Minturn ~ the little town that could

Some said the name Minturn derived from “men-turn”, meaning where men turned the steam engines around for their return trip up Tennessee Pass.  Others believed the name came from “mean-turn”, a description of the last sharp turn at the bottom of the early cliff-hanging road over Battle Mountain. Neither was correct. However, each referenced the quaint town just south of Vail under the dominant rock outcropping called Lionshead, the town that keeps going.

Before 1881, Minturn was the hunting grounds for Ute Indians. In 1849, the Arapahoe Indians invaded the Ute territory. A conflict between tribes occurred in 1849 with a fierce battle continuing for nearly a week east of Two Elk Creek and farther up the mountain toward Red Cliff. Thus the name given to that area was called Battle Mountain. Mountain men tramped the area, at the time, but no permanent residents resided 
in Minturn then.

The first mention of a settlement near Minturn was around 1879 when Astor City was cited as a camp about six miles from Red Cliff along Kelly’s Toll Road which opened in 1879, starting in Leadville and continuing over Tennessee Pass and down Battle Mountain to the Eagle River Valley.  Astor City was described as a few tents and huts, a store and one saloon called The Saint’s Rest. Although the city was mentioned prior to 1879, no listing has been found in the Astor Fur Trading Company records until 1883 and 1884 when it appeared in the Colorado Business Directory and was listed with no post office and a population of 25. An 1882 topographical map put Astor City at an elevation of 7,856, and placed it on a line 39 degrees 35 minutes north latitude, which put it within Minturn city limits.

Was there such a place?
To this day, the remains of the city remain a mystery, although it is romantic to think the fur company had mountain men and traders in the Minturn area.

Robert Maloit, who as a 12-year-old came to Gilman in 1928, recalled, “As kids, we would walk down the railroad tracks to just above where the tracks split above Minturn. There were wooden remains of log buildings and a thriving rhubarb patch.”

It is doubtful if any wood footings would be found today, but perhaps the rhubarb still grows. Astor City?  Maybe.

The first listing of a permanent Minturn resident appeared in1881 when the Talamage family built a house there. The next year George Booco settled in the area and later acquired title to the land where the town now stands. Booco’s land went from the King Ranch to the Peter Nelson ranch at the edge of Meadow Mountain. Most of the town buildings were first constructed on the north side of the river where the train depot was built. However, the original town site burned down and when it was rebuilt, the town blossomed on the south side of the river.

In preparation for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad coming through town, a six-stall round house was erected. In addition, a big turntable pit was built. A cement structure about eight-feet deep, it had cement sides with one rail in the pit. A steel structure with wheels rode on the rail and would move the locomotives from yard tracks to the intended stall in the roundhouse.  Today the Turntable Restaurant is the only reminder of that facility.

When the railroad arrived in 1887, Minturn quickly developed into a booming crossroads for transportation and industry. Three passenger trains a day ran east and west carrying passengers to Glenwood Springs or Denver.

First named Kingston Station and next Booco Station, the town was renamed Minturn in 1887 for Robert B. Minturn, a shipping millionaire responsible for raising the money to bring the rails west.  By 1890, Minturn had 191 residents. The most notable were the Booco family, who gave some of their land to develop the town. Others included John Kolnig, who made his home north on the Eagle River and Peter Nelson and his wife, Johanna, who homesteaded near Meadow Mountain.

In 1904 the town incorporated with Frank Stacey becoming the first mayor. In the early 1900s, a water supply for Minturn was of major concern, and in 1913 a water line from Cross Creek was built to the town.  In 1917 sidewalks were put in place. Electricity came to town in 1928 and a central sewer system was finally installed in1955. Up until that time, people had privies over the river or they installed pipes that emptied into the river.

With the mining camps booming in Gilman and in the Homestake drainage, the Minturn ranchers and farmers had a lively business supplying those towns with goods.

In the 1920s and 1930s farmers found that lettuce grew abundantly in the cool mountain air. At Eagle Park, the valley that was later to become Camp Hale, the Eagle River was dammed in the winter and ice harvesting was a big business.

