Central City – Underground

When I went to Clark School in Central City, Colorado we had a huge gymnasium across the street in front of the school. This is not a story about that gymnasium.

Outside the gymnasium on the uphill side was a huge gulch, or ravine depending on where you are from. In this gulch two creeks converged after they exited from large pipes. Both pipes, or culverts as my dad called them, were about six feet in diameter and the water dropped about four feet to the ground where they joined and continued on to Mountain City and then Blackhawk.

When looking uphill at the two, the rightmost culvert was made of corrugated steel and had a good amount of water pouring out of it. As it turned out, this same creek ran in front of the Sauer House where our family lived then and started further up the hill toward the cemeteries and the Boodle Mine. I did try to float a toy boat down the culvert in front of our house and look for it to come out by the school. My dad said it was possible, but not probable that I would find it. I did not.

The leftmost culvert was also round, but constructed from the kind of concrete pipe that fits together. The water coming from this pipe was barely a trickle in comparison to the other.

Now, in the winter time, the water in both of these giant pipes froze to varying degrees. The steel one, with the most water, eventually froze up almost completely and left only a small gap at the top.

The left side, with less water volume, backed up inside of the pipe and froze into a very long pool of ice. You might have guessed that some of the more adventurous kids would climb up the rocks, over the ice and snow and into the big pipe to “ice skate” in our regular boots or shoes. I was one of the kids inviting all the others to join me after school.

Sometimes I could only get my little sister to go along. Mostly, though it was at least Alexis and I. He was my best friend then and we would run from as far back in the pipe as the ice went, then skid on down to the end before the drop off. Hopefully missing any embedded rocks along the way which would certainly make you stop quickly and bust your face. This would go on until it was time to walk home and end our afternoon of fun.

In the summer…

There was more time during the day and Alexis and I vowed to explore the “tunnels” until we got to the other side because by now they had taken on a life of their own and were more than just a water pipe diverting water through the city.

The corrugated pipe with the big creek was impassable because the water never slowed down enough to even consider going into that dark and scary hole.

The second option was much more inviting. By summer, the creek turned into more of a trickle. Alexis and I told our parents some semi-plausible story not involving tunnels and then collected walking sticks, flashlights and provisions for our exploration. Probably liverwurst sandwiches. Because “liver is the worst, but liverwurst is the best”. This was a saying we made up one previous afternoon.

After climbing up the rocks to the entrance of the concrete pipe, Alexis and I made our way up it by straddling the now small creek; like penguins, flashlights in hand feebly revealing what was ahead of us. Real or imagined rodents scrambled away through the smaller pipes branching to the sides of our dim walkway.

Then, amazingly, the formerly round pipe opened up into a huge squarish area much larger than what we had encountered in our journey so far. Our six foot tall tunnel turned into a huge space much wider and taller than our previously cramped area. Dim light from somewhere provided an eerie feel to what was now more like a gigantic, long room. It was full of sand, some rocks, a bit of human trash and various debris.

It looked desolate and a bit freakish. Alexis and I dubbed the new area “the catacombs” and we dared not continue further that day. We ate our lunch… er, I mean provisions, and turned back the way we came.

Day two

During our next foray we found that the round part of the tunnels didn’t last as long as we previously thought and we made our way to the catacombs quickly.

Alexis and I looked for elves, dwarves and goblins first as boys that age would do after reading certain books. Not finding any, we then searched for other treasures in the catacombs under the city.

What we did find was that it really wasn’t a catacomb at all. By our definition catacombs were a series of large, walkable tunnels going in all directions. This was more of a really, really long concrete room with another smaller, darker tunnel at the far end.

We could just make out the sounds of the mechanical prisoners in the wax museum through a steel grate in the street far above us. That meant we were under the city and right in front of the old jailhouse. Exciting!

We recognized that this grate and the others (like the one down by the Tollgate saloon) were for water run off in the city. This explained the river-like sediment through the chamber and also meant that we should never ever be here in the rain.

