Ten minutes from the edge of Denver lies a hidden valley echoing with stories of Colorado’s Wild West:, silver mines, stagecoaches, and bootleggers.
Little Deer Creek rises at the head of the valley, fed by many springs on the thousand- foot forested hillside at whose feet it flows, until it meets the South Fork of Deer Creek. This stream joins the North Fork at what was the small town of Phillipsburg, forming Deer Creek, which flows east through a wild canyon to join the South Platte River at Chatfield Lake.
The whole area, still called “Deer Creek,” was home to many silver mines in the 19thcentury, and miners built cabins along the creek and the stagecoach road that followed it through the hidden valley all the way to Leadville at over 10,000 feet in the Rockies, near Aspen. Just south of the area lies Waterton Canyon of the South Platte River. The hidden valley is a Colorado landmark. The ridges and peaks of its eastern and western hills, plus Coffee Top Mountain at the south end of the eastern ridge, were used as Forest Service Lookouts until 1918. They command views of the entire surrounding territory, including Pike’s Peak to the south, Mt. Evans to the northwest, and the Denver plateau to the east. The Forest Service built a ranger cabin part way up the hillside in the middle of the valley, for easy access to the peaks and ridges.
The valley was sold to the Maxwell Hill Coffee Company, which owned much of the Deer Creek area. They divided the area up into 100-acre parcels and soon after sold the hidden valley portion to a family of bootleggers.
The bootleggers wanted this particular valley to produce their “moonshine” (home-made liquor, forbidden at the time by “Prohibition” laws) for a number of practical reasons. First, it had an exceptionally wet microclimate for usually-dry Colorado, resulting in many hidden springs on its western and eastern slopes. These included rare Artesian springs, prized for their high-quality water (the kind that made Coors beer famous), filtered by the rock in the hills and driven up to the surface by pressure, as opposed to ordinary, lower-quality ground- water.
Second, the valley was hidden, private, and quiet, so the government’s agents, called “revenooers,” whose job it was to locate and shut down these illegal moonshine operations, would have a hard time finding them. Third, it was close to Denver, which made it easier to get their supplies and sell their moonshine. Finally, it was amazingly beautiful, with a lush, 20-acre meadow, abundant wildflowers, large aspen groves, Aspen-lined gullies carrying the spring water down the hills, and plenty of wildlife, including elk, deer, and many types of birds.
The bootleggers built a house in the valley in 1925, described by neighbors at the time as a palace. They set a concrete tank in the ground, half in and half out, near the house, to collect water from one of the most productive of the Artesian springs, feeding it to the house through a pipe. They also built a stone “spring house” on top of another of the Artesian springs near the house, for food storage. The remains of this spring house are still on the property, and its Artesian spring still flows. Most importantly to them, they constructed a number of moonshine stills in the hills, each near a flowing Artesian spring. Remains of barrels and barrel staves still testify to their operations.
The bootlegger family had a system of private signals to say whether it was safe to come into the valley. Peggy, the Irish wife, would use these signals to let her husband know whether there were any revenooers in the valley when he approached with his load of sugar for the stills. The revenooers were serious, too. Peggy’s husband had a hat with bullet holes in it to prove it. But Peggy wasn’t helpless. When revenooers came up the valley and parked their cars near her house, she sneaked out and released their brakes, allowing the cars to roll down off the road and forcing the revenooers to walk back. One time she used her Irish gift of gab to talk them into coming into her chicken house to see the chickens, then locked them in. It was an ongoing battle, with neither side giving ground.
Today, the valley is still hidden, private, and beautiful. The many springs still flow, and the Artesian spring with its concrete tank still supplies plentiful water for the house and gardens. The school at Deermont is no more, but the historical town sign endures, as do the remains of the store and dance hall at Phillipsburg, where Billy the Kid—the famous outlaw—is rumored to have danced.
The forest and ecosystem have been lovingly cared for, so the meadow is even more lush with wildflowers than ever before, and the aspens flourish. The 1925 “palace” has been expanded and was completely remodeled in 2001. The stagecoach road has been paved, and electric gates installed. But sometimes at night, in the complete silence, you may hear the rattle of a stagecoach working its way up the hilly road and the hiss of steam from a moonshine still in the hills.
From The Collection Magazine
“Colorado’s Wild West, Silver Mines, Stagecoaches & Bootleggers”
by William Hauptman