Friday, June 24, 2011

Tin Cup, Colorado - Mining Gold on Several Levels

It’s been several years since my husband and I have been up to Tin Cup. The old mining town in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain lies above Gunnison at 10,157 feet elevation. Some of the poor pictures I took way back in October of 1991 are shown here. If we manage the excursion later this summer, I’ll compose better shots--a repost would be worthwhile, at least in my unbiased opinion. LOL

Big Horn Sheep above Gunnison near Taylor Park Resevoir
I learned about the town through my husband, who hunted the area with his brother, father, and friends from the 1950s through the 1990s. The first time my husband took me, I fell in love with the town, its history, and its unique cemetery.

The last time we visited, Tin Cup sported a couple businesses. The most notable was Frenchy’s which is a restaurant housed in an old log cabin I’m sure boasts of a colorful, if not dramatic past as the most famous of the town’s early saloons. Today’s Frenchy’s is said to serve up a delicious burger. I wish I could verify that. Unfortunately, a closed sign has always been prominently displayed whenever we drove past.

Research sources often claim Tin Cup is a ghost town. However, the real truth is that those few hardy year round residents and the additional summer occupants who desire the peace and quiet that blanket the high country have cleverly refurbished original log cabins so it appears nothing has changed in 150 years.
Capt. Zebulon Pike
Captain Zebulon Pike reached the general area in late December 1806 during an exploration of territory acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. (Christmas In The Old West - Sweetheart post December 18, 2010) But, it wasn’t until the late 1850’s that this picturesque valley was settled by white men, disheartened prospectors who hadn’t realized their dreams of riches in California’s gold fields and who paused for rest on their long trips back east. The story goes that in October 1859, one such young man, James Taylor, an 18 year old from Georgia, took a sip of water from Willow Creek and discovered gold in the bottom of his tin cup. He promptly dubbed the area Tin Cup Gulch. Obviously, Jim was neither creative nor romantic. Other versions of this story time the incident in 1861 and/or add two friends with Jim. I also found reports that attributed the town’s name, not to a profitable sip from a tin cup, but to the tin cup being used as a storage vessel for a lucky prospector’s poke of gold dust while he headed out of the valley to parts unknown.

Although it may never be absolutely certain which version inspired the name, Tin Cup Gulch seemed to remain unknown by most until the 1870’s. Strikes of high grade gold and silver in 1878 drew adventurous souls to the area and the town of Virginia City was born in March 1879. The following year, Virginia City census counted 1,495 inhabitants. Maybe the growth spurt started the trouble, maybe something else, but, whatever it was, Virginia City’s citizens found their hometown increasingly confused with Virginia City, Nevada and Virginia City, Montana. I, for one, am glad they officially changed the town’s name in July 1882 to simply Tin Cup, minus James Taylor’s descriptive “Gulch” attached.

Tin Cup boasted of a population of 6000 in 1882, a number that easily supported the 20+ saloons in town and made it lucrative for some entrepreneurs to ski or snowshoe out for supplies and then unload their bounty to the highest bidders upon return. Declared one of the top three of Colorado’s wildest, unruliest mining towns, Tin Cup quickly found itself taken over by an underworld of cutthroat gamblers. The gang hired and controlled local law enforcement to their benefit, for unsuspecting visitors and settlers were lured by the façade of law and order. It was only after being fleeced of their money and/or valuables that the victims wised up and left--if they were alive to do so. This dismal history wore on the upstanding men hired as fronts. Colorado’s Historical Society states the first one quit, the second was fired, the third was gunned down, the fourth was shot by a gambler, the fifth quit and became a preacher, the sixth went insane, and the seventh was shot.

Which brings us to my favorite part: Tin Cup’s cemetery. It’s divided into four parts.

Protestant Knoll lies to the north. Jewish Knoll sleeps to the east.

Catholic Knoll occupies the center. Boot Hill Knoll to the west still sports a few intriguing markers.

The epitaph on Black Jack Cameron’s grave, located in the southeast corner, reads “He drew 5 aces.” Another is marked Pass Out/Dance Hall Girl. How can you not wonder, “What if...?”

Tin Cup’s eighth marshall miraculously finished his term. I’m unaware of the exact timing of the town’s string of men of the law. However, I suspect the eighth’s luck held because of Tin Cup’s decline to around 400 citizens as mines played out about 1884. The shrinking town clung to life though, installing fire hydrants in 1891, a few of which remain. The local post office closed in 1918.

Sandra Crowley

CAUGHT BY A CLOWN, a spicy romantic suspense about a spontaneous freelance journalist on a mission of mercy who finds herself entangled with a methodical undercover agent out to settle a score.
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  1. Hi all, I hope my memories and bit of history on Tin Cup will encourage to visit there; it's well worth the trip.

  2. SANDR--this is a wonderful story. Personally, I love the name Tin Cup. I seems to suit the area to a T. You had so many little stories in there, you could write a novel around each one!
    I've never been there, and haven't been to Colorado for many years.We need to go back, for sure.
    My favorite headstone? "He drew Five Aces."

  3. Sandy, I would love to see Tin Cup. We visited Purgatory once and I was fascinated. We were there on July 4th and there was still snow on the ground and it was 37 degrees. I decided that would make a lovely place to summer. NOT winter! Thanks for sharing.

  4. I always appreciate your comments, ladies. Hope you get up this way some day.

  5. I'd love to visit Tin Cup some day. They certainly are alive with stories and characters. Thanks for sharing it all. This just proves that the best kind of stories are the ones that really happened.

  6. Yes, real stories are often more unusual than fiction.

  7. Sandra--interesting info on Tin Cup--never heard of the town. I'd love to see it one day. The cemetery would be fun to see, too, the name "Boot Hill" is sure used a lot in the Old West :-)

  8. My grandmother was born in Tin Cup. The house she was born in still stands. My great-grandfather is buried there.


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