We ate our provisions more soberly this time. Wondering aloud what the weather might do – we headed back where we came and emerged into full sunlight.

Another summer day

When the weather was definitely not going to include rain, Alexis and I planned a trip back to the catacombs to discover what mysteries were beyond that next dark tunnel entrance.

Up close it looked like the opening to a mine. In we went, only to find that the going was much tougher. We continued with sometimes brick or some really old concrete and even with timber supports in places.

Scrambling over many fallen sections and squeezing through some really tights areas Alexis and I crawled out into daylight again at last.

We exited the tunnel just past the second “free parking” lot, well on our way to Nevadaville. Dusting off our clothes, we walked down past the second and first free parking lots, the triangle (paid) parking lot and the old jailhouse turned museum we had passed from below hours earlier.

In the days of summer that year and next I ventured all the way through maybe two of three more times. Only ever with friends. Probably Jimmy and maybe some of the other “Tolkieneers”.

This was our band of five boys that hung out sometimes and did boys stuff like this together in the late 70’s.

Missouri Falls

One summer mom and dad surprised us with a trip to a local, but apparently not widely known, private location they referred to as Missouri Falls.

To reach Missouri Falls was a quick trip by truck since it was not too far off the highway outside of Blackhawk. After turning off the main road, we turned onto smaller ones and eventually passed the remains of a cabin. Dad said that this area was occupied in the past by the Hell’s Angels and their cabin was burned down by the law.  True or not, it added color to the trip.

We parked and then had to walk through the woods a little way as I recall before we came to the waterfall. In the middle of the woods, surrounded by aspen and pine, Missouri Creek dropped off the top of a rock cliff creating a pool of ice cold water in the soft stone below, then it cascaded down the smoothed rocks into another pool further down. After creating a series of smooth rock slides into natural pools like this, the small creek continued down the valley to eventually meet up with larger and larger creeks.

Dad’s favorite flower and a frequent subject of photos.

This was obviously not the kind of water park with wristbands and pay for entry. This was just a hidden spot, deep in the woods, discovered and shared with close friends over time.

Now, it also turns out that this place was clothing optional. Being only ten years old, this was the first I had even heard that public nudity was a thing. I decided that maybe it was related to the biker history?

We went with friends of the family who turned out to be comfortable in their birthday suits. I guess mom and dad knew, but Jen and I were very surprised. To be perfectly clear, we wore our bathing suits.

Getting to the very top pool over the slippery rock was a bit scary, but that one was the deepest because the water fell the furthest. Naturally, that’s where we headed first… last one there is a rotten egg… my sister was last. That trip to the top pool was the only one that day. That was fine with me because the most fun to be had was sliding down the rocks below it and splashing into the lower pools anyway. Truth be told getting to the top one was scary, but I wouldn’t give my sister the satisfaction of knowing.

It was one of those amazing Colorado summer days that creates memories forever.

We came back to Missouri Falls a number of times that year, but I never saw anyone there other than the various families we visited with. Some clothed, some not.

I came back a few summers later with my cousin Tommy. Not for the falls, but for the cliff. I learned to repel from that cliff. Tom and I walked around to the top and he tied off the rope to a big secure rock, assuring me that it was fine. Then he walked backwards and disappeared out of view over the edge.

That entire day was spent with him showing me the ropes… so to speak. I learned to tie knots, and clip on carabiners, and after repelling in tandem with Tom, I eventually repelled down by myself. That too was a thrill I would not soon forget, even after learning to ice climb at St. Mary’s Glacier and Mt. Evans with Tom later that summer.

Sword Fights and Train Robberies

As a tourist town in the summer, Central City made and exciting background for adventure for any nine-year old boy. Imagine living in the middle of a western set for a movie. Where almost every building is dedicated to bringing the essence of mining, the old west and the Victorian era into the hearts and photographs of visitors.

