Friday, July 20, 2012

Murder at the Bordenville School

Silverheels Mountain dominates the northwest rim of South Park, Colorado. A large igneous stock (body) intruded this 13,817-foot mountain, causing extensive metamorphism (heat and pressure) throughout the area. Ore-forming solutions spread into small fissures and fractures associated with the emplacement of the stock and deposited pyrite, quartz, and some gold. Over eons of time glaciers and the Tarryall Creek, with headwaters on the east slope of Mount Silverheels, eroded and carried gold nuggets to gravel deposits across southeastern South Park. Gold placers, scattered along Tarryall Creek, attracted prospectors to the area who quickly established the Tarryall Mining District in July, 1859. I

In the late 1860s, pioneer ranchers settled in the Tarryall Creek bottom lands and spread out into the meadows of the surrounding country. As the gold began to play out a deadly gunfight at the school house shattered the peaceful valley, and left the members of the school board shot to doll rags. This is the story of that infamous shootout.

By 1865, two brothers: Timothy and Olney Borden; began ranching in the Tarryall valley and established a supply and lumber operation for the South Park mines to the north and west. The site soon became known as Bordenville.

A Bordenville cabin.  Photo date 6/99 by S. Veatch
The older brother, Timothy Borden, was born in New York state in 1826, and later moved to Iowa. In 1861, Timothy Borden left Iowa to work in various gold mines in Summit County, Colorado. Olney Borden, the younger brother, landed near Golden, Colorado to try his hand at mining. In 1865, the Borden brothers decided to work together and rode out to the Tarryall Creek area to start their dream of ranching. Because the Bordens owned the best water rights, they built a sprawling ranch covering 2,000 acres. With the ranch established, Olney Borden found time to look for a wife—his efforts brought him in contact with a rich widow from St. Louis and he married her in 1880. The Bordens were among the most prosperous and respected families in South Park.

On the way to the rich Leadville mines, travelers (following the lure of gold and silver) came north along the lower Tarryall road from Colorado City and stopped at Bordenville to rest and get supplies before continuing on to the new goldfields. In addition to ranching, the Borden brothers operated a sawmill, a general merchandise store, and a post office. The town developed into an important ranch, lumber, and supply center for the South Park mines.

Bordenville reached its peak in the early 1880s with a population of about fifty. By this time the town had a stage stop, a blacksmith, and a mineral surveyor. The Bordenville school stood near a two-story ranch house. The School Board had met on May 6, 1895 to devise a plan to keep the motherless children of Benjamin Ratcliff in school. Ratcliff, whose wife had recently died, lived back in the remote mountains with his children. Ratcliff mistakenly thought the School Board had met in an attempt to keep his boisterous children out of the school. Benjamin Ratcliff, enraged over this flawed and misguided notion, rode out from the hills to the schoolhouse where he dismounted, tied his horse to the rail, entered the school, and opened fire on all three of the school board members: Samuel Taylor, Lincoln McCurdy, and George Wyatt (McConnell, 1964). Both Taylor and McCurdy died before they hit the floor; and Wyatt, mortally wounded, slowly slid down against the blackboard and died.

After the carnage Ratcliff rode to Como and turned himself in to the town marshal. The people of Jefferson, just seven miles north of the Bordenville School, tasted blood and threatened to lynch Ratcliff; however a trial took place and convicted him of the murders. Ratcliff ultimately hanged at the state prison in CaƱon City. His body was returned and buried in the hills near Bordenville. The town did not want him in the consecrated ground of the Bordenville cemetery.

Bordenville began to decline after the railroad went through South Park, north of Tarryall, and when the local mines played out (Eberhart, 1974). Postal service ended in 1884. By 1900, Bordenville lost its status as a town; however it remained a focal point for neighboring ranches. Today, Park County 77 passes by the few remaining buildings of Bordenville. Across from Bordenville, the Tarryall Creek peacefully meanders through the verdant valley—past the old Borden place. Eagle Rock rises up in the distance. The Bordenville cemetery, on the hill next to what remains of the town, is the final resting-place of Timothy and Olney Borden. Mrs. Ratcliff’s grave has a marker showing she died in 1882. Somewhere in the quiet hills behind the cemetery are the remains of Benjamin Ratcliff.

Bordenville, Colorado.  Photo date 6/99 by S. Veatch

Eberhart, P., 1974, Guide to the Colorado Ghost Towns and Mining Camps, Sage Books, Chicago, IL, p. 476.

McConnell, V., 1964, Bayou Salado: The Story of South Park, Sage Books, Chicago, IL, pp. 250-252.

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