Trail’s End – Muriel Sibel Wolle: Ghost town stalker
With Women’s History Month upon us, let’s take a look at a little lady who captured the image of hundreds of Colorado’s declining mining camps and districts, preserving them on paper before, one by one, these picturesque places were lost to fire, flood, avalanche, vandalism, mining expansion – or even rampant growth.
For nearly a half century, Muriel Sibel Wolle prolifically depicted the Rocky Mountain West’s historic mining scenes during the industry’s waning years. An art professor during the school year, Wolle took to the road in summer to photograph, sketch, paint, research and write about the dwindling mountain towns, eventually publishing her handiwork in four popular books. She left a large legacy conserved at the Denver Public Library’s Western History Collection – 3,000 photographic images, as well as field notes, scrapbooks, journals, maps and various manuscript drafts. The Norlin Library archives at Colorado University in Boulder hold a considerable amount of Wolle’s creative materials, as well.
How did a petite, persistent, sophisticated art teacher become one of the West’s most dedicated ghost town hunters? Muriel Sibel came to the university in Boulder at age 29. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., April 3, 1898, she graduated from the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts in 1920 with diplomas in advertising and costume design. She instructed art at the Texas Women’s College, which had a summer program in Colorado Springs where she discovered the fading Cripple Creek Mining District.
In 1927, Wolle came to the University of Colorado where she soon became the head of the Department of Fine Arts, a position she held for 20 years. While at CU, she received an M.A. in English Literature, which served her in her side career as a ghost town historian.
Each summer, she traveled into dozens of deserted mining towns to sketch the remains of the vanishing communities. She rambled, first all over Colorado, then all over the Rocky Mountain West, sniffing out mining towns, districts and relics. Usually someone else did the driving – a friend, a student or, later, her husband. She often scrambled onto horseback or laced up her knee-high hiking boots and tramped up trails to reach the high-mountain heights where settlements and camps had blossomed, faded and then died.
Her artwork and her writing helped record these “ghost towns” of Colorado and the American West, and also helped fuel a ghost town craze. Both Coloradans and tourists headed into the hills for glimpses of crumbling buildings and picturesque mining structures.
Wolle’s sketchbook, paintbrush and camera captured streetscenes, mining landscapes and other views. Her artistic plan was to “catch the mood and quality of the town with a sympathetic and dramatic interpretation.” With hundreds of “on–the–spot” drawings, she captured the vacant places depicting them as “a picturesque and courageous part of our national heritage.”
Professor Wolle’s pen, pencil and typewriter brought to life the pioneering prospectors. Weaving together vivid stories, she rustled through faded newspapers and stacks of dusty pamphlets. Searching for clues, she interviewed old-timers, as well as waitresses, store owners and filling station attendants.
Her first published efforts were booklets on Central City (1933) and Leadville (1934). She eventually authored and illustrated four lengthy books about these vacant places, in the process becoming a nationally known author.
Together with Colorado authors, including Caroline Bancroft and Robert Brown, Wolle helped create the ghost town mystique. She categorized five types of ghost towns – still alive, partly ghost, true ghosts (deserted), gone (nothing left but foundations) and modern cities. Her haunting scenescapes were typically unpeopled, even though some high altitude towns were trying to boom again using tourism to rescue their withered economies.
Her first book, Stampede to Timberline, was published in 1949. She rounded up stories of 240 Colorado mining camps, tales of “the men who swarmed to the mountains … combing the gulches, scrambling over the passes and climbing the peaks.” The book also served as a “guide book for the adventurous” giving tips to novices on how to reach ghost town ruins by car, Jeep, horseback or on foot.
Meanwhile, Muriel’s art career paralleled her publishing success. With four other CU art faculty members, who called themselves “The Prospectors,” she exhibited in 22 states. She also had one-woman shows in Maryland, Montana, Iowa and throughout Colorado.
Muriel soon followed up with Bonanza Trail — Ghost Towns & Mining Camps of the West. Published in 1953, it embraced the rest of the Mining West, a book rich with images and information from her summer pilgrimages to a dozen western states including California, Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico, Washington and Oregon.
Montana Pay Dirt, published in 1963, focused exclusively on the “Treasure State.” Wolle’s final book, Timberline Tailings, came as a follow-up volume to Stampede to Timberline, after years of receiving letters from people who related their own stories, directions and data about Colorado mining camps.
During this time, Muriel’s campus life thrived too. She was a beloved art professor and an important part of the CU theatre community – designing sets and costumes for more than 70 theatre productions. Her friendship flourished with her colleague Francis Wolle, an English professor and drama coach at the university, finally culminating in matrimony. The middle-aged couple wed in 1945 after 18 years as CU faculty members. Stepping down as chair of the Fine Arts Department gave her more time for her writing, publishing and art shows; she finally fully retired in 1966.
Boulder was their home. The Wolles were staunch members of St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, where Francis became an ordained perpetual deacon following his 1959 retirement from the university. Muriel remained active in numerous civic organizations, including the Boulder Artist’s Guild, and she received many honors and prizes for her professional work. She was chosen as the Research Lecturer for CU in 1947, the first woman to be thus honored. In 1976, she was named one of CU’s 12 alumni of the century.
Muriel Sibel Wolle died on Jan. 9, 1977, but her works live on. Her books have gone into reprint again and again. Much of the ghost town architecture and most of the mining landscapes that she documented has disappeared altogether or are changed beyond recognition.
Ironically, the campus building that bore her name became a ghost too – demolished a few years ago for a modern expansion. So, one of the strongest connection to this artist/author is at the Muriel Sibel Wolle Gallery at St. Aidan’s Church, which exhibits some of her art and provides a place for university artists – students and faculty – to display their work.