Bring back some good or bad memories


June 16, 2022

The Elk Mountain Pilot Newspaper Office in Irwin, Gunnison County, circa 1880s

Volume 1, Number 1 of Irwin’s weekly newspaper The Elk Mountain Pilot was released on June 24, 1880. According to a blurb in that issue, the first issue had actually been published the week before, with the very first copy having been sold to the miner John M. Blakey. That issue must not have been numbered.

The Pilot opened after John E. Phillips moved his newspaper from the already-dwindling mining town of Rosita in Custer County to the newly-opened mining camp of what was then still known as Ruby or Ruby Camp, about ten miles west of Crested Butte. Ruby had sprung up on what then was still Ute reservation land after overeager prospectors had discovered silver in Ruby Gulch in the summer and fall of 1879. A prospector named Richard Irwin made one of the largest early strikes in the area, and by the summer of 1880, the name Irwin for the camp had come into more common use (although on the 1880 national census, the name Ruby was still used).

Phillips moved his press as close as he could get it to Irwin by freight wagon, but deep snow prevented the wagon from making it all the way to the new camp. Philips and his associates finished bringing it to Irwin in pieces carried in packs as they snowshoed over the snowbound pass. Reportedly, it took several trips.

For the first year of the Pilot’s operation, Phillips had taken on John L. Lacey as business partner, and both men were listed inside the paper as editors and proprietors, but by July 1881, Phillips was running the paper alone.

Irwin is situated in a geographically unique location that causes enormous amounts of snow to dump on it, almost 600 inches per year, in fact, two to three times as much as Crested Butte receives just ten miles away. Despite the rigors of surviving such a winter, prospectors moved in quickly after the fall 1879 silver discovery to stake claims before the expected spring rush. They were right to so do.

By the end of the summer of 1880, around twenty-five mines were in operation in and around Irwin. The new town had amassed thousands of residents living in hundreds of buildings and no doubt even more tents. Twenty-three saloons and gambling parlors were already open, as were various stores and a post office, a stamp mill and a sampling works, six sawmills, three churches, a bank, a theatre, and several hotels and boarding houses. The town could even boast its own brass band, a jail, and two town marshals. By 1882, 5,000 people lived in Irwin.

Irwin’s future seemed so secure that a waterworks was built in 1883 and fire hydrants were installed on the main street. Of course, most of the mines closed later that year.

Thousands of people left Irwin almost as quickly as they had arrived. By 1884, the population was a mere fraction of what it had been. Even the town cemetery was closed in 1885. Limited mining kept the town from complete abandonment for a few more years, but the post office finally closed in 1900. Irwin was a complete ghost town by the 1920s. Today a few of the old buildings have been restored as getaway residences for both winter and summer outdoors enthusiasts, and some new houses have been built in the area as well.

John E. Phillips stayed on for a while, but knew when it was time to move. He reestablished The Elk Mountain Pilot in Crested Butte in 1884, where it continued to be published by several different publishers until at least 1920.


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