Ghost Towns of the San Juan Mountains – Ironton

Not so Long Ago, Ouray was Just One Of Many Towns in Southwest Colorado.

Founded in 1883 and quickly becoming one of the largest towns in the area with over 1800 residents at its peak, Ironton, Colorado, originally know as Copper Glenn, was a thriving mountain town until the late 1950’s. At the end of the mining craze in Southwest Colorado, it, along with so many towns, was eventually abandoned by its residents. 

A few years ago, while out four wheeling with my family, my step father, born and raised in Ouray, began telling us about his days as a miner in Ouray County. One of my favorite stories was how he and his friends would sneak out and head up to Ironton for the night when they were kids. Apparently, it was quite the place to hang out, always full of miners and good times. Of course, I did wonder if he was referring to Red Mountain Town, which was reputed to have more bars than houses, but he was a pretty mild man, so Ironton probably seemed quite dangerous when he was 15.

The saloons are no longer standing, but one bar can be found in the Saloon at the Historic Western Hotel on 7th Street in Ouray. If you get the chance to, go enjoy a beer and the owners will share with you some interesting facts. Such as the fact that when the bar was dismantled, the pieces were numbered, but somehow, they still wound up putting it back together wrong. Not that it matters. It is a beautiful piece!

Ironton was still considered a town up until the 1960’s. In fact, there is an episode of the series “I’ve Got A Secret”, dated December 18, 1961, that is quite amusing, and features the last resident of the town, Milton Larson. He and his brother stayed in Ironton working their mines until they passed away. Although the clip shows a picture of Miltons house in Ironton, it is difficult to picture where it is when in what is left of the town today. Not only that, but from what I have read and heard, as the mining industry began to decline, people just abandoned their homes and those left were known to move into an empty house if it were in better condition than their own. What an interesting time they must have had! Imagine choosing from a variety of homes every day.

Unlike Ouray and Silverton, Ironton suffered several fires through the years, destroying much of the original architecture. It is fascinating to look at old photos on the Historical Society website.

Easily accessible from highway 550, Ironton can be visited any time of year. During the winter months, the Ouray Nordic Council grooms cross country ski trails all around the ghost town. There is little to compare to skiing around the remaining buildings in the surreal quiet of a winter day in the Uncompahgres. It is tempting to step inside and explore these silent witnesses to a time long passed regardless of the season. Be warned though, it can be pretty dark, and these houses are literally falling down. Enter at your own risk!

Jeep tour guides will tell a variety of stories about some of the homes and characters of Ironton and the surrounding mines. One story that stands out is about a man so in love with his wife, he spent 8 years building her dream house in town, complete with a heart shaped deck. Less than a year after she joined him, she became ill and passed away during the long cold winter. The story goes that instead of putting her in the cellar until the spring thaw, she was wrapped in a blanket and set in her rocking chair on the porch she loved, gazing at the spectacular view until Spring.

As with any old ghost town, stories about the people who once walked the streets are prolific. Of course, standing between two of the buildings still standing so pristine, one can create their own image of what it must have been like. One of my favorite things is to have conversations with the people that were actually there. Remember, Ironton is a fairly young ghost town, so many of our residents remember a different time. The Ouray County Museum is a great place to visit to view pictures of Ironton and many other towns that once were thriving communities, and they also offer a number of “Evenings in History” with speakers sharing a piece of American history from not so long ago.

Getting There:  The town of Ironton is located just off of Highway 550 between Ouray and Silverton. From the Box Canyon Lodge, turn right onto Highway 550 heading South toward Silverton. Just past Crystal Lake on the right, about nine (9) miles, there is a pull out on the left. Signs indicate the turnoff for Corkscrew Pass, Brown Mountain, and Ironton Park. This is an easier turn off to spot, and the town can be reached from this turn off, however, perhaps a quarter mile further south is a short dirt road leading to the town site, County Road 20D. The road is quite grooved, but you can get to the parking area without a four wheel drive.

 Happy Exploring!






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