By Jan MacKell Collins.
At 10,200 feet in altitude, the town of Montezuma is among the highest in Colorado. The charming little community lies in a valley along the Snake River in Summit County amidst Collier, Teller, Glacier, Bear and Lenawee mountains.
Miner John Coley was the first to find rich silver deposits in this area in 1863. Using a hollow log, rocks and clay, Coley fashioned his own crude smelting furnace to process silver ingots and showed them off when he got to Georgetown. The rush was on as miners by the dozens made their way to the future townsite.
In 1865, Montezuma was founded, and for reasons unknown was named after the Aztec emperor of Mexico. Improvements, such as an actual passable road in 1868, soon made Montezuma the center of the mining activity and other similar towns in the vicinity. The road was probably Post Road No. 40, and those wishing to use it had to pay a toll of $3.00.
As of 1880, two of the local mines were called the Belle and the Blanche, but Georgetown’s Colorado Miner newspaper noted that many of Montezuma’s cabins were occupied by miners working for the Saints John Mining Company.
Montezuma continued to prosper. The town was officially incorporated in 1881, and the town newspaper, the Mill Run, premiered the following year. The paper proudly boasted that Montezuma featured a shoemaker, two hotels, two blacksmiths, three stores, three saloons, and several restaurants and boarding houses. The hotels were probably Rocky Mountain House and the Summit House, which bore mention in an 1890 account. When the local bank got a safe during 1883, that made the news too.
By the peak of the Colorado Silver Boom in the 1880s, the town reportedly had a population of thousands, precisely how many people called Montezuma home is difficult to determine, and some estimates seem to be wildly inflated. It is safe to say however, that Montezuma was an important town with more than a thousand residents during its peak years.
With the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893, Montezuma lost a little of its shine as a silver mining community. Even so, mines producing other minerals kept the little town busy.
Like most mountain towns, Montezuma’s biggest threat was fire. In 1903, the home of early pioneer W.J. Lusher burned. Another fire on Bear Mountain during 1910 threatened the town, but it remained unscathed. Another fire that same year, however, burned the nearby Colorado-Toledo compressor house.
One of Montezuma’s more colorful residents during the ‘teens was Ada Smith, aka “Dixie,” the town’s prostitute who kept her tidy white house just off of Main Street and occasionally hired women to work for her. It was hard to miss Dixie, who favored attending the local baseball games in her colorful dresses and big picture hats.
Although she obeyed orders to sit at the very end of the bleachers, it was common to hear Dixie rooting loudly for the team. She also shopped regularly at the Rice mercantile, and she was such a good customer that the entire family was willing to wait on her. Notably, Dixie would purchase cases of milk for the stray dogs and cats around town.
More fires struck Montezuma in 1915 and 1920. In the latter fire, nearly all buildings on one side of the street were lost. Yet, the town remained resilient. It was a good thing, since there was a renewed interest in metals during World War II, which temporarily revived the mines around Montezuma.
After the war, more conflagrations plagued Montezuma: three buildings, including an 1880s general store and bar, were lost in 1949. Nearly ten years later, in 1958, another fire burned the historic Summit House Hotel and its three garages, the Town Hall, two homes and three private garages. Fifteen guests at the hotel escaped to safety.
As mining waned for good, interest in and around Montezuma was picked up by outdoor enthusiasts and skiers who delighted in visiting the area. In its time, Montezuma became just one of a handful of small mining communities to dot the region. But long after the others faded away, somehow Montezuma has been able to hang on with a small population of about 60 folks who love and protect their historic town.
The town website asks visitors to respect the dogs roaming around town, air their tires outside the town limits, keep off-road vehicles and dirt bikes off town streets, park outside of the town limits, drive slowly, and “pack it in, pack it out.” It’s all in the name of respecting historic Montezuma.
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