While the camps of Oro City, Dayton and others in the northern Arkansas Valley were transitioning from temporary structures to more permanent ones, the surface gold deposits of the Cache Creek district, the location of present-day Granite, further south in the valley were drawing their fair share of transplants from the eastern United States. These gold deposits, put down as ancient glaciers shifted and melted along the bed of the Arkansas Valley, drew a steady stream of prospecting parties to the Arkansas River headwaters and the streams that fed it.
Supplemented by some small hard rock mining operations in the surrounding hills and draws, the Cache Creek district continued to produce surface gold at a steady rate for the better part of the decade between its discovery in 1860 to 1870. Little villages popped up in the southern part of the valley to see to the needs of the settlers arriving in droves hoping to find their fortunes.
Hundreds of people were arriving in the Arkansas Valley day and night, usually bringing very little with them except the fervent hope of striking it rich. The desperate conditions often encountered by settlers caused tempers to flare, and even occasionally lead to robbery, assault and murder. In this sixth installment in its series on boom towns in and around Lake County and the Arkansas Valley, the Herald will explore the history of Granite, the splitting of Lake and Chaffee counties, and the role Granite played in one of the most violent periods in the history of the Arkansas Valley.
The prospecting parties which came to the Cache Creek area needed supplies, housing and transportation, and so the camp of Granite was established. A post office, convenience stores, hotels, livery stables, boarding houses and a schoolhouse quickly appeared in town as more permanent cabins gradually replaced the canvas tents which dotted the valley. Granite’s population went from just a few to about 300 to 3,000 in a matter of months. Ore, food, supplies, mail and passengers traveled in both directions along the rough stage road which ran from Canon City in the south, up the Arkansas River to Granite, through the California Gulch district, and eventually on to Denver.
By the mid-1860s the population began to dwindle in the northern part of the county as gold became less and less plentiful. An 1866 vote moved the county seat from Oro City in California Gulch south to Dayton, the recreation-centered village which had sprung up on the shores of the Twin Lakes for which Lake County, one of Colorado’s original counties which stretched all the way from the Arkansas River in the east to the Utah border in the west, was named.
Dayton would remain the governmental seat of the county for just a couple of years before the economic and population loss in the northern part of the county began affecting the little village. As gold deposits dwindled, like Oro City, the Twin Lakes area began to empty.
It wasn’t long before the Granite district had the largest population center in the north of the county, and following a second vote in 1868, the county seat was removed from Dayton. Over the course of a couple of months, the then-county commissioners took subscriptions from the citizens of Dayton and Granite and moved the recently constructed two-story courthouse from the shores of the Twin Lakes to the banks of the Arkansas River, along with all the county records.
While the mining camps along the Arkansas Valley from the California Gulch district in the north to the Cache Creek district in the south flourished and failed, a wave of violence swept the ranch land further down the valley in the vicinity of Buena Vista, Salida, Poncha Springs, Nathrop and other small settlements.
As many as 100 murders and other major offences were committed in southern Lake County, all without any convictions and very few arrests. Vigilantes, fed up with what they considered the ineffectiveness local law enforcement, took it upon themselves to seek justice for their communities. What followed was the year-long “Lake County War,” which saw violent vigilantes run rampant throughout the county and ended with the murder of a county judge in Granite.
Tensions between the citizens and the criminal element came to a head on June 17, 1874. That night, George Harrington was shot dead while trying to put out a fire set to one of his outbuildings near Centerville between Nathrop and Poncha Springs. Harrington’s neighbor, Elijah Gibbs, who had been seen quarreling with Harrington over shared fencing and water in the days preceding the murder, was promptly arrested, along with his ranch hand Stewart McClish. The prisoners were held at the county jail in Granite before standing trial in Denver five months later. Both were ultimately acquitted after a short deliberation due to insufficient evidence.
McClish promptly disappeared as soon as he was released. Gibbs returned to his Centerville property and attempted to return to normal life, despite what Don and Jean Griswold’s “History of Leadville and Lake County, Colorado” describes as the “undercurrent of resentment among the ranchers” because of the undesirable outcome of the trial. On the night of January 22, 1875, a gang of 15 vigilantes who felt justice had not been served appeared on Gibbs’ property after “fortifying themselves with strong drink and with guns,” and demanded he come out of his cabin and be hanged.
