A “metropolis” during the mining boom of the late-1800s. The site where an infamous cannibal claimed his victims. A modern-day mecca for recreation.
Lake City, located at 8,671 feet at the edge of the San Juan Mountains south of Gunnison, is known for all of this, but until now a comprehensive “look” into the town’s history has not existed.
That’s why two local historians decided to team up for an installment in Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series focused on Lake City. The 128-page compilation of photographs and corresponding captions was produced by longtime Western Colorado University professor Duane Vandenbusche in partnership with historian and Lake City Silver World newspaper owner and editor Grant Houston.
Vandenbusche is the author of 11 books on the Gunnison Country and western Colorado, and the Lake City work is his seventh in the “Images of America” series.
However, the impetus for a partnership with Houston stemmed from a years-long attempt to encourage the Lake City historian to write a “coffee table” book along the lines of Vandenbusche’s own renowned work, “The Gunnison Country.” While the Western professor has yet to succeed in that mission, he hopes the “Images of America” book will inspire Houston to pursue the bigger project.
A lifelong Lake City resident, Houston cofounded Hinsdale County Historical Society in 1973 and was among loyal history buffs who established Lake City’s first museum in 1975.
“He knows everything there is to know about Lake City,” Vandenbusche said of Houston. “He’s got great photos. He publishes the paper. He’s the man.”
Houston was a student of Vandenbusche’s at Western in the 1970s and recalls never learning how to say “no” to his former teacher.
“Vandenbusche could do this blindfolded,” Houston said of a history book. “He felt there was a lack, however, in that Arcadia had never done one on the Lake Fork or the Lake City region.”
That’s where Houston’s impressive collection of historical photos came in — but he’s no newbie to publishing himself. Houston’s first book, “Lake City Reflections,” was a collection of columns printed in the Gunnison Country Times, and since then he’s written additional books either on his own or in partnership with others.
Once the two teamed up, the process entailed first determining chapter headings before laying out numerous photos within each chapter — with titles that include “Metropolis of the San Juan,” “The Early Years,” “Lake City Railroad,” “Ain’t We Got Fun” and others.
Lake City — located near the base of multiple 14,000 foot peaks — began as a booming gold and silver camp. As the book details, while building a toll road through the region in 1874, Otto Mears and Enos Hotchkiss found gold. The town, named for nearby Lake San Cristobal, “sprang up as if by magic following the discovery.”
An estimated 4,000 people ventured to the mining camp — made famous by rich mines such as the Ute-Ulay, Ocean Wave and Golden Fleece. However, in the early 1880s, the mining boom ended almost as quickly as it began, the authors note.
“Lake City’s mining revived periodically after 1890, but the population of Hinsdale County plummeted to the second lowest in Colorado,” the book states.
Yet, the book isn’t all about gold-seekers and long-forgotten railroad tracks. Today, the town has a year-round population of about 400 and is a haven for tourists who come to hike, ski, fish, climb, tour by jeep and relax.
While he knew Vandenbusche could cover the history of mining and transportation in the region, Houston said it was important to him to chronicle social and economic changes.
“I’m a social historian,” Houston clarified. “As a newspaper editor up here, I’m aware of the tourism history. I thought it was important not just to leave it with Victorian-era mining, because we evolved after that, starting in the ‘20s thanks to the Texas tourists.”
Houston’s father was the game warden in the Lake City area when he was young, and when his parents were out of town, they would have a town resident stay at their home to keep a watchful eye on their son.
“They would employ Lake City oldtimers,” Houston remembered of the town’s inhabitants who relayed tales of actual events. “I couldn’t tell you anything about Snow White or Bugs Bunny, but I could about Alexander Surtees who killed John Addington in 1901.”
Currently, the book can be obtained at Fullmer’s Ace Hardware in Gunnison and through the Hinsdale County Historical Society in Lake City. However, additional retailers in the area are expected to be brought on board in coming weeks.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)