The tall tales surrounding Buckskin Joe, a historic settlement that has lived at least three lives.
Ghost towns are real, physical places, but they always strike me as being more about the myth of the place than the buildings. Walking through them, it’s almost impossible to resist imagining what must have happened there, to picture the lives of the people who built those now-dilapidated buildings, and to wonder why they left.
Maybe it’s because of their emptiness. The mind wants to fill in those blank spaces, to make a dead settlement feel alive again. Maybe it’s because unlike “living” towns, they have an undeniable endpoint, which makes you ask, Why? and What happened?
Often, with just a little research it’s possible to dig up plenty of stories about a ghost town, but they tend to carry with them unique twists. Local legends and personal flairs echo across generations to distort the real history, and those tales continue to impact how we understand the history of the American West. That is exactly what’s happened with the strange—and ongoing—tale of Buckskin Joe.
The Man and the Myth
The origin story of Buckskin Joe—a hamlet that sprung up in the nineteenth century in what is now Park County— begins in a way very much like many other mountain towns in Colorado: Somebody struck gold.
The original “Buckskin Joe” wasn’t even a place, but a man. His name was Joseph Higginbottom and extremely little is known about him, except that he was a Canadian, Black or mixed-race fur trapper and gold panner in the Colorado Rockies. Not long after the Pikes Peak Gold Rush began, and most likely during the winter of 1860, “Buckskin” Joe Higginbottom found himself in the mountains just north of South Park, near modern Fairplay.
According to local legends, Joe went hunting on a cold winter day. While shouldering his rifle at his quarry, he slipped on a patch of ice and his shot went wide. It scared off his target, but Joe was astonished to find that the bullet had struck a nearby rock face, stripping away the surface and revealing a glimmering vein of gold.
This story is so fantastic that you can practically smell the campfire around which it must have originated, and the scent of liquor and chewing tobacco on the breaths of the early gold miners retelling it over and over, each time making the hunt more dramatic—sometimes it’s a deer; maybe it’s an elk, moose, mountain lion, or even a bear. And you can almost hear the Ennio Marconi music swelling as the shimmering golden light reflects onto a gruff mountain man’s face.
The truth is almost certainly more mundane than that, but the truth wasn’t the point of retelling this story. It must have made every trapper’s and prospector’s heart swell with vicarious joy and not a little bit of envy. Everybody wanted to be that lucky. It was nice to hear that someone was, at least once.
A little mining camp sprung up alongside the shore of the nearby creek as prospectors poured in to stake claims. Mister Higginbottom was still there in the early days, and the camp was known as “his,” earning the moniker: Buckskin Joe’s. At some point, somebody dropped the possessive “s” and Buckskin Joe was here to stay. The population flashed in the pan in the way mining towns tended to do at that time, and it boasted about 5,000 residents by 1861.
By this point there seems to have been a general consensus among the residents that their home was becoming a proper destination and, as far as town names go, Buckskin Joe lacked something. So when it came time for a post office to open in late 1861, it did so under the name Laurette. (There’s plenty of speculation about how that name came about, but one possibility is that it was a combination of the names of two women in the camp: Laura and Jeanette Dodge.)
It doesn’t seem like the new name really stuck. The town site is just as often referred to as Buckskin Joe in documents from that time period—and even a few decades later. Whatever you call it, this isolated boomtown was one of Colorado’s earliest success stories and, as the gold kept flowing, the workers kept coming.
New residents threw up shops and saloons and other businesses, including some names that might be familiar to Colorado history nerds: Horace Tabor, the famous silver mining magnate of Leadville, opened his first general store in Buckskin Joe in 1860, and the ski-wearing, itinerant preacher Father John Lewis Dyer included the little town in his circuit. The town was even briefly made the county seat of Park County and a courthouse was erected near the center of town. It was during this time of prosperity that Buckskin Joe’s most famous legend arose about a woman whose name we don’t even know.
The Ballad of Silverheels
The tale of Silverheels is a complicated one that is both extremely easy and frustratingly difficult to recount. There are so many variations to this story that it’s almost impossible to get a bead on the original narrative, and each one is a little more unbelievable than the last.
The stories do seem to agree that Silverheels was an entertainer employed by the local saloons. She danced for wages and maintained a mysterious facade: According to most of the tales, she never told anybody her name, and, in fact, wore a mask or veil of some kind so that no one even saw her face. As a result, the town came to know her as Silverheels, after the silvery shoes she wore while dancing.
Silverheels could only have been in town for a short time before the smallpox came. Disease was a constant threat in isolated mining towns. People were often living in rough conditions, and the nearest doctors were far away, so when the first case of smallpox struck Buckskin Joe in late 1861, it spread quickly. Most of the miners refused to abandon their claims and seek respite in other locations, and as a result many of them became deathly ill—and there were few people to take care of them. One of those who did was Silverheels.
According to lore, Silverheels remained in town, getting food and supplies for the sick and helping to tend to them. Some say she even produced large sums of money—either saved up from her time dancing, or from some unknown source—to bring a doctor to town. How many died is unknown, as very few records from Buckskin Joe still exist, but it is said to have been a harrowing time.
