It doesn’t take long, but it does take a good bit of imagination, to find your way into a piece of Colorado’s mining history through the “almost” ghost town of Manhattan located at the foot of Prohibition Mountain 45 miles west of Fort Collins. The site of this once bustling mining community can be reached via Poudre Canyon and County Roads 69 and 162 or by turning off U.S. 287 onto Red Feather Lakes Road (74E) and proceeding toward Pingree Hill on County Road 162.
Wellington’s current mayor, Jack Brinkhoff, makes the trip every couple of weeks to spend time with his father, Mike, now in his late 60s and the lone resident of Manhattan. Brinkhoff’s brother and a few friends go along to engage Mike in Sunday afternoon poker games. Mike spent his working life in the hills, logging, running a sawmill and dabbling in mining.
Jack was eight-years-old when the family which included his mother, Karen, and older sister Kate, moved to Manhattan to live in a house Mike had traded some land to have built. Younger brother Sam came along later. Now the family has scattered but Mike remains, “pretty much a hermit” according to Jack. Mike exists with a gravity-fed water line, propane heater, 12 volt generator and a big stack of firewood. He rarely visits Fort Collins but occasionally goes to Walden for supplies. He seems to be following in the footsteps of his fiercely independent parents “Rattlesnake Jack” and Polly Brinkhoff who lived off the land and their wits in several areas in Poudre Canyon. Manhattan is the final resting place for both of them.
Graves marking the site of the only two miners killed in Manhattan in their line of work are the only physical remains of the hopes and dreams of early prospectors who staked more than 300 claims in the area. Over time, myths have intruded on the facts. Some say the population once rose to 4,000; others insist it never got above 200.
What is known is that after three experienced prospectors found gold ore on the divide between Seven Mile and Elkhorn Creeks north of the Poudre River in 1886, a mini gold rush was in full swing. A hotel, general store, post office, livery stable, saloon and even a newspaper, the Manhattan Prospector, sprung up to serve the growing community. At one time there were more than 40 structures in the town in addition to the tents where many miners lived. Some accounts say hopes were so high for its future that people thought it might one day rival the population of Fort Collins, about 5,000 at the time.
One quote from the Prospector claimed “Many people from Denver, Cheyenne, Leadville and other places will come to Manhattan. All who have visited this place say we have the best showings they have ever seen…Mr. Brady says that in all of his experience in mining he has seen nothing to compare with this.”
But there were no riches found around the corner or in the streams or the earth, no matter how deep the miners dug. A mother lode was never found, and no veins ever proved rich enough to justify continued mining.
The town had its ups and downs before it was eventually abandoned in the 1930s. Transportation into the area was a continuing challenge and as the mines went deeper, the process of extracting ore became more difficult. By 1890 some prospectors had already abandoned their claims when a new vein was discovered and the town took on a new lease on life for a little while. During the boom years of 1890 to 1892, a one-room school was built and 20 students were enrolled.
By 1896, hopes had fizzled again and only 50 prospectors remained. After yet another short-lived revival in 1898 and the promise of an important strike as late as 1911, the town began a final decline. Many of the existing buildings were moved to sites in Poudre Canyon.
B. F. Burnett, the first mayor of Manhattan, didn’t give up easily, though. He remained in his small cabin in the deserted town into the 1930s. By 1933, the remaining structures were dismantled by the Forest Service because they were considered a fire hazard.
Manhattan is now private property. Word has it that a Denver owner pays an $100 annual assessment fee to maintain his claim to the only mine still existing in the area.
History buffs can read more about Manhattan and see several photos in Stanley R. Case’s informative work “The Poudre, a Photo History,” published in 1995. The 1972 revised edition of Ansel Watrous’s “History of Larimer County,” originally published in 1911, also sheds light on the history of Manhattan.