Shipped to Minturn, the ice was stored in icehouses located in the area called Smokey Town. Those handling ice were paid 35 cents an hour.

With the availability of ice for the lettuce, the Nelson Ranch helped to make Minturn the lettuce growing capital of the United States in 1920. Although lettuce production continued into the 1930s, brown rot and the Depression ended fortunes made from the vegetable. Also, the need for ice ended in the 1930s when self-contained refrigerated cars were produced. The icehouse remained vacant for many years until 1958 when it was demolished and sold for scrap. Today, you can still see the cement foundations of the icehouse on the north side of the river just before you enter town.

The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad line served mainly as a transcontinental bridge line between Denver and Salt Lake City, Utah. With a motto of, “Through the Rockies, not around them,” the railroad handled mostly coal and minerals With a grade of three percent to the top of Tennessee Pass at 10,200 feet, extra engines were stored in the roundhouse for the return trip to Leadville.  In 1913, engine No. 513 was in the roundhouse with steam in its engine. It started forward and had no emergency brake. The engine proceeded to crash through the roundhouse wall.  Town folks had a grand time having their photograph taken with the engine. Another time, a train left the station in Minturn, lost its brakes, and continued to Edwards before derailing and spewing mine tailings all over the hillside. To this day, many wonder why those tailings are in Edwards.

The railroad and its workers were a large part of Minturn’s economy in the 1920s and 1930s. To care for the extra engines needed for the uphill climb to Leadville, crews were needed in Minturn, and until 1934, Minturn was almost exclusively a railroad town. Then in 1943 the Dotsero cutoff was completed, which ran the 34 miles along the Colorado River. With this cutoff, trains running from Grand Junction could avoid climbing Tennessee Pass. The Denver and Rio Grande naturally favored the shorter, lower route, and for several years, the importance of the railroad faded in Minturn.

A memorable place in Minturn was The Saloon, which was a short way from the town depot. Originally the building had an enclosed porch in front and two big rooms inside. It was known as Pat’s Pool Hall, and run by Pat Whitmore. One room was used for storage and the other, heated by a pot-bellied stove, had pool tables. Although liquor was outlawed in Colorado in 1916, beer and whiskey flowed freely. Gambling was also illegal then, but no one paid a lick of attention to that either. Hank Elliott, who had a ranch along Gore Creek, was a bootlegger as were other ranchers along the creek who needed a cash business.

The Whitmores also put on prizefights in the 1930s, followed by a dance on Saturday nights. The fighters would train at Pat’s Pool Hall, the portable ring disassembled, and then reassembled at the Minturn Mercantile Building Bearcat Bearden, from Squaw Creek, was a favorite prizefighter.  Today, small portions of the Mercantile remain, incorporated into the Minturn Country Club.

Eventually a dentist, O.W. Randall, homesteaded along Tigiwon Road. He began pilgrimages to the Holy Cross National Monument, which was designated by President Herbert Hoover in 1928. Hundreds of pilgrims came by train to make the trek.  Those that couldn’t make it sent handkerchiefs to be carried up the trail believing that the spiritual benefit would cure ills of the owners.

With World War II on the horizon, the Gilman mine went into high production and Camp Hale was built, employing many Minturn residents.  Brothers Sig and Art Nelson sold the area known today as Maloit Park to the New Jersey Zinc Company before the company built tailing ponds. The company created a park for employees, including a golf course, picnic area, tennis courts, and a rodeo arena.

Minturn provided housing for many soldiers’ wives during its lifetime. Once the war ended, Camp Hale was no longer used and was finally dismantled in 1964. The mine shut down in 1981 and became a Superfund Site from the mine tailings seeping into the river. And in 1997, the last train passed through Minturn.

In 2008, Minturn annexed the Gilman area when Robert Ginn purchased the property with the intention of building a private ski area. With the downturn in the economy, the project has not moved forward.

Minturn has survived the arrival and departure of miners, ranchers, farmers, the railroad, pilgrimages and a potential new resort. Yet it is still a thriving community with the charm of a town that has seen changes and continues to survive in absolute quaintness.