Tiny ‘Bonanza City,’ and what it means to be a small town

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(Photo: Courtesy of Mike Sinnwell/RockyMountainProfiles.com)
<p>Bonanza in fall 2003.</p>

Jim Shepherd has a joke he likes to tell people about Bonanza. When people tell him they’ve never heard of the town, he quips, “‘Oh? I’m surprised about that, especially if you’re from Colorado, because in 2000 it was listed as the fastest-growing town in Colorado. It grew 35 percent in one year.’”

That usually prompts a "Wow!"

“‘Yeah," he adds, "'but the next year they got a divorce, and he left, and the population was only up 17.5 percent. And when she left, we were back to zero again.’”

That is to say, Bonanza, which traces its beginnings to 1880 as a mining town, is tiny. The town, nestled about three hours west of Pueblo in the mountains of Saguache County, is so small that it is said to have just one full-time resident. A handful of people also live there part-time, and many more trace their roots to the town where log cabins still stand -- and are still built. As for Shepherd, he lives just outside the town and is a big advocate for it.

But the population is miniscule compared to the 1930's, when about 1,000 people lived there. As a result, it may not remain a town. County officials have asked the Colorado Secretary of State to declare Bonanza “abandoned,” and on Tuesday, the secretary’s office will hold a hearing in the Saguache Community Center. The county alleges that the town has, for at least five years, failed “to hold any regular or special election, elect officers, or maintain any of the functions of town government,” according to a notice.

After the hearing, the Secretary of State will determine whether to abolish the town, ceding it to the sole governance of the county, according to Rich Coolidge, a spokesman for the secretary.

Several people with long-standing ties to Bonanza say a rigorous defense of the town's continued existence will be presented to the Secretary of State. They say it has never been abandoned, and they say there is evidence the town has been governed in recent years. Another expected argument is that the county wrongly used shorthand when describing the town as “Bonanza” in legal paperwork. Property owners argue that historic documents indicate the actual name is “Bonanza City” and that the name was never changed.

Marvin Huckins says his parents built a log cabin in the town long ago. “Now we're the next generation to be land and cabin owners and see to it that Bonanza City continues to stay out of abandonment,” he says.

Colorado has declared 43 towns abandoned in the last decade, and Census numbers show a trend of movement away from rural areas around the country. Between 2010 and 2013, the most recent numbers available, 60 percent of rural counties across America witnessed population losses. William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says, “The prognosis does not look good for much of small town America.”

Yet James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, says the news isn't all bad for small towns. He and his wife hopped in a plane and have been touring America for their “American Futures” series and have seen many towns, noting resiliency in places.

“We’ve said that the real marker of whether a town is coming back is whether they have a craft brewery," Fallows says. "I mean, no joke. It’s a way you can tell because it means they have the kind of people who would start it and the kind of people who would go to it.”

He adds that “local patriotism” is also a good measure of a town's survivability. By that he means that talented people decide not to build their futures in America’s magnets -- a “handful of stylish urban centers" like New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Denver. Rather, those individuals, inspired by their roots, focus on building the economies of their own towns.

“It’s a more varied and encouragingly diversified landscape of opportunity and excellence across the country,” Fallows says.


The 43 Colorado towns that have been declared abandoned by the state in the last decade.

  • Chihuahua, Summit County, 2013
  • Acequia, Douglas County, 2007
  • Deckers, Douglas 2007
  • Douglas, Douglas County, 2007
  • Frankstown, Douglas County, 2007
  • Greenland, Douglas County, 2007
  • Huntsville, Douglas County, 2007
  • Lehigh, Douglas County, 2007
  • Louviers, Douglas County, 2007
  • Russelville, Douglas County, 2007
  • West Creek, Douglas County, 2007
  • Critchell, Jefferson County, 2005
  • Boston, Summit County, 2005
  • Braddoks, Summit County, 2005
  • Carbonateville, Summit County, 2005
  • Clinton City, Summit County, 2005
  • Conger’s Camp, Summit County, 2005
  • Cow Camp, Summit County, 2005
  • Curtin, Summit County, 2005
  • Decatur, Summit County, 2005
  • Delaware Flats, Summit County, 2005
  • Dickey, Summit County, 2005
  • Dyersville, Summit County, 2005
  • Excelsior, Summit County, 2005
  • Farnham, Summit County, 2005
  • Old Keystone, Summit County, 2005
  • Kokomo, Summit County, 2005
  • Lakeside, Summit County, 2005
  • Lincoln, Summit County, 2005
  • Masontown, Summit County, 2005
  • Naomi, Summit County, 2005
  • Parkville, Summit County, 2005
  • Recen, Summit County, 2005
  • Rexford, Summit County, 2005
  • Robinson, Summit County, 2005
  • Sts. John, Summit County, 2005
  • Swan City, Summit County, 2005
  • Swandyke, Summit County, 2005
  • Tiger, Summit County, 2005
  • Uneva Lake, Summit County, 2005
  • Valdoro, Summit County, 2005
  • Wapiti, Summit County, 2005
  • Wheeler, Summit County, 2005