Bonanza, pop. 1: Looking for a pulse in Colorado's smallest city

Tiny municipality faces extinction unless its supporters — and sole resident Mark Perkovich — get creative

BONANZA, Colo. — At first glance, this high-altitude city in the Colorado Rockies, 9,400 feet above sea level and overlooking the sweeping plateau of the San Luis Valley, doesn’t look abandoned. Most Colorado ghost towns are little more than old piles of weathered lumber and hints of foundation, but here, houses tucked into the wooded cleft of the small vale formed by Kerber Creek are, for the most part, colorful and well kept. The yards are clear and the dirt roads are evenly graded. Near the city’s one crossroad, there’s a volunteer firehouse flying the U.S. flag and a community bulletin board next to a row of mailboxes.

But the houses and the driveways are all empty. To someone standing by a car at the crossroads, honking the horn in the futile hope of rousing any sign of life, Bonanza can feel like the setting of a Steven King novel. The loneliness is complete. Everyone is gone.

Well, almost everyone. Bonanza is one of the oldest existing municipalities in Colorado and indisputably its smallest, with a population of one full-time resident.

That population’s name is Mark Perkovich.

I love the winter. About the only person I see up here is the mailman.

Mark Perkovich

Bonanza's lone resident

“What I moved here for is the lifestyle I’m living,” says Perkovich, a 54-year-old veteran and retired Hotshot firefighter who relocated from Denver to the solitude of Bonanza nearly 20 years ago. His property of weathered outbuildings and sheds, decorated with old mining machinery and animal skulls and arranged around a house that’s a little too big to be called a cabin, shows the only real signs of life in Bonanza.

The lifestyle Perkovich has always craved involves “a lot of long mornings” in the winter, he says, and a routine of continuously feeding his two woodstoves, clearing an endless amount of snow from the porch and the driveway and keeping an eye on neighboring properties. Mostly, it’s just reveling in isolation.

“I love the winter,” he says. “About the only person I see up here is the mailman.”

Mark Perkovich
Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

The mailman may also be the only government official to set foot in Bonanza in at least the last five years. Although it was incorporated as a bona fide city on Jan. 1, 1881, this former silver-, zinc- and copper-mining boomtown long ago stopped functioning as one.

Now, Colorado’s quietest city is on the brink of being officially abandoned by the state. The population of full-time residents — never more than a dozen at any point during the past 20 years, according to the best recollections — dropped suddenly in the mid-2000s to the point where there weren’t enough people to fill the town board.

“There were only seven [full-time residents] to begin with,” says Scott Ashley, who grew up in Bonanza but now lives in Villa Grove, the closest outpost of civilization, 14 miles down-valley. “Three people died, two moved away.”

Of the remaining two residents, one vanished into the ether of fragile memories. Now, only Perkovich is left.

Perkovich can’t be his own government: The city charter requires four or five council members (memories differ) and a mayor. But even if there were enough other residents to make it possible, he has no interest in serving. “My taste for politics is pretty thin,” he says, adding that he’d be happy to have the state dissolve Bonanza’s incorporation so that it could come under the jurisdiction of rural, windswept Saguache County.

The decision, though, may be out of his hands. The effort to scrub Bonanza from the books has ignited an unexpected flurry of protest.

A view of Bonanza
Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America
We abandoned another one called Chihuahua, I believe it was in Summit County, and we didn’t hear anything. There certainly wasn’t the same level of passion that the town of Bonanza had.

Rich Coolidge

Spokesperson, Colorado Secretary of State

Abandonment proceedings are usually among the most mundane tasks the Colorado secretary of state’s office oversees, but they represent part of the necessary evolution of the state, says Rich Coolidge, a spokesperson with the agency for more than seven years. From time to time, municipalities become unable to provide services to their residents, resulting in a governmental black hole where the streets don’t get plowed, the laws aren’t enforced and revenue shares from the state and county go unspent because there’s no one to cash the checks.

Forty-three Colorado towns have been declared abandoned over the past decade, and hardly anyone seemed to notice or care.

“We abandoned another one called Chihuahua, I believe it was in Summit County, and we didn’t hear anything,” Coolidge says. “There certainly wasn’t the same level of passion that the town of Bonanza had.”                   

Nearby landowner Jim Shepherd spearheaded the effort to postpone a decision about Bonanza, hoping to give the handful of people who want to preserve its status as a real “city” time to prove that some governmental action — anything — took place during the last five years, the constitutional threshold for abandonment.

Part of the uproar is nostalgic. Seventy-nine-year-old Betty Ashley, Scott Ashley’s mother and Bonanza’s last mayor, who now lives in Villa Grove, remembers a time when the city’s population was estimated based on the number of pool halls and saloons. During its heyday in the 1920s, thousands of miners and their families lived in Bonanza. There were 16 dance halls and 26 saloons, she says, suggesting a jitterbug bustle for Bonanza that’s hard to imagine today. Scofflaws were tossed into a rat-filled “jail” in her father’s house; he also did a stint as the mayor. Her own drunken uncle was an inmate on one occasion, she recalls with a laugh.

