Hessie Cabin: Dynamite, Mines and Trapdoors
Trapdoors, false floors and secret compartments; human ingenuity and cunning have made escaping history possible for centuries. But in a small Colorado mining community that wears its history on its sleeve, nothing stays hidden for long. Right outside historic Eldora, Colorado, a dilapidated 19th century cabin sits in plain sight just feet away from one of the area’s most popular trailheads, and as USDA Forest Service archeologist Dan Snyder began pulling up a few loose floorboards in the center of the cabin, he wondered what history was about to unfold.
Hessie Cabin rests directly across a parking area for visitors hiking Hessie Trail. Built in 1874, the log cabin has been an icon of mining culture that radiates through Roosevelt National Forest, but 150 years of its floor joists sinking into the earth has made it more of a hazard than an accurate representation. Decaying in such a high traffic location sparked Forest Service staff and partners to begin rehabilitation talks in 2014.
“It’s in a high use area, and since the cabin is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, letting it fall down from lack of maintenance wasn’t an option,” said Sue Struthers, Roosevelt National Forest heritage program manager. “The Forest was in a place where we either needed to repair and rehab the cabin or consult with local governments on the decision to let it continue to deteriorate.”
In 2019, the Forest was able to allocate just enough funding to replace rotting logs and the roof, slowing down the decades of deterioration but not permanently addressing the issue.
As push was coming to shove, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act and began injecting money into heritage projects on public lands across the country, with Hessie Cabin positioned as an ideal candidate.
Thanks to these stars aligning, the cabin gained funding a few months later, and Snyder and his team found themselves, little to their knowledge, working around two, centuries-old dynamite boxes buried beneath the cabin just feet off the county road.
After two years of COVID-19 delays, the project broke ground in 2021 with Forest Service and HistoriCorps staff conducting a quick and dirty cleanout, removing old furniture, and addressing oddities and rodent damage from the last 30 years the cabin sat idle.
“We were coming across strange, unexplainable things,” said Snyder. “Like the shed at the back. It was outfitted with a communication system from the inside to the outside as if maybe someone had been living in there.”
A few miles up the road from Hessie Cabin lies the corroded remnants of Fourth of July Mine – the miners staked the claim on Independence Day – where silver and copper were discovered in 1872.
“This cabin was too far to be directly associated with that, but it was possibly used for placer mining that happens in the creeks downstream of mines; not drilling but trying to find gold and other minerals in the waterways,” said Snyder.
The team removed hazard trees along with the shed since it was built in the 1960s and was not original to the cabin. They began dismantling the cabin from the top down and discovered the original split log roof under the rusted corrugated metal roof.
“It was like we were peeling back layers of time and returning a piece of this community’s character to the landscape,” said Snyder.
Weather rolling off the continental divide had taken its toll. The west-facing wall suffered the biggest hit, requiring the team to replace nearly 50% of the logs. After dismantling the walls and marking reusable logs, they worked their way down and removed the first layer of flooring.
“That’s when we noticed the loose floorboards,” said Snyder.
“There was the 1960s tongue and groove floor but also under that the original 1870s floor, all rough-cut lumber from a local mill, it was pretty exciting. Under that, we found the hidden cache area that was about the size of a small door; it was likely under a bed.”
The team began excavating around the cache area, but with nature taking its course for over a century, they had no idea they were looking around in the remnants of a buried dynamite box until they discovered what was inside.
“Disintegrated burlap wrapped around rough ore – a pretty valueless gold ore,” said Snyder. “The people living here probably hid it away and forgot about it over time.”
Which adds up. Although miners discovered gold there, Fourth of July wasn’t a major producer from its stake in 1872 until its abandonment in 1937. At its best, the mine produced publicity and primarily rough ore with downstream sites likely faring the same.
However, for Snyder, the momentum this project developed for future heritage projects far outweighed the value of any treasure buried beneath Hessie Cabin.
“Showing photos and telling this story around the District has led to numerous people approaching me about similar mining cabins that we could collaborate on; it’s an exciting time for historic preservation.”
The team began rebuilding the cabin, adding a much-needed foundation for sustainability. Snyder says the new floor plan includes the original hidden cache where they hope to display the ore and other artifacts covered with plexiglass as an interpretive area.
“This also kicked off a lot of conversations with HistoriCorps for where this partnership could head in the future,” said Snyder. “The rich mining history in Boulder, Clear Creek, and Gilpin counties gives us limitless opportunity for collaboration.”
Eight volunteers from the Mile High Youth Corps joined the project and assisted with daubing between the logs.
“We used a custom mortar mix to make it more sustainable while still looking as close as possible to the original mixture,” said Snyder. “On the inside, everything was painted white from the 1960s, but that’s not how it would have been in 1870s, so we did a mix of both.”
The crew returned the original stove and propane fridge, more for nostalgia than function, and wrapped up the project in August 2022. After two full months of work, the cabin sits 95% complete awaiting a heating system and concrete plans for future use.
“This cabin will be most beneficial to visitors if we keep it open to the public as a possible interpretive site,” said Matt Henry, who manages recreation on the Boulder Ranger District. “We’re exploring sustainable opportunities to use the restored cabin as an educational tool that complements the culture of the area and encourages stewardship by all.”
No matter what purpose awaits the cabin, the history of this community remains baked into the landscape and tells a story that’s sure to shine through any loose floorboards to guide future management.
“People have been visiting this place since they were a kid, and it’s always been this run-down cabin,” said Snyder. “Mining history is essential to this community, walking through this wilderness, that’s inescapable. That history is present on the landscape at every turn. In that way, restoring this cabin is important to keeping that character on the ground.”