A Victorian Winter Wonderland

I’ve died and gone to Victorian heaven, I thought, as I gazed out my window at the snow-blanketed town of Silver Plume, Colorado.  There had been plenty of chances for me to die the previous day, so in fact I couldn’t be sure that I was really alive.  I’d driven my Honda Civic through a blizzard, along steep, curvy, snow-covered mountain roads for 4 hours to get here.  What possessed me to take that kind of risk?  Well that’s a story for another day. But right then it was New Year’s Day and I was snowed-in, bottled up inside of a fantasy mountain snowglobe.  

The twin towns of Silver Plume and Georgetown, along with the railroad between them, comprise the Georgetown-Silver Plume National Landmark Historic District.  From 1859 to 1878, this region was the most important mining region in Colorado.  George Griffith, for whom Georgetown is named, was the first to strike gold.  This set off a chain of prospectors, and soon the region was booming.  Ironically, the region turned out to have very little gold, but was actually quite rich in silver.  

As wealth in the area increased, Georgetown became home to doctors, lawyers, and merchants who built elegant and fabulous Victorian homes.  At its peak in 1877, the town had 5,000 residents as well as beautiful churches, hotels, newspapers, banks, taverns and stores.

While the wealthy mine owners lived in Georgetown, the immigrant workers settled into plain, small homes along the steep mountainside in Silver Plume.  A modern-day plaque along the side of I-70 reads, “There was nothing fancy about the place, but Silver Plume embodied the essence of Colorado Mining towns: optimism and opportunity, with the promise of untold fortune.”

Gold was struck in Leadville, and the rush moved southward.  Meanwhile, Georgetown and Silver Plume struggled and were slowly abandoned. The nail in the coffin was the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893.  

In the 1950’s, ski culture brought tourism to the mountains.  Highway 6 was constructed, resulting in easy motor transit to the region, and a new mayor took on the project of restoration.  A museum was erected and the homes restored to their former glory.  Today, Georgetown and Silver Plume are living tributes to Colorado’s colorful past. 

I found a surprisingly affordable room at the Historic Windsor Hotel in Silver Plume.  This quaint bed and breakfast was built in 1884 and maintains much of its traditional decor, from floral wallpaper to antique stoves and furniture.  It operates like a hostel, with a shared bathroom and common space.  For this reason it attracts lots of friendly, down-to-earth outdoor sports lovers.

The hotel has hosted many famous names, including Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.  Given its long history and creaky floors, it’s unsurprising that the hotel is frequented by ghost hunters – some of whom have claimed to receive messages from Tesla’s ghost. In the summer it’s a bridal favorite.

It was the perfect spot to shelter from a winter storm, sip hot tea and read a good book.  I enjoyed chatting with the other guests, and especially with the proprietress, who enthusiastically shared the history of the building.  

I wandered around Silver Plume, which is so small it doesn’t even have a restaurant.  The roads were icy and treacherous, so I didn’t want to drive – but I decided I could make it to Georgetown on foot.  The towns are only 2 miles apart and connected by a bicycle trail.  So I donned my new snow boots and trudged through the newly-fallen snow.  

The trail runs right along the south side of I-70, so on a nicer day the traffic would probably make it loud and annoying.  But thanks to the snow, the highway was nearly empty and it was a pleasant and tranquil experience.  

I gazed out at the stunning mountain corridor in front of me, Clear Creek far below.  The snow soaked up every sound and it was as peaceful as could be.  I smiled at the sight of snow piled on the branches of evergreens.  Animal tracks criss-crossed the trail and I caught sight of a deer munching on some foliage.

It was New Year’s Day, so the museums and quaint little shops were closed.  But no matter; I was content to wander the streets taking in the glory of the beautifully-preserved Victorian homes.  I laughed when I saw that the town park has a mini, child-size Victorian village in the playground. 

The Maxwell House

I also went for a ride on the Georgetown Loop Railroad.  It was originally used to haul iron ore, but now functions as a family-friendly tourist activity.  I purchased the “Victorian Christmas” theme package, hoping to see some carolers, drink Wassail, or maybe burn a Yule log.  Unfortunately I saw none of those things… but the passenger cars were decked out in garland and the employees wore period costumes.  The route was also decorated with holiday displays and lights.  Not bad for $30, although I wouldn’t want to pay for a whole family.

After the train ride I ate at the only open restaurant in town.  I’d planned to hike back to Silver Plume, but was starting to get blisters.  I’d tracked the day’s activities on Strava and had already walked over 8 miles, so I figured I’d earned an Uber ride back.  Surprisingly a driver accepted the request, although I’ve been told that’s unusual for the area.

I can’t think of a nicer place to get snowed in.  I got to hike through a winter wonderland and explore charming little towns decked in holiday splendor.  All in all, this was an enchanting day and a beautiful start to 2022.

All photos my own. For more information on the history of the Georgetown-Silverplume Historic district, I recommend visiting this site.

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