It’s one of the most photographed places in Colorado. The Crystal Mill, six miles east of the Town of Marble, has been recognized by its historic value both statewide and nationally.
But in comparison, what has received relatively little attention is a collection of 22 buildings nearby — a ghosttown of what was once a thriving community.
Thanks to an area landowner, that could all change. He is pursuing a preservation effort to keep the memory of the Crystal townsite alive.
The property has been privately owned for more than 100 years, but more recently the area has been open to the public to enjoy its scenic beauty. Recently, owner Christopher Cox — who operates Crystal Mountain Ranch — approached the Gunnison County Historical Preservation Commission for assistance with preserving buildings on his property, many of which were first built in the late 1800s.
“I would say 50 percent of the visitors that visit the Crystal Mill have no idea where the town is,” said Crystal Mountain Ranch spokeswoman Heather Leigh. “We were told by History Colorado that the best way to preserve the buildings is not to go building by building, but to seek a historical district designation.”
Cox is the great-grandson of Emmett Gould, a miner who learned that housing and feeding other prospectors was more profitable than trying to find silver himself. Gould fell in love with the Crystal Valley, and the town itself.
Crystal — also known as Crystal City — was established in 1880. Its population grew to more than 500 year-round residents before the advent of World War I and the crash of the silver market. By 1917, the town was all but empty.
As miners began to flee the area, Gould began purchasing land, accumulating more than 60 mining claims which were passed on to family members.
Cox eventually bought out other family members and began to allow greater access to both the historic mill and the remaining townsite.
Soon it became evident that preservation of Colorado’s history was in order. The goal is now to establish the town site as a historical district.
With the help of historic preservation commission member Justin Lawrence, the owner applied for a grant through the State Historical Fund through History Colorado and was awarded $17,000 for an assessment of the property. Metcalf Archaeology of Eagle was hired to inspect the buildings.
“It is one of the few groupings of well-preserved historic buildings that still exists in our county outside of downtown Crested Butte,” said historic preservation commission member Jody Reeser. “The owners have been good stewards of the buildings throughout the years and they are very much still in condition to be able to feel the spirit of the historic mining town that was once thriving there.”
Leigh said the buildings have never been open to the public since they were privately owned. One building, Leigh said, is an old schoolhouse built in the late 1800s which has handwriting from approximately 1910 on its chalkboard.
She also said the cemetery has been covered by avalanche debris, but consists of marble headstones with some of the more famous names in Gunnison County.
The “Crystal Club” — a club for men — still stands and once was frequented by Gunnison County legends such as Al Johnson, the mailman between Crystal and Crested Butte who made deliveries on skis. In an 1886 issue of the Gunnison Review Press, Johnson was called "the hero of the January blizzard" for his rescue efforts in Schofield during an avalanche.
He was also known for being the driving force behind a series of ski races in 1886 and 1887 held in Crested Butte, Gunnison, Irwin and Gothic. The races brought thousands of people to the Gunnison Valley by train and even captured the attention of the national press.
Today, the annual Al Johnson Uphill/Downhill Race takes place on the slopes of Crested Butte Mountain Resort and requires that racers compete on Telemark gear.
Should Crystal be named as a historical district, Leigh said grant funding will be sought to repair buildings, making them safe for the public to be able to tour. She hopes to also have students come to Crystal for archaeological digs.
“If the survey identifies what we anticipate, the potential for this townsite to become a historic district will be very strong and would be a valuable resource to the preservation of the mining history that helped build our county’s identity,” Reeser added.
Leigh agreed, holding a vision for the future.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Leigh. “There’s about 10 years of work up there, but for now, we’re trying to get this designation, and prioritize (projects.)”
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)