From staged gun fights on the street to jail house wax museums any kid would have had a hard time not imagining himself in the middle of an adventure every day while living in Central City.

There are even bed races down the street. What is a bed race you ask? As I did of my father at nine? Well guess what, they are actual races down the street in an old fashioned bed. I learned that a guy called John pushed a lady of the night down the street in a brass bed while she was dressed in a fancy lace night gown.

Many is the time on the short walk up the street from school to the Sauer House that we would stop at the literal candy store. If you’ve been to a tourist town, surely you know the type of store. Filled from top to bottom with delectable sweets of all types. Taffy, root beer barrels, those little dots of sugar on a computer-like tape and loads of different flavored sticks of candy.

Now imagine passing such a store (or two) every single day on the way home from 4th grade. The candy store is where I fell in love with Swedish Fish and dried pineapple rings.

Sword Fights In The Snow

In the winter time, the city would mostly shut down to all but local business. The tourists would leave and the city would transform. Some stores would close until spring. This left much of the city open to exploration to the local kids while not under watchful adult eyes.

Garden between the Teller House and the Opera House.

Between the Opera House and the Teller House there was a garden with a steep path and intermittent stairs leading up to the top of the hill and the street behind the buildings. The actual purpose of the garden is probably historical and as I recall there were those little metal plaques describing one thing or another on the way up the hill.

Boys of a certain age didn’t see the garden at all, instead we saw it as a place to chase one another with sticks as swords… fighting imaginary battles up the hill.

Train Robberies

During the summer time Central City had a train that tourists would ride for a fee. In the winter time the train was not used and sat in the same location. Put up and mostly ignored until summer, the train itself became a destination for the local kids. It didn’t really matter that it was sitting still. In fact, it was probably best that it was since we often climbed up on the engine imagining ourselves engineers. We took turns being the robbers boarding the train and jumping between the cars and even on the roof of some. Likely mom and dad would not have been as thrilled as we were.

One year the window to the last car was left open. The open window allowed skinny children to climb to the top of the car, slide down the side, into the window and then into the closed up car. Turns out, the window led to a “bathroom” on the caboose and that the toilet was just a bench seat with a hole leading down onto the track below. This was an amazing scientific find and one shared far and wide with wide-eyed friends.

Shortcuts Between Buildings

The city itself is nestled in a little valley between hills. So anything not literally on the main road through the city was on a hill above. When I first moved to Central I was tickled by the fact that the streets up the hill were named 1st High, 2nd High, 3rd High and 4th High Streets.

Much of the city itself has stairways leading up from the main street to the street behind it. The stairways were often made of wood and are really a combination of boardwalk and stairway depending on the location. When you are a kid the only way to get from point A to point B was often by foot. So we knew where ALL of the stairways were and which were the quickest.

Sometimes though, the stairs were ill placed and we would take or create short-cuts between locations. Back then there was a space between the Fire Station and the building next to it. It was no more than two feet wide (probably less), but that is plenty of room for skinny boys to slip through. So we would start on East 1st High, climb down the hill that was directly behind the Fire Station, then squeeze between the wall and pop out right onto the street in a section of town not serviced by stairs.

Sliding Down Tailings

Mine tailings are essentially everything that was dug out of the ground in search of gold. In certain types of mining operations this creates a tailing pile or to uninformed what looks like a giant anthill on the side of the mountain. To young children it is a great place to slide down on your butt and for mothers a source of never ending dirt in the laundry.

In those days there was a HUGE tailing pile between Spring Street and what is now known as Central City Parkway. That huge pile was cut into two sections of what we locals at the time called the free parking lot. There was an upper and lower section and tourists could park there free naturally. It was a bit of a walk from either lot to the main portion of the city, but there was a shorter way and that was to slide down the pile of dirt.

During my first visit to Central City before we moved into the Sauer House, this tailing pile / parking lot was my favorite part of the stay.