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Peopling the Past

April 30, 2018
The Barton House was the large building shown at the top of the hill on Taos Street in Georgetown. It served as a gathering place for the numerous professionals who lived in the neighborhood. Photograph taken c. 1880. The Barton House was the large building shown at the top of the hill on Taos Street in Georgetown. It served as a gathering place for the numerous professionals who lived in the neighborhood. Photograph taken c. 1880.

Walking tours and brass plaques in Georgetown, CO often provide dates of construction or the names of the people who built the houses—but what about the personalities?

I moved to Georgetown, Colorado, in the summer of 1974. As a newcomer with few friends in the town of about 800 souls, I found myself walking around town in the early evenings. Historic districts take on magic light at that quiet time of day, as light seen through old glass windows reminds you of generations of people who walked these streets, with the same windows, for one hundred years or more.

Georgetown is a nineteenth-century town, one of the earliest silver mining districts in Colorado. Victorian homes are packed rather tightly along narrow roads, which seemingly pull the buildings closer for those who stroll along the town’s streets. It is not uncommon for walking tours and brass plaques to provide information on the date of construction, sometimes adding the name of the person who built the house—but what about the personalities?

In the south end of Georgetown, Charles Burleigh, inventor of the Burleigh rock drill and developer of the lengthy Burleigh Tunnel in Silver Plume, lived two doors down the street from General Frank J. Marshall, developer of the equally long Marshall Tunnel up the hill in Silver Dale. Would they share notes at the end of a long day?

The tiny four-block area in Georgetown known as Barton Hill was home to four well-known attorneys: John McMurdy, John Coulter, future senator Edward O. Wolcott, and Robert S. Morrison, author of several editions of Morrison’s Mining Rights. Surveyor Albert Johnson and physician R. J. Collins lived in the same “professional” neighborhood.

It may come as no surprise that this four-block area was also home to the town’s Episcopal and Congregational churches, reflecting the northern US roots of most of these men’s families. The Colorado Miner referred to McMurdy’s father Robert (DD, LLD) as an “Episcopal divine,” so of course young John built both his home and office less than fifty feet from the new church (which he helped establish). Seven blocks north, the Methodist church was located one block downhill from the home of early Methodist minister Isaac Beardsley, and right next door to town cofounder David Griffith, a Kentuckian, who served as lay clergy of the Methodist faith.

Solomon S. “Sam” Strousse, a Jewish merchant born in Germany, established a business in the center of the commercial district on Rose Street. Two doors north, Louis Cohen, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, opened the COD store, another general dry goods operation. Cohen, an orthodox Jew, would close his business for two days during Rosh Hashanah. In October 1887, the local paper provided a glimpse into their worlds: “Wednesday last was the day of atonement of the Hebrew religion. Cohen, Shimberg, Tishler, Ben Stenfield and others atoned. Strousse has quit however, he thinks there is nothing in it” (Colorado Miner, October 1, 1887). Somehow, we are left to believe that Strousse had not left his faith behind but was more concerned about closing his store for two days, since his family continued to practice the Jewish faith.

In a broader sense, we know that the north end of town was home to most of the southern sympathizers (the area often called “Confederate flats”) while the northerners lived in the southern end of the valley. These loyalties must have run deep within a community first settled in 1859, and then formally incorporated by the territorial legislature in 1868.

My internship in 1974 came through Liston E. Leyendecker, a well-known professor of history at Colorado State University. Forty-four years later, including thirty years as the Clear Creek County Archivist, I still wander around Georgetown in the early evenings. Liston once said that those who combine history and historic preservation “will have learned that history is to be found in places other than textbooks.” Indeed, the ability to combine primary source materials with built history allows us to enter the old neighborhoods, with memories of the neighbors, as part of that evening stroll.

Georgetown, Silver Plume, and the railroad park housed in the valley between the two communities became a National Historic Landmark District in 1966. From that time forward, there has been an interest in interpreting the area for visitors as well as those who live there. Through the years I have given dozens of walking tours for history buffs. While it is easy to see people perk up if you mention a ghost story of any kind, it is more rewarding to see them lean in as they begin to think about the individuals who inhabited the historic structures.

Personalities from older generations are easy to imagine if you happen to live in a community whose founders left detailed diaries. But, unfortunately, early Georgetown residents wrote about the weather and little else. Newspapers (especially obituaries), photos, and census records can provide the framework for personal research. Piecing together neighborhoods, or even business partnerships, begins to give you a more complete picture of the past.

Digitized newspapers make research easier and more readily available. However, there is still the need to browse through a wide variety of collections to compile a better picture of the past. I recently met with two young women who will be giving tours of the town this summer. They have quickly absorbed a number of well-researched stories and will be looking for more through their own research. I expect I will be seeing them wandering around town alone one of these evenings.


This photograph of Georgetown was taken about 1880 from Leavenworth Mountain. Many of these buildings remain standing today.

Christine Bradley is Clear Creek County Archivist, coauthor of Guide to the Georgetown Silver Plume Historic District and The Rise of the Silver Queen, author of several publications for Historic Georgetown, Inc. and has served on many boards and commissions in Georgetown, Silver Plume, and Clear Creek County, Colorado.

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