Bonanza in its heyday, clockwise from top: Ore teams on Main Street; the crew of the Cocomonga Mine in 1900; the House of Lords saloon.

That those good old days are relegated to a handful of quickly fading memories and an exhibit of Bonanza ephemera in the Saguache County Museum doesn’t matter to those who want the city to retain its status.

“People who move to a city like Bonanza are very independent and they don’t like the idea that the government was just going to abandon the town without even talking to the homeowners,” says Kevin Harris, who remembers a time in the 1990s when “local government” was represented by a hand-made sign at the city limits warning people not to shoot guns in the town, “just like the Old West.”

Harris is one of an estimated 200 people who own property in Bonanza but reside elsewhere. He lives in Carbondale, Colorado, and like everyone else, he leaves Bonanza in Perkovich’s care over the winter and returns for summer vacation. Perkovich says there are landowners in Bonanza from 33 states.

The notice of abandonment hangs on the town's bulletin board, left.
Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

Harris says he only heard about the abandonment notice after Shepherd discovered it tacked to the community bulletin board late last year, when the snow was deep and the town in its winter slumber.

“My objection was to the way it was being handled,” Shepherd says. The notice was posted “in the dark of winter when no one is up there and without the knowledge of the 200 property owners. Our efforts were to postpone so the owners could be notified. Do they want to fight the abandonment and bring it into compliance or not? It should be up to them.”

Given the sudden interest in Bonanza’s fate, the secretary of state’s office agreed to postpone a decision until Sept. 1. Landowners are only just beginning the process of examining their options to save Bonanza.

Residents have already found some evidence, however thin, that could help to prove Bonanza had a “functional government” at some point over the last five years. Someone in the town submitted an official budget to the state Department of Local Affairs for fiscal year 2009, just within the five-year window. The budget, detailing about $13,000 of expenses for everything from office supplies to road improvements, was discovered on a hard-to-find page of the agency’s website.

Supporters also produced minutes for the Saguache County Board of Commissioners, which noted cryptically, “There was a check cashed on behalf of the Town of Bonanza in either 2009 or 2010.”

But folks have to be clear about what the consequences of that are. A lot of people we’re hearing from are appealing to emotion.

Andrew Cole

Spokesperson, Colorado Secretary of State

Other clues might be contained in the town’s official records. Believed to be lost forever, the records were recently discovered by Jim Shepherd in an old trailer on Betty Ashley’s property. Shepherd says no one has yet had the time to cull them for proof that Bonanza had a pulse at some point since 2009.

Harris and Shepherd are hoping for an easier solution, however, one that might be possible due to a controversial new state voting law. The 2013 law allows residents to register to vote anywhere in Colorado, all the way up to and including on Election Day, as long as they pledge under oath to make that place their permanent home. While the law was intended to make it easier to vote, its critics have suggested that unscrupulous voters could claim a new home in a highly contested district, vote, then change their minds and “move back” to their original place of residence. One critic illustrated this publicly, successfully casting a blank ballot for a race in Colorado Springs by swearing that he intended to make it his permanent home, only to change his mind and continue living in Boulder, 100 miles away. (There is no law against being wishy-washy about where one wants to live.)

But the quirky law could be Bonanza’s saving grace. Harris says he would be willing to switch his registration from Carbondale — and thus become an on-paper resident, theoretically qualified to run for office — if he can convince others to do the same. He hopes to hold a town meeting with other absentee landowners over the summer to gauge interest.

Andrew Cole, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, says the scheme could work. “If they put together a town board and held a meeting, that would be a functional government,” he says. “But folks have to be clear about what the consequences of that are. A lot of people we’re hearing from are appealing to emotion.”

No matter what happens, it’s still going to be Bonanza. It’s still going to be on the map.

Mark Perkovich

Bonanza's lone resident

Flimsy locks guard what remains of the town
Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

Perkovich, the town’s lone resident, agrees that it takes more than emotion to properly run a city. The Pennsylvania native and Army veteran, whose favorite thing to do is simply walk the forested hills overlooking Bonanza, and who turns to his Bible when he needs company, says he’s very comfortable being left alone. He’s somewhat perplexed, he says, by his part-time neighbors’ enthusiasm for reviving a government that was never all that functional in the first place.

Government should provide representation, he says, even if it only represents one person. Perkovich already pays his property tax bill to the county, but since it has no jurisdiction in Bonanza, he gets no services or benefits for his payments. If the landowners revive Bonanza’s government, that must change, he says. 

When asked what he thinks will happen, he displays the sort of practicality that’s necessary for life in a virtual ghost town, snowbound for six months of the year, his only company being the occupants of the Bonanza Cemetery on the hill behind his house. A decision by bureaucrats in the far-off capital isn’t going to influence his day-to-day existence.

“No matter what happens, it’s still going to be Bonanza. It’s still going to be on the map,” he says, adding that he’s not wasting much time on hypothetical outcomes.

“When I first moved up here, a guy told me, ‘Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see,’ ” he says. “I’ve been living by that ever since.”

The remains of a home that has been ravaged by bears.
Patrick Cavan Brown for Al Jazeera America

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