Canon City, Colorado: Prisons and Paddling

You know how when you’re driving out in the middle of nowhere, and you see those signs warning you not to pick up hitchhikers because you’re passing a correctional facility?

Because, you know, it totally makes sense to locate prisons in isolated areas. Because, for most towns, being home to a prison isn’t usually a tourism selling point – especially if they’re already touted as a tourist destination for other reasons, like outdoor recreation.

That’s why Cañon City (inexplicably pronounced “Can-yun, despite the nya over the “n”) was such a surprise when I was there last week … researching a story on one of its correctional facilities (there are nine state and four federal). It’s a little-known fact that when I’m not writing for Gadling, I’m doing things like visiting inmates and writing magazine features on agricultural and animal-assisted correctional industries programs.

Located 45 miles southwest of Colorado Springs (which as I type, is on fire…PLEASE DON’T MAKE OPEN FIRES OR TOSS YOUR CIGARETTE BUTTS IF YOU’RE VISITING COLORADO RIGHT NOW, I BEG OF YOU), Cañon City is one of the state’s historic “Gold Belt” towns, which connects Cripple Creek and Victor Mining District, site of the world’s largest gold rush. It’s an isolated, high-desert region of ochre-colored rock, scrub and pines, at once beautiful and forbidding.

So there I was at the East Cañon City Correctional Complex in 105-degree heat, touring its goat and water buffalo dairies for a magazine feature. I’m a big supporter of these programs, but I also find the psychological aspects of criminology fascinating, as I’ve alluded to in previous posts. If mayhem, murder and madness are involved, I’m interested. But I also knew that the region is famed for the Royal Gorge (the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River“), which is home to the world’s second highest suspension bridge at 1,053 feet above water level, a scenic railroad and some of the nation’s most epic whitewater.

I’d planned to run the Class IV/V Royal gorge on day two of my visit, but the lack of snowpack has resulted in a less-than-stellar whitewater season, so, with time to kill (that is not a prison pun), I wandered historic downtown Cañon city, and discovered the Museum of Colorado Prisons.

%Gallery-159440%One of the many things I love about Colorado is that it’s not ashamed of its rowdy past. Cañon City is the epicenter of that heritage, as it’s the location of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Center, established in 1871. The Prison Museum, which is housed next door in the former Women’s Correctional Facility, celebrated its Silver Anniversary last week, so what better way to celebrate that fact than by sharing the wonders within with you?

The first thing I noticed upon entering the museum grounds was the gas chamber housed beside the parking lot. I took a lot of photos because it’s soothing, pale mint color is just the shade I’ve been longing to paint my office.

Once in the museum proper, I met Mary LaPerriere, the cheerful curator and a DOC (Department of Corrections) employee for over 20 years. She obligingly took me on a tour (audio tours are available for the general public) and answered my many questions before leaving me to explore on my own. I was touched when she brought me a biography on Alfred Packer, the notorious Colorado cannibal who served time in the penitentiary next door, after I mentioned my interest in him.

Among the displays and artifacts housed in the prison, you’ll find weapons made from all manner of everyday objects (toothbrush shiv, anyone?); photos depicting prison life; clippings and information about famous inmates such as Edna Vanausdoll, falsely accused of murdering her husband in the early 1960s; exhibits dedicated to the region’s K-9 programs; and beautiful saddles and other leatherwork crafted by inmates in correctional industry programs (Explained Mary, “The cowboy, the horse, and the dog have been part of the history of Colorado’s state penitentiary system from 1871 to the present.”). Other oddities, to quote the museum website, include:

  • The hangman’s noose used for the last execution by hanging in Colorado
  • Displays of disciplinary paraphernalia used from 1871 to the present
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons display
  • Inmate Arts and Crafts
  • Gift Shop
  • And much more!

What is not to love? I should add that Mary’s office is also a former cell used to house inmate trustees employed in the kitchen, and still retains the original barred door.

So the next time you find yourself with time on your hands in Colorado (as long as you’re not serving time, yuk yuk), pay a visit to Cañon City. Even if the weather or water levels aren’t cooperating, there’s plenty to see. Visitors should note that there’s a $25 fee to cross the Royal Gorge Bridge. Click here for information and tickets.

Museum of Colorado Prisons, open May 15-Labor day, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; Labor Day-mid-October 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily; Mid-October-May 14 10 a.m.- p.m., Weds-Sun.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

A brief history of Telluride and its surrounding ghost towns

Telluride. The name alone conjures a variety of associations, from the debaucherous (Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”) to the elite (Tom Cruise is the other inevitable mention). But this isolated little town in Southwestern Colorado’s craggy San Juan range has a truly wild past and a lot to offer. It’s not the only mining-town-turned-ski-resort in the Rockies, but I think it’s the most well-preserved, photogenic, and in touch with its history. Apparently I’m not alone, because the town core (all three blocks of it) was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1964.

