In August 1882, prospector John Robinson was hunting game on Red Mountain, Colo., to feed his partners when he found a large chunk of lead and silver ore. The partners’ subsequent Yankee Girl, Orphan Boy and Robinson claims, coupled with the arrival that year of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in nearby Silverton, sparked a rush. Other area mines included the Guston and Genesee-Vanderbilt.
In January 1883, suppliers founded the town of Copper Glen at 9,800 feet in the Red Mountain Mining District. By April folks were calling the settlement Ironton, and by year’s end more than 1,000 men had settled in the area. Many lived in tents, although Ironton comprised more than 100 structures, including 12 saloons, four restaurants and a bookstore.
Ironton became the transportation center for the Red Mountain district in 1884 when Otto Mears completed a toll road between Silverton and Ouray. By 1889 Mears had built the Silverton Railroad, a narrow gauge short line from Ironton over 11,018-foot Sheridan Pass (now called Red Mountain Pass) to Silverton, where it connected to the D&RG’s Silverton Branch. Heavy snows forced Mears to stop railroad operations between January and May each winter.
Ironton’s census population peaked at 323 in 1890, with many more miners living in nearby camps. With silver production booming, Mears ran two trains a day, and the toll road saw constant stagecoach and wagon traffic. In 1892 Mears announced an ambitious plan to build an electric railroad up the rugged Uncompahgre Gorge from Ouray to Ironton. However, in 1893 the government demonetized silver and the price crashed, forcing mines to close throughout the West. Mears’ electric railroad was never constructed.
The Red Mountain district mined sulfide ores, which produced sulfuric acid when exposed to ground water. From pipes to pumps, mining equipment lasted only a few months before requiring replacement. Combined with the silver crash, production from the area plummeted, and by 1897 the Silverton Railroad had pulled back from Ironton to nearby Red Mountain Town.
In 1898 the area boomed again with the discovery of gold. In 1904 a project to drill a tunnel to drain the mines began, and three years later the Joker Tunnel was completed. Despite the renewed activity, the population of Ironton fell to 48 by 1910 and continued to drop.
The Joker Tunnel closed in 1914, and only limited mining continued in the area. In 1920 the Post Office closed, and in 1921 the railroad ceased all operations. When Milton Larson, the town’s last resident, died in the mid- 1960s, Ironton became a true ghost town.
Ironton is hidden in aspens just 150 yards east of U.S. Highway 550 at about mile marker 85, and is accessible by high-clearance vehicles. Carefully driven passenger cars can reach the town from its southernmost entrance. About a dozen structures remain at the south end of the town site. These include a distinctive circa 1891 house with bay windows known as the “White House,” “Durgy-Allen House” or “Paymaster Mine Superintendent’s House,” as well as an interesting house built in 1889 with a covered passageway to its outhouse.
Today the town is in public ownership, and preservation efforts are underway to stabilize its remaining structures. The area is very popular for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter, when it is closed to mechanized travel.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.