Taming this high mountain county was a task for the hearty. Early homesteaders and miners often lived in tents before building log cabins. Settlers hastened to civilize the wilderness with frame buildings finished with lace curtains and wallpaper. Towns sprang up with wood stores, saloons, mills, post offices and schools which were prone to fires that frequently leveled early boomtowns. Towns rebuilt with more sophisticated and less flammable building materials provided by the new railroads and local brick factories. These Victorian business blocks and homes form today’s historic town centers.


Salida, the county’s largest town, was founded in 1880 with the arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. “Salida,” exit in Spanish, refers to its location where the Arkansas River exits the valley. Named by Outside Magazine as one of the top ten outdoor towns in the U.S., Salida features a large downtown Historic District with 12 National and State Register designations. The 1887 SteamPlant provided electricity for 70 years and is now a performing arts and conference center. The handsome Art Deco Chaffee County Courthouse was built when Salida became the third county seat in 1932, following Granite in 1879 and Buena Vista in 1880. The Salida Museum displays historic photographs and memorabilia.


Buena Vista sprang to life in 1879 as an agricultural center serviced by three railroads. The charming 1880 St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church now serves as the Chamber of Commerce and tourist and information center, with the 1890 Denver, Leadville & Gunnison Depot nearby in City Park. After years as the county seat, the 1882 Courthouse became a school when the county seat relocated to Salida in 1932, and is now the Buena Vista Heritage Museum, listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. The town jail now houses the school district offices.


In 1779 the Spanish governor Juan Bautista de Anza described Poncha Springs in the first written record of the valley. By 1881 Indian trails, toll roads and railroads converged at this natural crossroads that boasted a population of 5,000. Today the 1878 Jackson Hotel and imposing 1883 Italianate brick school (now the Town Hall) illustrate the town’s past.


Granite served Cache Creek’s early hydraulic mining and was the County seat until 1880. Early buildings east of the river remain in use.


Nearby the Clear Creek Canyon Exploration Route leads to Vicksburg, an 1880 mining town that boomed for five years with a store, post office, assay office, blacksmith, school, livery stable, boardinghouse, hotels, numerous saloons and daily stage service. On its little main street, Balm of Gilead trees planted in the 1890s shelter seven original log cabins and a great little museum open on summer weekends. Four miles further, Winfield has several cabins still occupied seasonally.


From the 1870s, St. Elmo was the trade and transportation center for Chalk Creek’s silver mining boom. Today St. Elmo’s Historic District is one of Colorado’s best preserved authentic mining towns and its restored St. Elmo Schoolhouse is open to the public. Its scenic alpine setting makes it a favored starting point for hikers, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, cross country skiers, snowshoers and OHVers.


In 1879 Maysville, on the South Arkansas River, was a bustling silver mining transportation center and the largest town in Chaffee County. The 1882 Maysville Schoolhouse was used until 1939.


Other mining camps, towns and townsites, including Turret, Alpine, Iron City, Romley, Hancock and Shavano, are now inhabited by a mix of residents, vacationers, hunters and ghosts. Historic cemeteries, including Salida’s historic Fairview Cemetery and Buena Vista’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery, plus smaller cemeteries at Centerville, Cache Creek, Winfield, Cleora, Turret and Iron City near St. Elmo, commemorate our earliest inhabitants.