If you drive south from Denver on US 285, you will eventually get to South Park, a high alpine valley surrounded on all sides by thirteen and fourteen thousand foot peaks. As you continue, you will cross Red Hill Pass and begin heading down towards Fairplay, the county seat of Park County, Colorado. If you look to your right, you will see a rather large and imposing mountain.
There are many large and imposing mountains along the highways of Colorado, so its mere existence isn't especially noteworthy. But many of those large and imposing mountains have signs pointing to the peaks and indicating their names and elevations; this is particularly true along US 24 through the Arkansas River Valley, which has numerous signs pointing out the various Collegiate Peaks. Thus, if you were to be driving down Red Hill Pass for the first time, you would have no idea that the imposing mountain in question is called Mount Silverheels and that at 13,822 feet above sea level, it is the 96th tallest peak in Colorado.
The mountains in this part of South Park are the mountains that made me fall in love with mountains. They're the mountains that made me want to start climbing, and once I started, they were the first mountains that I climbed. So it's surprising that up until a few years ago, I had no idea what the name of this particular mountain was.
One of the early settlers in the area was a man named Joseph Higganbottom, better known as Buckskin Joe because of his choice of clothing. Like most of the people in the Rockies at that time, he was looking for gold. The legend goes that he was out hunting deer one day when he took a shot and missed. He headed over to where he had shot to see if perhaps he had nicked the deer, but instead of finding blood on the ground, he found that his shot had uncovered gold.
The course that history took from there is fairly predictable to anyone who has read about mining towns during the Colorado Gold Rush. Within a year or two of Joe's accidental discovery in August 1859, a rather large town had sprung up around the mine, estimated to have had at least 1,000 and possibly as many as 2,000 residents at its peak. The town had fourteen stores, two hotels, and a post office. Being a western mining town, it also had the requisite gambling halls and saloons. In 1861, a courthouse was built and the town became the county seat. Though known at one point as "Laurette," the name that stuck was the name of the first citizen: Buckskin Joe.
The residents of Buckskin Joe weren't all miners, of course, and there were certainly women to be found. One of these women was a dancehall girl known both for her beauty and for the distinctive silver shoes that she wore while performing. She was one of the more popular girls among the miners and probably made pretty decent money. Because of the color of her shoes, she was known popularly as "Silverheels."
1861 was a big year in Buckskin Joe. In addition to getting a new courthouse, the town was hit hard by a smallpox epidemic. Letters begging for help were sent to Denver, but little came. A good portion of the citizenry skipped town fairly quickly, but most of the miners decided to remain behind and risk infection because they feared claim jumpers. For many, this proved to be a fatal mistake.
Hope for the miners came in the person of Silverheels, who stayed by the stricken miners' sides, caring for them the best she could. In addition to nursing the miners, she also helped by cooking and cleaning for them while they were ill. Through her efforts, a number of men who might otherwise have died were saved. Unfortunately for Silverheels, the constant exposure to the disease eventually caused her to contract it as well. She was placed in the infirmary with many of the miners, and managed to beat the disease.
The miners she had worked so hard to save took up a collection that they hoped to give to Silverheels to thank her for helping them. After raising $5,000, they went to her cabin to deliver their gift, only to discover that Silverheels was nowhere to be found. One version of the story says that all that was there was a pair of her silver shoes sitting on the table. She is said to have fled because the scars from the smallpox had scarred her beautiful face.
The money was returned, but the miners decided to name a prominent nearby peak in her honor: Mount Silverheels.
It is said that many years later, after the mines had been exhausted and the town mostly died, a mysterious veiled woman would sometimes be seen placing flowers on the gravestones of the victims of the 1861 smallpox epidemic. And some people say that even today you can see the ghostly figure of a veiled woman walking through the Buckskin Joe cemetary, placing flowers on the graves of the friends that she wasn't able to save.