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The Westcliffe of Yesteryear
Quietly, but with great pace, the town of Westcliffe was built at the end of railroad tracks in a Valley between the Wet Mountains and Sangre de Cristos.
Famed developers Dr. William Bell, founder of Manitou Springs, and General Palmer, founder of Colorado Springs, platted the town and began to sell subdivided lots in 1881 after Dr. Bell convinced the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad to extend its rail line near the booming mining town of Silver Cliff.
Westcliffe was incorporated in July 1887 and is named for Westcliffe-on-the-Sea in England, the birthplace of Dr. Bell.
Over the last 100 plus years, the population of Westcliffe has fluctuated significantly, experiencing the "boom and bust" cycles common throughout Colorado's history.
In 1870, German settlers trekked to the Wet Mountain Valley from Chicago in search of a better life. The Germans settled 15 miles west of Westcliffe, naming their colony Colfax. Poor leadership and weather led to the demise of the colony in 1871, however, many of the colonists stayed, homesteaded and began ranching. In 1872 construction of what would become the Hope Lutheran church began. It is the oldest Lutheran church organized in Colorado. Today, the Lutheran Church can be found on Third Street in Westcliffe.
Ranching near Westcliffe also took root in 1870 with large cattle herds arriving from Texas. One of the most successful cattlemen were English brothers, Elton and Edwin Beckwith, whose herd grew to 7,000 head of cattle and 200 horses. Their 2,300 acre ranch was granted to the Beckwiths in a document signed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1874. With their prosperity they built a magnificent mansion complete with a port cohere. That mansion, located about five miles north of Westcliffe, is currently under restoration.
Westcliffe began to thrive as the supply center for local ranchers and farmers. That heritage remains today. Westcliffe became the county seat in 1928. The railroad pulled out in 1937.
The Silver Cliff of Yesteryear
In June 1878 silver was discovered on a sheer cliff beside the present location of the town, and thus Silver Cliff’s boom began.
Silver Cliff became an incorporated town in February 1879 and as was typical with most Colorado mining towns in the mid to late 19th century, the population grew rapidly. By 1881 it was estimated some 6,000 to 16,000 people were living in Silver Cliff, with most searching for fortune in the form of a dark greasy-looking rock, which when melted turned out to be 75 percent silver. However, according to the U.S. census taken in 1880, the population was 5,040.
As people continued to pour into the town, some had the forethought to begin the process of planning the physical growth of the town. Soon, streets were surveyed and lots were zoned for homes and businesses.
Strategic planning paid off and in 180, Silver Cliff was home to a post office, saloon, two banks, five hotels, four newspapers, seven mills, four churches, a telephone office, three stagecoach companies and a hospital.
It has been said that in one year Silver Cliff brought more civilization to the Wet Mountain Valley than any other boomtown in the area. And, with the silver mines producing mass amounts of silver, business continued to grow.
But, with all that money flowing, scores of salesmen, shysters, gamblers and speculators arrived on the scene to help those rich miners decide what to do with all their money. It wasn’t long before Silver Cliff had a reputation as one of Colorado’s wildest towns known for high stakes gambling, dancing girls and much more debauchery.
As a result, lawlessness and violence prevailed, so the respectable Silver Cliff citizens stepped in and organized a government, and established law and order. The floating population of brawlers, gamblers and swindlers moved on and Silver Cliff settled down to a civilized more conservative way of life.
At the height of its prosperity, Silver Cliff was also in the running with Denver, Aspen and Golden for state capital. It lost to Denver by only a few votes.
In 1881, Silver Cliff began preparing for the arrival of the Denver and Rio Grande narrow gauge railroad, but once again it came out on bottom when the railroad stopped a full mile west of the town.
Other problems plaguing Silver Cliff were false advertising by shady promoters and mismanagement of the mines.
By 1890 mining was dead, businesses went belly-up and the population decreased, ending the boom days of Silver Cliff.