July 7, 2014

Uptop, Colorado: A Ghost Town With a Beating Heart

  • By: Steven Piccione

Credit: Larry Lamsa, Flickr
Uptop, Colorado, was settled in 1877, but remains a ghost town outside La Veta.

When you hear the term “ghost town,” you probably imagine a diminishing population, failing industries, and bleak economic fortunes. That’s why the story of Uptop, Colorado -- a 40-acre settlement, established in 1877, near the town of La Veta -- paves the way for a newer understanding of what it means to be a ghost town.

Uptop wasn't always thought of this way. From 1877 to 1899, the town had the world's highest train tracks with the Denver & Rio Grand Railroad's Veta Pass. In the early 1900s, the tracks were removed, and Uptop became popular with coal miners and loggers who produced the wood needed for mine infrastructure. Automotive tourism took over once the miners left in the 1940s. Then, in 1962, the state of Colorado created a safer highway through the mountains, leaving Uptop to the ghosts of its industry past.

The revitalization of Uptop -- which sits on the crest of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the southern Rockies -- can be directly attributed to the efforts of siblings Deb Lathrop and Dianne “Sam” Law, who acquired the land in 2001.

Credit: Deb Lathrop
Locomotives stopped at Uptop, when it was the main passage across the Rockies from 1877 to 1899.

Before purchasing Uptop, Lathrop lived a corporate life in Massachusetts while her sister was studying in Boulder, Colorado, attaining her second master’s degree. Upon visiting her sister, Lathrop fell in love with Colorado. Soon after, they both decided to sell their homes on the East Coast and looked around the state for a place to live until someone recommended Uptop, just outside of La Veta.

"We thought we were going to open a retreat center, so we were looking for land that came with the water and the mineral rights," Lathrop says. "Someone showed us Uptop, and we said, ‘This is it.’"

She quit her job, and they bought the settlement together. But Uptop and its nine historic buildings were in a sorry state when the sisters took over.

"The buildings were all leaking, water was pouring through the roofs, and some roofs were on the floor," Lathrop says. "All of the buildings needed rehab."

Credit: Deb Lathrop
Botanists, including Harvard's Asa Gray, collected samples in 1878 for Charles Darwin's research of the Veta Pass.

In light of the new scope of work, the sisters changed their focus to restoring the town’s buildings as a way to foster community activities and appreciation for its history. They came up with two new goals: save the buildings for the future before further neglect spelled their end; and put the land under conservation easement to protect it from development.

Lathrop and Law went to preservation workshops to learn more about preservation work and the legal landscape of protecting historic sites. It took a year of working with the Colorado Historic Register to list Uptop as a state historic district, and it eventually was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile, they replaced 43 windows, removed piles of debris, and did the entire clean-up themselves by hand.

Credit: Deb Lathrop
In the early 1900s, locomotives were routed across the mountains through another pass, but the removed tracks provided a road for automotive tourists to Uptop.

“We’re both young for our age,” Lathrop, 64, says about herself and her sister, 67. “We get on the roofs with hammers and do all the work ourselves. We’ve just had the time of our lives. We’re never going to wear nylons or heels again.”

They’ve spent the past 13 years fixing the historic buildings, which includes the 1877 cabin of original homesteader Juan Antonio Trujillo. The other buildings include a chapel, schoolhouse, dance hall, and barns.

Uptop now welcomes cross-country skiers and hikers, and even plays host to dance festivals. This summer, there will be a fundraiser for a Celtic festival with headliner and Emmy-winning Spanish-Celtic musician Carlos Núñez.

“We’ve brought the ghost town back to life, and it’s become very important to our local town,” Lathrop says.

A photograph from the 1950s of an old truck that used to tow rope.

With so much activity around it, Uptop is back on the market after 13 years of the pair's stewardship.

“We’ve had the best time. We’ve met incredible people. Our reason for putting it on the market is because we feel it is time for someone who is younger, who can now take it to the next level. We saved it. We’ve preserved it. We’re up there every weekend, but we’re ready to move on to write books, finish movies, and travel,” Lathrop says.

Once the sisters pass the torch to the next generation, they plan to retire -- for a second time -- in France. However, their love for Uptop isn’t diminished by their plans to reside abroad. They hope the eventual new owners will continue nurturing Uptop, with Lathrop suggesting summer camps, dance competitions, and an expansion of the summer hiking activities.

As Lathrop says, “There’s just so much potential. You can go in a million different directions with it.”

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