The dirt road winding from Canon City through Phantom Canyon is quiet but not nearly as quiet as Victor, Colo. on a Tuesday afternoon, the town that sits five miles outside of Cripple Creek on Hwy 67 at the end of Phantom Canyon Road. Actually, with 455 residents, it is hard to imagine anything but quiet in Victor.
Remnants of stores past exist on Victor Ave., the main drag, blending amongst the local hotspots. A grocery store, an art gallery and a bakery lie vacant amongst a few restaurants, a general store and the historic Victor Hotel.
It is apparent almost everywhere the town was once a bustling city. Overlooking Victor is evidence of a once booming gold industry, one that helped a population of more than 50,000 people in the area thrive.
Gold was first discovered around Victor and Cripple Creek in 1890. At its peak, the area was the site of over 500 mining sites. Today, only one gold mine is in operation.
On the Tuesday afternoon a friend and I discovered Victor, a group buzzed around the Lowell Thomas Museum, which highlights the heyday of the gold rush. Had we known yellow hard-hats were complementary with the tour, as we discovered as the group wandered back to their bus, we would have eagerly put aside time for the tour.
Instead we opted for lunch at the Headframe “bikers welcome” Tavern. No bikers were actually present, probably because Britney Spears and Rhianna blasted from the jukebox. It was their loss, the pool table was open, the burgers were fresh and the beer was cold.
Wandering down the street and up the hill on 4th Street (approximate directions), you’ll find an antique shop with no apparent name. In addition to the expected furniture, jewelry and weathered books are reminders of the town’s history. A cabinet houses vintage photos and forgotten letters written in elegant cursive and near the back of the store sits a stack of Rocky Mountain News papers from the 1930s.
On the opposite side of Victor Ave. the train depot from Adelaide, a wide spot in the road that sat along side Phantom Canyon Road. In 1895 a flood washed the town away, killing three. It was eventually rebuilt above the flood line. In the 1890s the road was carved out to serve as a passage from Florence to Victor. Today, driving the narrow gravel road is comfortable compared to the railroad that once ran through the canyon. It was established in the early 1890s but eventually was deserted due to frequent flooding.
The train depot now serves as the visitor center for Victor.
Directly across the street from the tavern is a small café and bakery, the name is also unknown to those passing by and tourists. The aroma spills out of the propped open door down to the end of the street. It’s actually what lead us into the shop. “It smelt really good, so we decided to come in,” I told the woman greeting us.
There were no menus or specials written on chalkboards, but a large kitchen counter sat in the middle of the shop. The woman made me a chai tea latte as we admired the work from a local artist who she said mostly enjoyed painting people of the town. He had done a portrait of her, so she supported his work by showing it in the café.
As we finally determined whether or not the sunflowers placed in mismatching vases on each table were in fact real, my chai was ready, sitting on the counter in a Chinet to-go cup. “I stuck a cinnamon stick and a piece of ginger at the bottom along with some agave, you can add whatever if it’s not sweet enough,” she told me.
No sweetener necessary. The chai was perfect maybe the most perfect cup of chai I’ve had.
Winding out of town, Hwy 67, or the Gold Belt Tour, eventually leads to the Shelf Road turnoff, which will take you back to into Canon City. Shelf Road is self-explanatory.
The immediate drop off outside your window really isn’t that bad until it is understood the bottom of the canyon is really, really far down. The drive from Canon City to Victor takes you from about 5,000 feet above sea level to nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.
It was only after we descended 5,000 feet that we realized the little town that is all but forgotten has unmatched character, tranquility and a heart of gold.