended the two men along with other outlaws, and as Hoy was killed in Colorado, the two fugitives were turned over to Routt County Sheriff Charlie Neimann.

The sheriff took the suspected murderers to the jail in Hahn’s Peak known as the “bear cage.” Tracy and Lant languished in separate cells in Hahn’s Peak until March 24, 1898. On that morning, Lant succeeded in breaking through to Tracy’s cell.

When Sheriff Neimann entered with Tracy’s breakfast, the fugitives ganged up on him. Neimann was struck over the head and fell unconscious to the floor. The prisoners took his keys, unlocked the cell door and took off on foot, but not until they gave him a good beating, stole his cash and tied him to the bed.

When Neimann came to, he called for help, the lock was pried off, and he wasted no time pursuing the escaped prisoners. He followed their trail to Steamboat, where he boarded the stagecoach for Wolcott. Along the way, two men flagged the stage down seeking a ride. Tracy and Lant walked right into Neimann’s trap, and this time he took the prisoners all the way to Aspen where the jail was more stout.

The resourceful outlaws escaped once again, this time after Tracy whittled a fake gun from wood and wrapped it convincingly in tin foil. He used the “pistol” to fool the jailer into releasing the outlaw and his partner.

If you want to read the full account of how Routt County Sheriff Neimann recaptured the violent outlaws, look for Charles Kelly’s book, “The Outlaw Trail: A History of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch,” University of Nebraska Press.

Hahn’s Peak columnist Rilla Wiggins

Hahn’s Peak resident since the 1950s and faithful Steamboat Pilot correspondent Rilla Wiggins was a naturalist at heart.

Similar to the columnists from South Routt and Hayden, she was eager to report social happenings and the comings and goings of neighbors’ relatives. But Rilla delighted most in recording the blossoming of the wildflowers.

She reported on an uncommonly robust wildflower season in the July 16, 1997, edition of the newspaper.

“There are huge clumps of harebells along the highway with great long stems filled with much bigger bells than usual,” she reported. “Just spectacular!”

Hahn’s Peak fire lookout

The historic Hahn’s Peak fire lookout has fallen into disrepair, but help is on the way.

Denver-based HistoriCorps Colorado is teaming up with the U.S. Forest Service, Historic Routt County and the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps to rebuild the fire lookout, which has not been in use for decades. The roof, stone masonry and window portals will be rebuilt using pioneer techniques and indigenous materials.

Work is tentatively scheduled to begin in early September. Former Steamboat Springs resident Townsend Anderson, who was instrumental in the restoration of the historic More Barn and adjacent Yock Cabin here, is the executive director of HistoriCorps.

For more information and volunteer opportunities, visit historicorps.org/hahns-peak-fire-lookout.