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The revival of Uptop, the Southern Colorado ghost town

Once the home of the highest railroad in the world, two sisters have restored the tiny town back to a San Luis Valley gem.

The Denver & Rio Grand Railroad passed over old Veta Pass at the end of the 19th century as the “railroad above the clouds” -- the highest railroad in the world. The Denver Public Library, Western History Photographic Collection, Wm. H. Jackson, WHJ-378.

In the 1880s, before rollercoasters and theme parks were widely popular, there was another way for people to get their adrenaline fix: the world’s highest operating train, dubbed the “railroad above the clouds” near La Veta in Southern Colorado.

“It was like the Six Flags of America,” said Sam Lathrop, who now, with her sister, owns the land where the railroad once brought people.

“People would take this train to be terrified.”

Then, the train that went over Veta Pass would pull into a small train depot in a town called Uptop. Now, Uptop is a privately-owned ghost settlement on 429 acres that has been restored by the Lathrop sisters who originally purchased the land in 2000.

“It was a total fluke,” Lathrop said.

The sisters, originally from Massachusetts, had fallen in love with the land that Lathrop says sits perfectly in between sweeping views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Twin Peaks. It wasn’t until later when they actually purchased the land they realized there were old buildings from Uptop still on the property.

Since the purchase and restoration of the buildings, Lathrop said everybody who visits the old town seems to feel connected to it, and many have a historical or spiritual connection.

“People would come and tell us things like, ‘Oh, my mother taught in that little school house’ and we just started finding that people had an oral history to share,” Lathrop said. “They would tell us how the bar (shaped like an S) had the best bands that would play there.” Musicians who play the town now say it’s one of the few places they sound the best, according to Lathrop. She believes it’s because all of the buildings were built with wood milled from nearby trees.

A shot of the modern s-shaped bar at the old town of Uptop. Photo courtesy of Sam Lathrop

“We’ve had world-class musicians and they just love to play there,” Lathrop said.

On the day the sisters closed on purchasing the land they went up to Uptop where Lathrop was elected mayor by a majority of two people.

“The first person we met up here was Apache Susie,” Lathrop said. “She told us, ‘Whenever I’m blue, I come here because the spirit of my ancestors are up here and they are so content.’ And we’ve felt that ever since.”

Lathrop said she and her sister have tried to incorporate all of the different cultures that have touched the land, especially the Native American cultures. There are Ute prayer trees — trees that were tied as they grew to represent different things for the Utes — all around the property and the La Veta area.

“We don’t feel we’re particularly sensitive but it seems we’ve been guided by something,” Lathrop said.

One time the sisters were told by a descendent that one tree on the property seemed to be a type of memorial tree. It also happened to be where they had buried a pet that had passed away.

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By the end of 1899 the tracks that carried people up the mountain were moved further south, but not before contributing to history.

Chief Ouray and his wife, Chipeta, traveled over the pass in 1878 on their way to Washington, D.C., where they were to negotiate a treaty. That same year a team of botanists, led by Harvard’s Asa Gray, camped on the pass. They were collecting plants for Charles Darwin.

Moving the tracks didn’t kill Uptop. Soon after, a highway allowed for tourism in Uptop, where the S-shaped bar acted as a watering hole for locals and those passing through.

Eventually, when a new highway was built, the town hit a decline. That was until the Lathrop sisters renovated the town that’s now a National Historic District.

“To bring it back to life is a real joy,” Lathrop said.

Inside the dance hall at Uptop. Photo courtesy of Sam Lathrop

Since, the sisters have opened up the land to different events and festivals. It’s a year-round destination.

But now they are looking to sell.

Lathrop wants to return to France, where she’s lived before, to write another play before becoming a park ranger in Virginia.

“Our goal is to find keepers, meaning not somebody who would have it just as two weeks out of the year summer home, but somebody who will take it forward,” Lathrop said.

She and her sister say they are optimistic they will find perfect buyers — somebody who will find the kind of adventure they did when they bought Uptop.

“We felt so blessed and like we just walked into a whole storyline. Let’s play in this story,” she said.


Summer Events at Uptop

June 24 | All day

Footprints Above the Clouds: Three Cultures, One Pass. The Huerfano County Historical Society is sponsoring this event at Uptop, CO. The almost full-day happening will provide an opportunity to learn about and explore the three cultures that crossed La Veta Pass in or near Uptop, CO: The Utes and their trees, the Spanish Conquistadors led by de Anza, and the Anglos – railroads, travelers, and timber. Space is limited and lunch provided, so you will need to purchase tickets by June 14. For more information contact Lois Adams at loisadams@mac.com.

June 24 | 9 a.m.

Learn about three cultures; the Utes, the Spanish led by Juan Bautista de Anza, and the Anglos with their trains and lumbering. Investigate a ghost town and the surrounding areas where the Utes gathered. Learn about and practice identifying culturally modified trees. Study the route used by Juan Bautista de Anza as he traveled through our area. Explore the Anglo experience – visit the old railroad station and hear about logging at Uptop. Presented by Huerfano County Historical Society. For information please email loisadams@mac.com

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Written by Kara Mason

Kara Mason is PULP's news editor. She is also the Society of Professional Journalists Colorado Pro Chapter president. Kara freelances for other regional publications, covering government, politics and the environment.

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