Located in a remote box canyon (waterfall included) at 8,750 feet, Telluride and its “down valley” population totals just over 2,000 people. I’ve lived in Telluride off-and-on since 2005, and there’s something to be said about a place where dogs outnumber residents, and you can’t leave home without running into people you know. Longtime residents burn out on the small town thing, but I still get a kick out of it after years of city living.

Today the former brothels of “Popcorn Alley” are ski shanties, but they’re still painted eye-catching, Crayola-bright colors, and the old ice house is a much-loved French country restaurant. Early fall is a great time to visit because the weather is usually mild, the aspens are turning, and there’s the acclaimed Telluride Film Fest, brutal Imogene Pass Run (Sept. 10) and Blues & Brews Festival (Sept. 16-18) to look forward to. The summer hordes are gone, but the deathly quiet of the October/early-November off-season hasn’t begun.

According to the Telluride Historical Museum, the town was established in 1878. It was originally called Columbia, and had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble mining town following the opening of the Sheridan Mine in the mid-1870’s. The mine proved to be rich in gold, silver, zinc, lead, copper, and iron, and with the 1890 arrival of the Rio Grande Southern railroad, Telluride grew into a full-fledged boomtown of 5,000. Immigrants–primarily from Scandinavia, Italy, France, Germany, Cornwall, and China–arrived in droves to seek their fortunes. Many succumbed to disease or occupational mishaps; the tombstones in the beautiful Lone Tree Cemetery on the east end of town bear homage to lots of Svens, Lars’, and Giovannis.


[Photo credit: Flickr user hubs]

The mining resulted in 350 miles of tunnels that run beneath the mountains at the east end of the valley; you can see remnants of mine shafts and flumes throughout the region. If paddling is your thing, you’ll see gold dredges runnning on the San Miguel, San Juan, and Dolores Rivers.

Telluride’s wealth attracted the attention of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, who famously robbed the town’s San Miguel National Bank in 1889 (trivia: I used to live in an upstairs apartment in that very building). But in 1893, the silver crash burst the money bubble, and almost overnight Telluride’s population plummeted. By the end of World War II, only 600 people remained.

Telluride is a part of the 223-mile San Juan Scenic Highway, which connects to the historic towns of Durango, Ouray, and Silverton. There’s only one paved road in and out of Telluride, and that’s Hwy. 145. The only other options are two high, extremely rugged mountain passes (which require 4WD and experienced drivers). There are also a handful of ghost towns in the area. Some, like Alta (11,800 feet) make for a great, not too-strenuous hike; you’ll see the trailhead four miles south on Hwy 145. There are a number of buildings still standing, and two miles up the road lie the turquoise Alta Lakes.

If you want to check out the ghost town of Tomboy, it’s five miles up Imogene Pass (13,114 feet). Don’t underestimate just how tough it is if you’re hiking; you’ll gain 2,650 feet in altitude; otherwise it’s an hour’s drive. The trail begins on the north end of Oak Street; hang a right onto Tomboy Road. Unless you’re physically fit and acclimated to the altitude, the best way to see these ghost towns is by 4WD tour with an outfitter like Telluride Outside. Another bit of trivia: every July, the “Lunar Cup” ski race is held on a slope up on Imogene Pass, clothing optional.

How to get there
Telluride is a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver, but it also boasts the world’s second highest commercial airport (9,078 feet) with daily non-stop connections from Denver and Phoenix. It’s closed in sketchy weather (if you’re flight phobic, just say “hell, no”), and it’s often easier and usually cheaper to fly into Montrose Regional Airport, 70 miles away. From there, take Telluride Express airport shuttle; you don’t need a car in town. Go to for all trip-planning details. For more information on the region’s numerous ghost towns, click here.

When to go
Telluride is beautiful any time of year, but avoid mid-April through mid-May and October through before Thanksgiving, as those are off-season and most businesses are closed. Spring is also mud season, and that’s no fun. Late spring, summer, and early fall mean gorgeous foliage, and more temperate weather, but be aware it can snow as late as early July. August is monsoon season, so expect brief, daily thunderstorms. July and winter are the most reliably sunny times; that said, Telluride averages 300 days of sunshine a year. If you want to explore either pass, you’ll need to visit in summer.

