"In the early spring the Crystal is a torrent, lusty with melted snows, swollen with waters which have plunged from the steep sides of the Elk Range. In winter, it almost sleeps. But always, it is a strange river, and the history of man on its banks has been filled with promises, dreams, and disillusion."
-- Alvin Foote
Utes first came upon the Elk Mountain Range and used it for their summer grounds. They welcomed the few Spanish explorers and tolerated the occasional white trapper, even the Crow party that explored for Gold and Uncle Sam in 1844. In 1863, the Utes signed a treaty, giving up this valley so that they might live in peace with the white man. After surviving in southern Colorado on a portion of their once-vast range, they were exiled to Utah in 1881.
Early prospectors banded together at the head of Settler's Creek. They routed out silver, lead, and copper in their unending search for riches. The town grew into a roaring mining camp, boasting of the $300,000 that the mines produced annually in their heyday. The most famous of these mines, the Black Queen mine, played out for over twenty years from 1869 until 1893. This mine and Old Joe's mine on Sugar Boy were among the very few to continue for this long, since frequent snowslides, explosions in the subzero temperatures of winter, and perennial transportation woes reduced the mines' profits.
Matthew Cole came to town with seven supply wagons in 1869 and set up a crude general store. With the profits, he bought the most desirable lots in the tent town. He then built and stocked a general store, millinery, and a gambling hall. Rachel Cole, his wife, convinced him to close the gambling hall, but only after Matthew had raked in enough profits to build a victorian mansion on Gold Hill. Matthew built a small post office next to his store in 1876 so that Marble Springs could qualify as a town.
In 1870, a drunken prospector named Griffith stumbled into a large box canyon of marble cliffs and named it the Devil's Punch Bowl. T.M. Davidson, a financier from Boston, bought the claim from Griffith for $500 and founded Marble Quarry in 1874 to develop these deposits. At first, he hauled his great blocks of marble on sleighs to Carbondale to be shipped. Later, he persuaded Pitkin County to invest in the Crystal River Railroad, which finally reached Marble Springs in 1880 and joined the Denver & Rio Grande line in 1887. The marble was of such high grade that the small quarry prospered even in the face of damaging snowslides and the tremendous difficulties in hauling the marble out of the Rockies. This quarry furnished marble for Lincoln's Memorial, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Denver's capitol building, and a number of monuments throughout the West. T.M. Davidson donated enough marble to build what the town called the Marble Edifice--a building that served as church, school, and town hall.
He then built Goliath Manor--a rambling rotunda out of the pure marble to tempt his Boston fiancee, Elizabeth Quincy Appleton, into marrying him and coming to Marble Springs. He intended Elizabeth to acquaint the town with the finest Eastern graces. Unfortunately, she fell ill soon after arriving and was rarely seen outside of the manor.
By 1877, there were three saloons and a gambling hall. The queen of these establishments, the White Owl, grew into a town hotel and gathering place. Prostitutes set up their small log cribs by the White Owl, and a roaring red light district was born.
By 1880, Marble Springs was a going concern with a newspaper, a fire station, and a school band. The Ladies Aid Society met every Tuesday to plan church socials, fairs, and aid for the less fortunate. Up to a thousand people lived in Marble Springs, working the quarry and mines.
The Bland-Allison Act of 1878 had instructed the Treasury Department to coin between $2 millon and $4 million dollars of silver each month, and the silver mines boomed. Soon these government purchases artificially inflated the price of silver. To counter this, the Sherman Act in 1890 reduced the amount of silver the government would buy. By 1893, even this watered-down purchase act was repealed, and the silver market lost its best customer. The domestic silver market sank so low that mines could not afford to operate. Mines closed, and the country plunged into the Panic, a deep depression that few Colorado towns survived.
T.M. Davidson instructed the quarry to take on as many men as possible, increasing production and shipping to make up for the now-sour silver ore trade. Thus, the quarry and marble mill became the principal employer, hiring on as many as 50 workers. Although the town dwindled, the social institutions continued.
Marble was not a war commodity, and the quarry faltered during the first World War. Workers left for the trenches in Europe. Townspeople suffered through the decline in the quarry's fortune. The winters of 1917 and 1918 were particularly harsh, and the influenza epidemic struck with a vengeance. Before the town quarantine was lifted, 19 people had died.
Although the quarry came back strong after the war, a decade of prosperity was not enough to revitalize the town. Orders stopped after the Great Crash of 1929, forcing the quarry to close. Without its principal customer, the railroad tried to carry tourists, but no one could afford to travel, even for the beauty of the Crystal River Valley. The railroad then closed in 1930. The town slowly, sleepily died.