A ‘Herculean’ effort saves Colorado ghost town from wildfire

Thursday, July 26, 2018 3:17 PM
The road leading to Uptop, a revitalized “ghost town” that dates to 1877, was burned through on both sides by the recent Spring Creek fire in La Veta, Colorado.
Sisters Sam Law and Deb Lathrop, owners of Uptop, a “ghost town” that they revitalized, look over the few trees on July 20 that burned near their buildings in La Veta, Colorado. (via AP)
In this July 20, 2018 photo, Sam Law, left, talks to Kate Simmington of Monte Vista who traveled to Uptop to check on the condition of the “ghost town,” as Deb Lathrop, right, looks at fire retardant spray on a building in La Veta, Colo. Upton, a revitalized “ghost town,” is owned by sisters Sam Law and Deb Lathrop. (Joe Amon/The Denver Post via AP)
The only building to be lost during the Spring Creek fire at Uptop is a shed that burned straight to the ground, leaving the tin roof covering its ashes in La Veta, Colorado.
Deb Lathrop prepares a snack in the kitchen of the headquarters of Uptop behind a window sprayed with fire retardant left from the Spring Creek fire in La Veta, Colorado.

DENVER – Dianne “Sam” Law and Deb Lathrop were in awe when they returned to the their historic Uptop ghost town near Old La Veta Pass after Spring Creek fire evacuations were lifted. Though much of the sisters’ 300-acre property was charred, the view from their cabin at Uptop was entirely green.

“When you’re up there, you can’t tell there was a fire, which is Herculean,” Law said. “They fought so hard to save that place and they succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”

Uptop is home to an 1877 train depot and a former timbering community. In the 1940s and 1950s, it became a thriving tourist stop for those traveling over 9,400-foot-high Old La Veta Pass between Walsenberg and the San Luis Valley before a stretch of the road was moved north. Today, nine historic buildings remain, including a dance hall, tavern and a chapel. The depot has been converted into a small museum.

Crews worked hard throughout the fire to mitigate damages near Uptop and help save its historic buildings, La Veta fire chief David DeTray said. Firefighters used a sprinkler system to provide structural protection and employed aerial resources to fight the fire.

“I just think the fire itself was a challenge just because it was going in so many different directions,” DeTray said.

Ultimately, the fire likely came within about a quarter of a mile of Uptop structures, DeTray said. Of the buildings, only one barn was destroyed. The fire chief provided updates on Uptop during community meetings and frequently traveled up to the site to check the property.

“For the local folks that know that area, along with myself, it’s one of those staples of the western part of the county and we’re very happy and relieved we were able to save that area,” he said.

Law and Lathrop didn’t plan to move to La Veta or restore the historic site they eventually named Uptop. But during a road trip through Colorado, reliving memories of childhood camping trips in the state, the self-described “Massachusetts transplants” drove over the dirt road that passes through the town. They ended up purchasing a house there.

“My sister is saying ‘I think I might want to live in Colorado’ and I said ‘I’ve been thinking the same thing.’ We just happened to see a house on fluke and said ‘Let’s buy it,’ so we did,” Law said.

That was in 1999. A year later, they purchased the land the town sits on. The sisters worked for nearly four years to restore Uptop, forced to wear gas masks during much of the work and filling several large trash bins during the renovation process. Their goal: create a community hub that played host to musical performances and charitable events. The land is accessible year-round to hikers and cross-country skiers, they said.

All of their efforts were threatened, however, when the Spring Creek fire passed through Huerfano and Costilla counties in late June and early July and imperiled the historic site. The land was put on pre-evacuation orders and then quickly moved to mandatory evacuation status. Throughout the fire, which burned more than 108,000 acres, the sisters came to accept the uncertainty of the situation.

“It was going to be what it was going to be,” Law said.

As the fire raged nearby, the sisters stayed at their home in La Veta and waited for news of Uptop.

“I felt like we had everything in our control safely packed and the rest was up to fate,” Lathrop said.

When the sisters returned to Uptop, the property was coated in red retardant, from the fields stretching across the land to the windows of its buildings.

“Our color (at Uptop) is red. Of all the colors it could be, we weren’t unhappy it was red or pink,” Law said. “We could see how much effort had gone into preserving our building.”

“It’s almost like I don’t want to wash it off, it’s such a great reminder of the firefighting,” Lathrop said.

Throughout the fire, the sisters received an outpouring of support and community members anxiously awaited news of the historic site. When the sisters saw Uptop for the first time following the fire, they couldn’t wait to share the good news, Law said.

“If your home burns, it’s a tragedy, but you can build again,” Law said. “If history burns, it’s gone.”