Gibbs attempted to ignore the gang, but they began threatening to burn down his cabin with him inside if he wouldn’t come out. “Gibbs made no reply to this cheerful manifesto, and the party then, with much cursing and calling of names, went around to the north side of the house, where they began making preparations to fire,” Father John L. Dyer would later write of the incident. “When they got a pile of combustibles … together, [one of the men] lit a match and was about to touch it off” when Gibbs opened fire on the mob, running off the majority, and killing three and wounding two others. He saddled his horse, collected his belongings and disappeared the next day. He was never seen in Lake County again.
Following this incident, a group of some prominent members of the ranching and farming communities in southern Lake County organized in Chalk Creek with the intention of “ridding Lake County of individuals whom they suspected as being murderers, cattle thieves, land grabbers or any other ‘undesirables,’” according to “History of Leadville and Lake County.” They called themselves the Safety Committee.
While the committee may have started out with positive intentions, it wasn’t long before its members began resorting to the same violent tactics as the people they supposedly were organized to oppose. “The committeemen then turned to a course of action that fanned the flames of hatred and fear into vindictive violence and the breakdown of law and order in the county,” the Griswolds wrote.
The Safety Committee began abducting people, both guilty and innocent, to appear before their “court,” held in a barn in Chalk Creek. The committee extracted whatever testimony they were after by any means necessary and left their abductees in fear for their lives.
Though witnesses and suspected criminals alike told similar stories, they would never go into detail about the oaths that they were forced to swear not reveal the identities of the members of the committee. In their “courtroom,” the Safety Committee was reported to have a hangman’s noose dangling from one of the rafters over the “witness stand,” which they were reported to have used on multiple occasions to elicit “confessions” from witnesses and suspects alike.
“They must have formulated a most impressive and blood-curdling oath,” wrote James Byrnes in a paper presented to the Lake County Pioneers and later reprinted in the Nov. 3, 1901 Herald Democrat. “For three years I had a partner who was a school teacher at Brown’s Creek during these troubled times. He had been forced to accompany his captors … to their court in the middle of the night and testify before the organization. When conversation of an evening would drift to the vigilantes, he added his information to matters that were general subjects of gossip; but when the court and its doings were broached, he always refused to join in the discussion, stating that he had been forced to subscribe to an oath which prevented him from divulging his knowledge of their secret proceedings.”
Since Gibbs had eluded them, the Safety Committee turned their attention to other criminals who had gone unpunished in the lower part of the county, wrote Byrnes. The committee “devoted a large part of their time to investigating and threshing anew all of the petty neighborhood quarrels that had happened in that locality,” Byrnes continued. “One of their first acts was the trial of a man by the name of Harding for setting fire to a barn in the south Arkansas Valley six months or a year previous to the organization of the Safety Committee.” Harding was taken before the so-called “court,” and, despite a lack of evidence, the committee gave him 65 days to leave Lake County and never return. Harding’s body was found 70 days after his “trial” in the southern Arkansas Valley “perforated with bullets.”
As time went on, the members of the Safety Committee grew bolder and more dangerous. It wasn’t long before incidents were reported of committee members waiving guns in pedestrians’ faces and demanding oaths of loyalty. They even kidnapped the county judge and forced him to “testify” in one of their trials.
In another incident, two suspected criminals were hung from a tree to “loosen their tongues,” only for their captors to discover their victims couldn’t be revived when they were let down. “After they were let down they failed to revive, so they were swung again permanently, as if the hanging was intentional,” Byrnes commented on the ever-escalating misdeeds of the Safety Committee.
By the middle of 1875, the citizens of the lower portion of Lake County had had enough. Two men, whose names Byrnes claimed had “not been preserved in the memories of old-timers,” appeared before County Judge Elias Dyer, the son of Father John Dyer, in his Granite office and had warrants sworn out for 35 members of the Safety Committee. The warrants were served, and when the committee members’ trial day arrived on July 3, 1865, “the accused were all present in Granite on the date set for trial, but refused to allow the sheriff to disarm them,” according to Byrnes. “Promptly at 10 o’clock the sheriff appeared with his armed prisoners before the county judge. Here occurs a hiatus in this narrative. I have been unable to obtain an account of the proceedings before Judge Dyer on that eventful morning ... Suffice it to say that fifteen minutes after the convening of court the stairs were filled with men returning from the court room, and the news was spread abroad in Granite that the cases had been dismissed. Ten minutes after court was adjourned, four shots rang out in quick succession. No immediate attention was paid to the reports by the citizens of Granite, it being imagined that they might have been due to the action of some intoxicated or hilarious individual within the limits of the town. But five minutes after the shots were heard a rumor that Judge Dyer was killed obtained circulation.”