Telluride tips
The air is thin up there. Drink lots of water, and then drink some more. Go easy on the alcohol, too. Take aspirin if you’re suffering altitude-related symptoms like headache or insomnia, and go easy for a couple of days until you acclimate. Wear broad-spectrum, high SPF sunblock, and reapply often on any exposed skin or under t-shirts. Wear a hat and sunglasses, as well.

[Photo credits: Tomboy, Flickr user Rob Lee; Mahr building, Laurel Miller; winter, Flickr user rtadlock]

Great American Road Trip: Ghost towns of Montana: Bannack

Not far from Dillon, Montana is the turn off for Bannack. If you happen to be on I-15, take the trip up State Highway 278. We almost didn’t because of the feeling that we had to be at our destination sooner than later. Instead of paying attention to that feeling, we followed the notion that if we didn’t go to Bannack now, then when?

Bannack is one of Montana’s ghost towns with a rough and tumble past that is linked to Montana’s early mining history and statehood.

Back in 1862, a group of men led by a fellow named John White found gold along the banks of a creek where Lewis and Clark had passed by earlier. These fellows didn’t know a thing about Lewis and Clark’s visit, or that Lewis and Clark had named the creek Willow Creek. Because grasshoppers were everywhere, White and his fellow prospectors named the gold rich waters Grasshopper Creek.

While we were slapping away the relentless mosquitoes as we wandered in and out of the abandoned, weathered buildings, I thought Mosquito Creek would have been a good fit. But, back to the gold.


Not long after news got out that gold had been found, people rushed to the area. Four hundred had arrived by fall and by spring, 3,000 people were looking for their fortunes.

As the population of people eking out a living swelled, so did the types of ways people made money. The buildings still there show the range of lifestyles and wealth. A hotel, boarding house, stores, a school house, jail, a church, a bootlegger’s cabin and miners’ cabins are some of the buildings that still line the boardwalks on either side of the dirt main street and wind up the hills and down towards the creek.

One of the great aspects of this state park is that you can meander in and out of buildings on your own, and at your own pace. Structures vary as to how intact they are which adds to the sense of abandonment and mystery.

The gallows up the narrow grassy path in back of the hotel add to the aura of just how rough life in a mining town can be. To add to the shudder effect, whoever stayed in the jail had a view of the gallows as a reminder of what might be in store.

In 1863, for example, Bannack’s sheriff, a guy named Henry Plummer was the ring leader a group of criminal cronies called “The Innocents.” They had a habit of terrorizing people. In January 1864, sick of the nonsense, a vigilante group formed to capture the sheriff. He was hanged from the gallows. So were his crooked pals.

On a more upside note of the law, the first governor of Montana, Sidney Edgerton, along with his wife and children arrived from Ohio to set up a residence in Bannack.

While I was talking with the state park guide at the visitor’s center, he told me that Europeans are quite interested in the history of the American west. According to him, this is because so much occurred in the United States in such a short amount of time. In a place like Bannack, it’s possible to see the life and death of a town that occurred in not much more than 100 years. For Americans, a trip to Bannack is a way to find out what hard scrabble means and appreciate part of U.S. history that is being kept alive by people who continue to tell the story and keep the buildings from falling apart entirely.

Although we didn’t camp here–ours was a two-hour visit, there are lovely camp sites that are first come, first serve. It’s also possible to learn how to pan for gold. We bought some in the gift shop in the visitor’s center. It was easier and faster.

[Gallery photos by Jamie Rhein. Others from State Park Web site]

Band on the Run: The Swelling of Art in Wells, BC

The little town of Wells, BC is as cute as they come. It’s snug in the valley between several mountains, (one of which is mysteriously called “Island Mountain”), and it’s a eastward turn off of highway 97 that connects Prince George, BC with Williams Lake, BC. I had never made that turn until this weekend and it took me along highway 26 for about 90kms into what is an historic hotbed.

Here’s some history: Wells, BC is really close to what is known as “historic Barkerville.” This area was bursting with activity during the mid 1800’s with the Cariboo gold rush. During its heyday, Barkerville was the largest town west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. However, with the death of the gold mining prospects there, the town died and sat abandoned for seventy years until the provincial government decided to restore it and bring it back to life as a tourist centre.

That was obviously the definition of a ghost town. I’d love some of those stories!

Wells, BC, on the other hand, was built in the 1930s as a company town for the Cariboo Gold-Quartz Mine. This mine was discovered long after things had died for Barkerville and represented yet another modest boom for the area. Wells enjoyed about a thirty-year burst of activity and prosperity before, as it always happens, the Earth could not sustain such abuse, gave up the last of her jewellrey in disgust and then forced the mines down.

