As I sit on my balcony above Central City, Colorado, I look west and watch the sun sink behind the high snow-capped peaks to the west. Yesterday I was hiking a slope on those very mountains following a grueling two-hour 4X4 trek in my ugly old Range Rover. The “road” I traversed was the old stagecoach line that ran from Central City to the mining camps of Alice, Fall River and then on to Georgetown in the heyday of the Colorado gold rush. Along it’s way, the stagecoach passed over a high windswept knob at roughly 11,500 ft. elevation. Covered by only a handful of scrubby, wind blown pines, low patchy grasses, lichens, and surprisingly in the summer months, a dizzying array of beautiful and fragrant wildflowers of all shapes, colors and sizes, lay “Yankee Hill”.
Rumor has it Yankee Hill was named after Union sympathizers that poked around at the ground looking for gold and other precious metals on the hill during the Civil War. Soon, a settlement or more likely a small camp sprang up on the slope and declared itself the town of “Yankee Hill”. Very little is known about the earliest days of Yankee Hill, although it is clear that people were there looking for gold as early as 1860. The Russell Brothers of Central City fame had even constructed a canal across Yankee Hill bringing water from Fall River to Russell Gulch by the early 1860’s- a truly amazing feat if you have ever seen the hellish landscape between Yankee Hill and Russell Gulch.
As time passed Yankee Hill scratched out a name for itself an important stagecoach supply and rest stop on the road to and from Georgetown and Central City. A hardy bunch managed to bust through the crust of the hill and locate a few paying veins of gold, silver, copper and iron ores. Prospect holes, or “coyote holes” dotted the hill, and many are still visible today along with some of the larger, more profitable workings.
The citizens of Yankee Hill, whipped by endless winds, vicious electrical storms, blizzards and every other imaginable alpine hardship some how hung on to their precarious post on top of the world, and made it work. The people lived in any imaginable type of shelter- tents, huts compiled of the low scrubby pines on the hill, sturdy log cabins, dressed lumber houses, rock huts, even caves and dugouts composed of both rock and timbers. By the 1880’s what few records exist suggest Yankee Hill had a hotel and at least one saloon, the stage stop, and a handful of other mining related businesses. In the late 1890’s a couple of mills were erected with concrete foundations in an attempt to make refining the low-grade and complex ores of Yankee Hill profitable, but, they were of little success and by 1905 the mines had all closed down and Yankee Hill was abandoned following 45 very hard years of existence.
Very little is known of the people and businesses in Yankee Hill. No photographs exist to show what it looked like in it’s prime. The few people who passed through Yankee Hill or lived there are long deceased. What little we can glimmer into the past of Yankee Hill comes from minimal and spotty records, a newspaper clipping, an old story told long ago. Yankee Hill is largely a Colorado mystery these days.
But there is one interesting story surrounding Yankee Hill and it involves a legendary man that, like Yankee Hill, has been forgotten by time. His name was Willie Kennard, a black man and former slave. Kennard was freed from slavery sometime prior to the Civil War and he joined the U.S. Army where he worked as a weapons expert for reportedly 25 years. At the ripe old age of 42, Willie Kennard found himself in Colorado Territory looking for work. the year was 1874.
An advertisement appeared in the Rocky Mountain News seeking a town Marshall for Yankee Hill- the town’s previous Marshall having been shot dead by an outlaw, murderer and rapist by the name of Casewit who had terrorized Yankee Hill for around two years.
Kennard traveled to Yankee Hill to investigate the rumors and respond to the advertisement he had read. The townspeople were stunned at the sight of a black man arriving in Yankee Hill, and the town council was even more shocked when he informed them he had come to be Marshall. After some tense negotiations the council agreed to give Kennard a shot at being Marshall of Yankee Hill and he sworn in to duty.
Among Kennard’s first matters of business was to hunt down the rapist and murderer Casewit that had held Yankee Hill in a state of siege for so long. Kennard soon found Casewit playing cards in the town saloon and as Casewit went to draw for his guns Kennard pulled his twin .44 caliber Colts and fired on Casewit. The bullets from Marshall Willie Kennard’s .44’s pierced the leather of Casewits holsters and damaged his guns rendering them useless. Casewit was placed under arrest, tried the next morning for the rape of a 15 year-old girl and the murder of her father who had come to her defense. Found guilty, Kennard ordered Casewit hung, and from a beam behind the blacksmith’s shop the villain Casewit met his end.
As for Marshall Willie Kennard- He remained at his post in Yankee Hill until 1877 when racial tensions overlooked Kennard’s record as a fair and just lawman. Kennard was either removed from his post, or resigned to avoid conflict. Willie Kennard left Yankee Hill in 1877 and was never heard from again. No photo exists of Kennard, and no record of his burial is on record. As mysteriously as the “Black Marshall of Yankee Hill” arrived in Colorado, he disappeared into the pages of history and Wild West lore.
Today, Yankee Hill is just that- a hill. The literal “winds” of time have toppled what few permanent structures once marked the spot. Grasses and wild flowers and tiny pines struggling to survive dot the hillside and have swallowed up much of the remains of the town. Here and there you’ll see very trace remnants of human habitation- a tumbledown rock foundation, an old rusty nail, a tin can, broken porcelain or a shard of glass. But mostly, nothing. And each weekend in the summer throngs of 4X4 enthusiasts and ATV riders buzz past the site, unaware they are riding over the streets Willie Kennard once restored order to with his lightning fast .44’s over 140 years ago.
I visited the site twice this week, and took photos of what little is left before it is all gone. A made a crude map of what ruins I found and how the town may have been laid out so long ago. I even found one lonely grave high on the windswept slope of Yankee Hill marked “RF”. It is hard to imagine people lived and died and gun battles were fought on this isolated, rocky stage so many years ago.
Yankee Hill will soon fade into obscurity, these are some of the last photos that will record the site before it is totally reclaimed by time and earth. Today, the only residents of Yankee Hill are a few marmots that peer at you curiously from their rocky thrones high above the valleys below, and colony of chipmunks and ground squirrels that have turned the hollowed out stumps of trees cut down over 100 years ago into a metropolis of their own. We are often told and taught that once a man cuts down a tree or digs a hole, or clears a patch of land for a building or a roadway, that that damage can never be overturned- Man’s destruction is final and nature can not recover. Yankee Hill is living proof that nature is resilient and vibrant and strong, and can and will recover from our abuses if given the chance. Yankee Hill began as a mystery, lived as a mystery, and soon when she is reclaimed by nature, she will die a mystery.