By the spring of 1862 the worst had finally passed, and those who remained in the town remembered the diligence of Silverheels. The miners set out for her cabin to thank her (and the way some tell it, carrying a gift of $5,000), but when they arrived they found her cabin immaculate—and empty.
Some say Silverheels had caught smallpox and died of it somewhere on the mountainside. Some say she contracted the disease and survived, but was so scarred by pockmarks that she could no longer make a living as a dancehall girl (despite her apparent habit of covering her face). Others simply end the tale at the cabin saying she vanished and was never seen again.
With such an air of mystery around it, it’s easy to see why this story remains popular today among the people of Park County. There are so many versions, many of them contradictory, that it’s impossible to even say for certain that there was a woman called Silverheels. Nonetheless, the story struck a chord with people from the very beginning—so much so that one of the most prominent peaks in Park County is known as Mount Silverheels to this day.
Giving Up the Ghost
Buckskin Joe survived that smallpox outbreak and soon returned to being a booming mining town, but good times don’t last forever. Boomtowns often have a bust, and Buckskin Joe’s came sooner than most. The gold seam it was built around was unusually close to the surface, but it was also shallow, and ran dry after just a few years of mining. The miners began to disperse, wandering off in search of richer seams. By 1866, Buckskin Joe was completely empty.
The buildings, everything from the bank to the general store to the saloons, were abandoned where they stood. The only one saved was the county courthouse, which was lifted up log by log and moved down the mountains to Fairplay.
Buckskin Joe’s old residents left the area entirely, maybe even heading back east or going further west. Many likely stayed in Colorado, settling in other mining towns like Ouray or Salida.But wherever they traveled, they took with them stories about that place, a wayward bullet, and a dancer who vanished without a trace.
Piece by piece, Buckskin Joe—as a story—became immortal. Even as the abandoned buildings began to rot away high in the mountains, the town’s legendary status had become cemented. It wasn’t an accurate picture, but something a little more vibrant than life…a little more, well, cinematic.
A New Age
In an act of what can only be described as town necromancy, Buckskin Joe was reborn in the year 1957. Western films were very popular in the 1950s, and at that time there was a growing interest in authentic sets. So when MGM Studios director Malcolm Brown heard the stories of a ghost town with an almost pitch-perfect “Old West” name, he knew he too had struck gold—figuratively, this time. MGM wanted a movie set in Colorado with the mountains as an all-natural backdrop, and he found a way to give it to them.
A team was sent to Park County’s Buckskin Joe, where they examined what remained. The only building in decent shape was Horace Tabor’s old general store, so it was carefully taken apart and moved down to a new site in Fremont County, eight miles west of Cañon City.
Other buildings were carefully transported from other ghost towns across central Colorado, and a few new structures were constructed to fill the gaps. There was a jail, multiple saloons, and a stable. In the summer of 1957, the new site was used to film several movies, and after the movie stars and film cameras left, a skeleton crew was left behind to tend to the site. By 1958, interested locals were asking for tours of the buildings and the owners began to let them in during the downtime between filmings.
Over time, the locale became a popular destination. The new Buckskin Joe, as it was soon officially titled after the now-dismantled ghost town, became known as one of the world’s largest “Old West” theme parks. Generations of people visited Buckskin Joe during this time period to marvel at the historic buildings lining its few streets and to enjoy historical reenactments of saloon entertainment, horseback riding, and staged gunfights. It was all very touristy and, in a way, its larger-than-life retellings of Wild West clichés became a living, breathing successor to all those tall tales that had been told about the original Buckskin Joe for almost a century.
The movies being filmed at Buckskin Joe added even more tales. In all, more than two dozen films were made there, including the original True Grit from 1969, and several episodes of How the West Was Won. Television programs were filmed there as late as 2010. These movies repeated and retold the old campfire stories and cemented the mythologization of the American West for yet another generation. But this silver screen era, like the brief golden age of the 1860s, also came to an end.
In 2010, Buckskin Joe announced it was closing down. It had been sold to billionaire William Koch, who moved the old buildings to private property on the Western Slope. Though there has been interest in recent years in redeveloping the site into a new destination, the theme park—like the town’s original site—is now mostly empty and desolate. Buckskin Joe lies lifeless once more—a ghost town’s ghost town.
But the stories woven about it live on in the frontier-era campfire stories still retold by residents of Park County, in the memories of people who visited the theme park during its heyday, and in the many films that were shot on location there.
These stories—as unverifiable, exaggerated, or outright fabricated as they might be—remain important to us. Not because they teach us the truth about what life was like in those time periods, but because they tell us a lot about the people who were telling them. They reflect more on the storytellers than on the actual history of towns like Laurette, show what is important to these people, and indicate what stories resonate with them—the good, the bad, and even the ugly. And the specters of ghost towns like Buckskin Joe and so many others continue to haunt us to this day, affecting how many interpret and understand history, whether we realize it or not.
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