CORTEZ? I didn’t remember seeing a Cortez on Chris Case’s map, but our collective euphoria spiked again and we were off. The mining woman’s instructions led us up a winding canyon past a modern-ish mining operation. We stopped on a sandy knoll and got out of the Jeep to do what men do after they’ve just downed a twelve-pack of Dr. Pepper. That’s when we noticed remains of foundations in the distance and old wood strewn on the ground.
That’s also when we noticed the flames under the Jeep.
We frantically tossed handfuls of sand until we extinguished the fire. Turns out the Jeep’s undercarriage had collected some brush during earlier bushwhacking. Unfortunately, the Jeep also leaked oil. Oil plus brush plus engine heat makes for a scary situation, and we were happy once the flames were doused. We were even happier when the Jeep still worked.
“Ghost town.” What is there not to love about that title? Such places are aptly named. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, these deserted places have a haunting aura. Though now a just desolate collection of ancient stone and timber, a ghost town was once a living, breathing place. Every wooden plank was hewn from area trees or delivered by industrious people who built this town from scratch. Children were born here. People spent their lives here. They died here and their bones still lie here under the sand. What was once a bustling center of life is now a skeleton of rock and wood, still standing only because it’s so far isolated from modern life.
The way the headlights shone on the ruins made it appear as if light was coming from inside the structures. We parked (making sure to take good note of where we left the Jeep this time) and walked down the streets of old Cortez, peering through glassless windows and circling crumbling foundations. We quickly recognized the mill, a massive rock structure, which we would have explored closer if not for Mine Lady’s warning about rattlesnakes.
Curiosity got the better of us though, and we did climb a 20 foot high rock barrier surrounding a large oval of cleared ground. In the center of the oval was a large “X” marked with some kind of plastic.
Cortez, we later learned, was founded in 1862. It’s claim to fame was silver- $300,000 worth per year in its heyday. With a population of 400, Cortez was home to three mining companies, two mills, a post office, a leaching plant, and an intricate labrynth of tunnels. The Garrison mine was 4,500 feet long and 1,270 feet deep, with ten levels and more than fifteen miles of workings. It connected on the fifth level to the St. Louis Mine and on the sixth level to the Fitzgerald Mine.
While mining in the area continued, the town itself died out. Silver prices dropped and operations slowed until Cortez faded into history. The property today is owned by Barrick Gold Corporation (which I assume also mines silver), and it conducts its operations without disturbing the townsite.
My first ghost town was also my eeriest one. Maybe it was simply our pre-conceptions that made it seem spooky. It could been the darkness of that night. It was probably the Fifth Element soundtrack. Whatever it was, each of us had the distinct impression that we were not welcome in this place. Though we had been given permission to access the site, we didn’t stay in town too long.
Our dream had been to sleep under the stars in downtown Gold Acres. But it was 4:00 am. Gold Acres no longer existed, and we were too exhausted to even look for a suitable campsite. We pulled off the highway, layed a large tarp on the ground, and were out cold in seconds.
Cortez may or may not be haunted by the ghosts of old miners. I’ll leave that for the Art Bell crowd to determine. It is surely haunted by the memories of those who walked its streets, mined its silver, and lie in its graveyard.