Everywhere in Wells are mining or panning-for-gold references and old-fashioned images of the Wild West. By that, I mean rickety but colourful storefronts, paintings of covered wagons, and lots of puns about nuggets and gold dust finding their way into the names of restaurants and shops.

The people there welcomed us with big grins, hippie beads and sun-kissed shoulders.

The festival we performed at is called “Arts Wells Festival.” I love the double meaning when it’s said fast, although the logo doesn’t highlight the “swells” part of the festival name so I never did ask if it was intentional… but, I’m going to assume so. After all, in an area that has experienced significant swells in growth for destructive reasons, why not encourage the swelling of arts and community — constructive swells in Wells. (Well, that’s where my mind took me, anyhow!)

We arrived at around four o’clock on the last day of this long weekend festival. That was the soonest we could get there and it felt as though we arrived to a house party that was long underway. People were comfortably hanging out front of the century-old Sunset Theatre that was a wood frame building no bigger than a one-room school house with a stage and a front lobby and a tiny backstage tucked behind a musty old curtain. It reminded me of the school/church from Little House on the Prairie.

Everyone was either dusty from a long weekend of barefoot dancing at the main festival site (the local school down the road) or was damp from having just taken a dip in the river that ran right behind the theatre.

I wandered into the crowd unnoticed and found my way to the inside and the merchandise area looking for someone who could let us know where we needed to be and when. I found two smiling women selling CDs and eager to check in our items before the four o’clock show ended. We were scheduled to perform at five o’clock and were the final performance of the festival. It didn’t take me long to see the lay of the place and know that it would be a simple set-up and easy load-in.

I returned with a stack of CDs and was awarded two wooden festival badges with strings to hang around our necks. They are, by far, the coolest festival badges I have ever seen. Handmade and completely in tune with the vibe of this place; it was a family atmosphere and “homemade” seems to define everything that this festival is about.

I walked back outside then to get my gear and introduced myself to a couple of funky looking guys sitting on the outside steps. Turns out that most people here for the event were from Victoria or Vancouver, but a few were locals and everyone was super friendly – so friendly, in fact, that someone offered to go home to his house to get his amp for me to borrow. He hopped in his station wagon and was gone and back within five minutes. The tube amp under his generous arm as he made his way backstage made me smile immediately. There’s nothing better than tubes with my electric! (And of course, his smile to return my smile made me smile even wider.)

Just before four-thirty, I had myself organized enough to take in the last fifteen minutes of an amazing four-piece, spoken-word, beat-boxing group from Victoria called “Odditory Presence.” They were amazing. In the few songs I caught, they made me laugh, think and want to dance… and there was no instrument on stage besides their mouths and their minds. The mouth is an extremely important instrument for change. They’ve certainly got that covered.

When we stepped on stage, the place was full and looking onwards expectantly. Microphones were hardly needed thanks to the fact that it was built for optimum acoustics from a time when microphones weren’t even a consideration. It was intimate, to say the least. We laughed and were really casual on stage, playing a few old songs (“Goldilox” from our 2000 “The Wage is the Stage” release as our encore!), lots of new songs and telling long-winded stories. All told, the place embraced us and when we finished our encore, we were invited into that established group of friends that had long forgiven us for our late arrival.

The evening wore down then into dinner and drinks and a late-night jam. Well, it wasn’t too late, really. We headed back to our billet’s house before midnight knowing the long drive back to Edmonton the next day was going to hurt if we kept drinking wine and “scream singing” cover tunes!

A sunny-smiled woman named Kate who lives in a log home and is a massage therapist there in Wells put us up for the night. Her house smelled of cedar and incense. We both stepped in and knew we’d have a hard time leaving. Even the soap in the bathroom was handmade and all natural. And, the fact that her backyard is the foot of a mountain doesn’t hurt either. Her spices lined the kitchen counters in jars – counters that are homemade with tile tops and framed by pine – and the old fashioned stove top kettle reminded me of my grandma, its spout ornate and swooping upwards like a raised eyebrow lifts a question.

When we pulled out of Wells the next morning, I really didn’t want to leave. Just a taste of this warm community was a tease. My heart swelled with fondness when the drivers of two pick-up trucks that passed us coming out of the café in the morning as we were balancing steaming travel mugs honked and waved, the driver of one leaning out the window with “great show last night” catching the wind and making its way to our ears. Maybe next year (if they’ll have us back), we’ll plan a longer stay.

Yes, I think that’s in order.