What little evidence was available from Judge Dyer’s shooting was later presented to a grand jury convened in Granite, though no indictments were made. The evidence was presented a second time to another grand jury convened in Buena Vista in 1880 after Colorado had achieved statehood, but again failed to get an indictment. Judge Dyer’s shooters were never identified, and his murder was added to the long list of others which went unsolved during the earliest days of Lake County.
After Judge Dyer’s murder, little was heard from the vigilantes of the safety committee. Byrnes concluded his presentation to the Lake County Pioneers stating, “Until the admission of Colorado to statehood, the vigilantes were in constant read of arrest by United States soldiers, and this fear subdued their activity and eventually disintegrated the association.”
When Colorado was admitted into statehood in 1879, Lake County was split into the present-day counties of Saguache, Hindsdale, La Plata, San Juan, Ouray, Gunnison and Chaffee. The same legislation which split Chaffee and Lake counties also moved the county seat of the latter back to the California Gulch area. The contested town of Granite, the northernmost settlement in the new Chaffee County, became the first governmental seat for that county.
While the California Gulch district experienced its second boom after the discovery of silver at the end of the 1870s, the Granite district continued to shrink as the surface gold deposits in the lower Arkansas Valley were mined out, becoming primarily a transportation hub along the Arkansas Valley. In 1880, the railroad finally arrived in the high Rockies, coming up from the south out of Canon City like the stage road before it. The Colorado Midland and the Denver & Rio Grande West battled for the honor of being the first railway company to reach the prosperous Leadville mines, with the Denver & Rio Grande the ultimate winner.
As the citizens of Granite continued to leave for the more profitable and populous nearby cities of Leadville and Buena Vista, a question regarding the Chaffee County governmental seat was added to the general election ticket in November 1880. “The order for this vote was secured by the citizens of Buena Vista and vicinity, that town being extremely desirous of securing the seat of government for Chaffee County,” stated the Oct. 9, 1880 Mountain Mail.
A sometimes bitter rivalry emerged between all the population centers of the new county; not only Buena Vista, but Salida, Nathrop and Poncha Springs all put forth their interest in gaining the county seat, and the citizens of Granite had no desire to see it moved. “We have taken notice that rival towns are like rival lovers, rather jealous of each other, and not very anxiously disposed to give the other the advantage in the race,” the Mountain Mail noted in their Oct. 16, 1880 edition.
Buena Vista was ultimately deemed the winner and thus the new county seat, but officials in Granite and other Chaffee County communities refused to verify the results of the election and give up the county records. The citizens of Buena Vista had committed voter fraud en masse, they claimed, artificially inflating the number of registered voters by “registering” men living just outside of the Buena Vista voting district and taking names from hotel guest books and gravestones. “Fearing that their success was not assured,” the Nov. 27, 1880 Mountain Mail read, “some sixty of the leading citizens of the place, armed with knives and pistols, made a midnight descent on Granite in a chartered train.”
When the Granite sheriff investigated the disturbance, he was held at gunpoint as the last of the county records were collected and the furniture was unbolted from the floor, including the courthouse’s wood stove, complete with embers from the previous day’s use. “Before any official announcement of the action of the commissioners had been made, and against the protests of the county officers, seized upon the books, records and other moveable property of the county and forcibly carried them off to Buena Vista.” The highwaymen loaded everything onto their chartered flatcar and brought it all to south to the new seat of Chaffee County.
After losing the governmental seat, the village of Granite fell into decline. By 1955 enrollment in the Granite schoolhouse had dropped to its lowest point with just 13 students, prompting the school’s closure. The little town on the banks of the Arkansas River remained a stop on the railroad between southern Chaffee County and Leadville into the 1980s, and one general store remained in operation until 2007.
According to the 2010 Census, 116 people still call Granite and its surrounding hills and valleys home, and a number of the original buildings of Granite still exist today. Chaffee County lists the school and the Denver & Rio Grande railroad building, as well as several other still-standing buildings, including a blacksmith shop, livery, a hotel and a stage stop as sites of historical interest.
Today most tourists visit Granite to take advantage of its access to fishing and rafting on the Arkansas River, as well as hiking along the section of old stage road which still exists between Granite and Leadville. Many pass through on U.S. 24 between Leadville and Buena Vista without any idea the part this village once played in one of the most violent periods in the Arkansas Valley’s history.
In the next installment in its series on boom towns near Lake County and the Arkansas Valley, the Herald will take a closer look at Winfield and Vicksburg, two ghost towns in present-day Chaffee County.