Clifford Griffin tried his best to turn tragedy into triumph. His beloved fiancé unexpectedly died the day before their wedding, sending his life into a tailspin. To escape the heartache and rebuild his life, he moved from New York to Colorado with his brother, Heneage. It was the late 1860s, a time when gold and silver seemed to pour from the mountains and riches awaited anyone who could swing a pick into the ground. The truth is few ever struck it rich from the gold and silver rushes, but the Griffins were lucky. Heneage founded the 7:30 Mine twelve hundred feet above the town of Silver Plume, and Clifford became its manager.
Because of his kindness and his policies at the 7:30, Clifford was popular with the miners in Silver Plume. The mine’s workday began at 7:30 (hence the name), a full hour after other mines. Clifford gave a Christmas goose to his workers’ families and he would buy rounds of drinks at bars in Silver Plume and nearby Bakerville. In an age generally characterized by brutal working conditions and labor strife, the Griffins operated what could be considered the Google of its time. What Clifford was best known for, though, was his violin. He lived near the entrance of the mine and would play his violin on a nearby cliff overlooking the town, the acoustics of the valley allowing his concerts to be heard by all the townspeople. They quickly grew accustomed to his playing and looked forward to the nightly concerts. After his last melody faded in the still mountain air on June 19th, 1887, a gun shot suddenly pierced the quiet and alarmed all of Silver Plume. The pop originated from high above the town in the direction of the 7:30, and the residents could only fear the worst. A group of men quickly organized and rushed up the road to the mine.
My wife Liza and I followed in their footsteps 127 years later, on a cool fall day in 2014. Like the men running up the road all those years before, I did not know what to expect once we reached our destination. In the anthology of Colorado legend, Clifford Griffin’s tale is an unfortunate obscurity. Information is scarce, and the few accounts sometimes contradict each other. So as explorers of both Colorado’s outdoors and its rich history, we set out on the 7:30 Mine road to learn whatever secrets an in-person visit would divulge. The road leaves town and immediately begins a steep climb up the side of Silver Plume Mountain. During the mining days it was a toll road serving about a half dozen of Silver Plume’s mines, with the 7:30 being its end. Today it is closed off to automobile traffic and is a foot and bike route through aspens and relics of Silver Plume’s mining past. Old boilers, pulleys, cables for bucket trams, and other mining machinery litter the sides of the road. Somehow, much of the equipment has escaped notice from treasure hunters and has instead been left for future generations to study and appreciate. The road switchbacks several times on its climb out of town, but as it gains altitude begins to level out and stay true to a more constant westerly course. Of particular interest to me was the road builders’ frequent use of stone and wood retaining walls. I am fascinated by nineteenth century engineering and these retaining walls, still resolute in holding back tons of rock and dirt, is a testament to the craftsmanship of their builders. The stone retaining walls of the period were built almost exclusively without mortar, and the wood retaining walls have defied over 140 years of rot and deterioration. The road itself in some places hasn’t fared as well as the walls built to protect it. In some places, erosion has worn much of it away to the point it is now just a narrow path through loose scree. This trail is a poor choice on which to take flatland friends and relatives, who might be unnerved to have nothing more than several hundred feet of a 65 degree slope and loose slippery rock separating them from their maker.
Almost 1500 feet above and two miles from where we had started, we approached the remains of the 7:30 Mine. Liza and I tried to imagine the scene 127 years earlier, when townspeople came rushing up from Silver Plume after the gunshot. Shouts of Clifford’s name surely could be heard several times before someone finally discovered what many had feared. After sending a bullet through his heart, Clifford fell into a silent grave he dug for himself in the rocky soil. A nearby suicide note told of Clifford’s continuing grief from the loss of his fiancé. Tormented by her memory for years, he could no longer bear life without her. He asked to be left where he lay in his self dug grave. Mournful residents of Silver Plume took up a collection for a 10 foot tall granite monument near the site of his grave and the 7:30 Mine. It was hauled by wagon up the road we had just hiked and erected on the cliff from where Clifford entertained the town with the soothing sounds of his violin. The inscription is simple: “Clifford Griffin Son of Alfred Griffin ESQ, of Brand Hall, Shropshire, England Born July 2, 1847. Died June 19, 1887. And in consideration of his own request buried near this spot.” Located just a hundred feet or so from the old road, the monument’s setting is inspiring–Silver Plume’s tiny buildings more than a thousand feet below, I-70 winding its way westward through the valley toward the Eisenhower Tunnel, and the surrounding towering peaks serving as silent sentinels of Clifford’s troubled soul. Some say you can hear his violin on breezy summer nights, reminding us that being rich is no substitute for being happy.