In the center of Colorado, at an elevation of 8,500 feet, lies a beautiful valley, surrounded on all sides by majestic mountain ranges. The valley, lush with vegetation and supplied by water from the North, Middle and South Forks of the South Platte River, supported huge herds of game and colonies of smaller animals, such as beaver, muskrat, otter and bobcat. In the midst of this bounty, the Ute Indian made his summer camp. He successfully battled Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Comanche for exclusive possession of his domain.
Colorado was explored in the late 16th and early 17th centuries by the French and Spanish, who established outposts for the purpose of trade with the Indians. The Americanized name of South Park was derived from "parc", the French word for game preserve.
In 1803, the United States acquired the vast wilderness of Colorado as a part of the Louisiana Purchase. Zebulon Pike was dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson in 1806 to explore the new territory. In an attempt to map the area, Pike's party penetrated South Park, but only marginally. Finding evidence, in the form of fresh campsites, that Spanish troops were still in the area, they elected to track the offenders and drifted farther and further south, only to be captured in the San Luis Valley and taken to Santa Fe.
Following Pike's release and return to the United States, reports of his explorations and the abundance of game drew the attention of hunters and trappers. Fur-trading became the first economic endeavor of the period, and was followed in the mid-19th century by the development of cattle and sheep ranching. The first ditch rights for agricultural purposes were recorded in 1861. By 1876, South Park was known as one of the principal hay producing regions of the state.
In 1859, gold was discovered in Tarryall Creek, and the rush was on. Hoards of gold-seekers spilled into the Park. Mining camps sprang up in every gulch and gulley. Soon, the hills were dotted with towns bearing such colorful names as Tarryall, Buckskin Joe, Eureka, Horseshoe, and Mudsill.
Latecomers to the Taryall diggings found themselves locked out. Disgruntled, they referred to the places as "Graball" and moved to the junction of Beaver Creek and the South Platte. They called their camp Fair Play and vowed to offer the same in good measure to all comers. The camp prospered, but soon the lone prospectors' stakes gave way to larger and more stable placer and hard-rock mining operations, which flourished for the next thirty years. During this time, the trades and professions moved in to provide goods and services to the denizens of South Park.
When the era ended, most of the camps were abandoned to the ravages of time and weather. Only a few, such as Fairplay, Alma and Como, with their more diversified economies, survived. Later, hydraulic and dredge mining, along with improved milling methods, were introduced and these communities prospered again. Down through the years, other minerals such as silver, lead, zinc and the concentrates were discovered and provided the impetus for subsequent mining "booms". Today, only a few working mines are in existence, but the importance of mining to South Park is evident all along the South Platte, from the tailings left by the dredges to the weekend prospector with his gold pan.
During the early part of the twentieth century, a member of a rare breed of humanity slipped, unobtrusively, into the South Park scene. He was one of those people who had the foresight to see value in the relics of the past -- the things that the less astute discarded as "junk". the man was Leon H. Snyder, attorney from Colorado Springs, and he would leave an indelible mark on the area. His reason for coming was recreation. For some forty years, he found respite from his work schedule fishing the Park's many streams. During that time, he became keenly aware that time, neglect and vandalism were taking their toll on the remains of the mining era.
After discussing the dilemma with Everett Bair, the unofficial historian of the Park, he decided that the best way to preserve that history was to move representative period buildings to a single site where they'd have benefit of police and fire protection. He contacted other individuals who were of like mind, and in 1957, the South Park Historical Foundation was organized. The site selected was on the outskirts of Fairplay. The area was steeped in history and was in close proximity to many of the abandoned camps. Land and buildings still standing there were purchased, and an inventory of other available buildings was made. Rights to the most appropriate of these were secured by donation or purchase.
In the summer of 1957, the move was on! A professional mover was hired, and a volunteer labor force was charged with laying foundations. By the end of that summer, six buildings had been moved to Fairplay. Together with the seven already on the site, they formed the beginnings of Colorado's newest mining town.
The summer of 1958 was a busy one. Additional buildings were moved in, and restoration work was in full swing. Various civic groups took on the responsibility of collecting artifacts and furnishing the buildings. The families of Park County embraced the project and scoured their attics, basements and barns for appropriate artifacts. Roughly 40,000 items were donated.
In 1959, exactly 100 years from the first gold find, South Park City was opened to the public as an endorsed project of the Colorado "Rush to the Rockies" celebration. For thousands of visitors, the reconstructed mining town turned back the clock to a lustier time.
Today 35 original buildings stand in tribute to that time and to the men and women who lived it. Fairplay's "ghost-town" recalls for the visitor, the romance of a by-gone era.