Grant News

Gothic's Ghosts

The town of Gothic got its name from a mountain.  But unlike its lofty neighbor—a stop-and-stare igneous incarnation of a medieval church—the town has no architectural pretensions.  Its sole nod to structural style is a false-front wood-frame building known as “Town Hall.”

Strictly speaking, the Town Hall never served as Gothic’s official seat of government.  In the 1880s it was a saloon, a place to relax and talk.  The libations led to deliberations, and before long, the bar became an open forum for municipal business.

Most of that business involved mining.  Prospectors rushed to Gothic Mountain in 1879 after the Gunnison News reported the discovery of “wire silver”—a type of silver ore occurring in strands or wires—a few miles north of present-day Crested Butte.  A journalist reported that “a blast was made [at the Sylvanite Mine] and these pieces of precious wires were scattered all over the shaft.  Nail kegs were used to gather them in. ” The news caused a sensation and for a brief moment, Gothic’s reputation shined like pure silver.

On June 23, 1879, a town clerk recorded “about three hundred” inhabitants in the new town.  One of them, a resident identifying himself or herself only as “E,” wrote a letter to the Rocky Mountain News saying, “Our little town scarcely four months in existence, has grown to be quite a place.  We have some 150 frame and log houses….  At present we have one hotel, three stores, a butcher shop, two stables, all of them doing a good business….  We have no gambling dens and only one saloon,” he asserted, “which certainly speaks well for the morals of our town.”

One hundred and twenty-six years later, only the saloon stands from that initial building boom.  The silver ore petered out, the miners left town, and the frame and log houses succumbed to natural demolition by harsh winter weather.  By the 1920s, Gothic was a ghost town.

Salvation came in the person of Dr. John C. Johnson, dean of students at Western State College in Gunnison.  In 1928, Johnson, his wife Vera, and three biologists founded the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, a high-altitude field station for students and scientists headquartered in Gothic.  Established to promote the understanding and protection of alpine ecosystems in Colorado, the RMBL now owns 245 acres and more than 60 structures (most of them new), including the Town Hall.

The two-story building served as a kitchen and dormitory until the mid-1980s.  Current Gunnison County resident Billy Barr stayed there in 1972.  “It was a funny place to live,” he remembers.  “Being an old building, people were constantly poking their heads in the window, looking for ghosts of the Old West I presume, finding only three motley looking college students.”

In 2002, Barr wrote a letter to the State Historical Fund supporting the RMBL’s grant request to preserve the Town Hall.  Citing his personal connection to the building’s past, he stated that “the natural fascination of people to be drawn to the past makes it important to save what little of it exists, for whatever reason it means to each individual.”

Reversing the effects of 123 winters required a complete structural rehabilitation.  Craftspeople—including one-time Town Hall ghost/college student Kevin Donovan of MB Builders, LLC—poured a new foundation, restored the walls inside and out, repaired and restored flooring, fixed doors and windows, and repaired the roof.  The State Historical Fund allocated $74,888 to the project, which closed last year.

Today, the RMBL uses the Town Hall as a visitor’s center.  Tourists no longer have to disturb college students to glimpse Gothic’s ghosts.  They can walk inside the erstwhile saloon, take a look at the restored interior, and imagine the heady days of 1879 when everything was possible, as long as you had a bottle of something good to drink and friends to share it with.