Tales from the Tread: Mad Creek history discovered, Part 1 | SteamboatToday.com

Tales from the Tread: Mad Creek history discovered, Part 1

Candice Bannister
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
An early car makes its way through the Mad Creek Canyon Road, now the Mad Creek Trail, circa 1930.
Tread of Pioneers Museum archives

Editor’s note: This is the first part in a two-part series about the history of the Mad Creek area.

In all of my time in Steamboat Springs, few areas have fascinated me more than Mad Creek. The Mad Creek barn, the collapsed cabins on the creek, the views and the raging creek … no matter how many times I hike or bike in the area, I am struck by an unending love and curiosity.

Working at the Tread of Pioneers Museum, I keep my eyes out for Mad Creek history that can unveil the stories of this beautiful area. Last year, Donna Heintze Davis came to the museum to donate items from the Heintze family who homesteaded “up above Mad Creek” from 1915 to 1944.

Not only was the family’s story fascinating, but she was also able to provide clues to the mysterious collapsed cabins that still remain by the bridge that were once part of the Mad Creek Guest Ranch.

Mad Creek itself was reportedly named in 1877 after a traveler nearly drowned in the stream and his horse “was beaten to death on the rocks.” The Mad Creek trail, just off Routt County Road 129, to the Mad Creek barn was previously called the Mad Creek Canyon Road. It was and is famously narrow and steep through the Mad Creek Canyon.

Thanks to Heintze Davis and her family, we now have photographs of early automobiles making the harrowing journey on this narrow dirt road. Hiking it today, you can see the hand placed rocks on the downhill side used to stabilize and build the road. Due to erosion on the uphill side, you can hardly believe that it was ever wide enough to drive a car safely.

Of all of the items we acquired from Heintze Davis, in my opinion, the most enthralling was the marketing brochure from the Mad Creek Guest Ranch. It boasts world class fishing, horseback riding, pack trips, hunting, beautiful scenery and time outdoors, along with delicious home cooked meals, a tennis court, bathhouse and more. Guests stayed in those now dilapidated cabins that still remain on the creek by the bridge.

Heintze Davis’ photos indicate that just across the creek from the bridge was a bathhouse and main lodge where meals were served. Walking this area above the creek in search of clues of the ranch’s main buildings, all I could find was an old rusty wood stove that survived. It’s hard to believe that so many structures and people could have occupied this now open space.

In November 1924, Courtney and Dr. George Ives started a fur business to raise foxes, minks and other animals. That same year, Courtney Ives completed the road up the Mad Creek Canyon to the ranch and built some simple cottages. From research in the Steamboat Pilot digitized newspaper articles, we discovered that between the years 1928 to 1951, the Mad Creek Ranch was operated first as a boys camp, then as a guest or dude ranch by various members of the Ives family. 

Robert Heintze in front of one of the Mad Creek Guest Ranch main buildings, circa 1934.
Tread of Pioneers Museum archives

“High up in the Colorado mountains and nestled in a beautiful valley, checkered with hay and grain fields is a spot that is truly the vacationist’s paradise. Mad Creek Ranch, the only privately owned land on the whole stretch of Mad Creek … is one of the best if not actually THE best fishing stream in the Routt National Forest. … We gather around the big stone fire place and pop corn, toast marshmallows and spin yarns about those big speckled fellows we didn’t quite land. Impromptu programs of music and dramatics are a part of the boys’ regular schedule…” March 19, 1930, Steamboat Pilot.

In 1951, Mr. and Mrs. Boyd Bair of Otis, California, purchased the ranch from Fred Ives. There are few mentions in the newspaper of the ranch or operation after this time. The U.S. Forest Service purchased the land in 1979.  

If you go

What: Mad Creek Geology and History Hike with the Tread of Pioneers Museum and Yampatika
When: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 13
Where: meet at Mad Creek trailhead on Routt County Road 129
Info: Space is limited, sign up and pay fee at yampatika.org

To learn more about the Heintze family who homesteaded the area above Mad Creek, stay tuned for a future article and attend the Mad Creek Geology and History Hike with the Tread of Pioneers Museum and Yampatika at 9 a.m. on Aug. 13. Space is limited, and signup and cover charge is required at yampatika.org.

Candice Bannister is the executive director of Tread of Pioneers Museum.

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