SUNRISE — John Voight didn’t expect to become an owner of a world-class archaeological site when he bought his ghost town. He didn’t expect to develop a love of geology and mining history, either.

And the self-proclaimed solitary man certainly didn’t expect to invite hundreds of people into his remote red dirt paradise for an eclipse festival.

“I’m good with a chainsaw,” Voight said Wednesday with a grin. “Event planning, not so much."

But for the owner of the abandoned mining town of Sunrise, the eclipse provides an unrivaled opportunity to share the site’s history, raise awareness of the archaeological work underway and generate a little money for future renovations.

In total, Voight expects up to 1,000 people to visit or camp in Sunrise during the days leading up to the eclipse. As far as he can tell, that’s the most people that have ever been in the town at one time, except for maybe the day of the auction after the mining company that built Sunrise declared bankruptcy.

The town, once a thriving community that people from nearby towns traveled to for shopping and events, is now a smattering of buildings tucked away in the low hills of eastern Wyoming just past a yellow dead end sign. The surrounding cliffs block the usual winds from blowing through the broken windows and, except for some renovated buildings, it appears the land has taken back the bulk of the property. Weeds crawled into cracks in walls and bats took roost in some of the eaves. 

To get Sunrise ready, a group of dedicated people have worked for months clearing brush and sweeping floors. The woman in charge of feeding the hoards, Geri Zeimens, spent half a day last week baking 500 biscuits. She also cooked 50 pounds of ground beef for the Chugwater Chili, to be cooked in a 90-year-old, 12-gallon pot. In total, it took at least 10 trips to grocery stores in three cities to gather the appropriate supplies.

“It’s going to be fun — it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Zeimens said. “Then we’re going to have one hell of a party."

Out-of-this-world opportunity

Josie, Voight’s daughter, said her dad was the first to bring up doing something to capitalize on the much-anticipated celestial phenomenon expected to draw tens of thousands of people to Wyoming. His offhand comment stuck with her, and she continued to bug him about hosting visitors.

At first, he shot her down, Josie said. He was worried about the amount of work he had to do on a variety of projects.

“I thought it was a great idea — but then I started thinking about what I had to do,” he said.

But a few responsibilities shifted, and finally he was on board. Josie launched the website for Sunrise’s activities in April but said there was little traffic and traction at first. Their optimism waned slightly. They had second thoughts about the entire ordeal.

Then, around the Fourth of July, people started calling and emailing. By early August, reservations for their camping packages and day passes were sold out. Voight, Sunrise's only regular resident, will be joined by more than 700 weekend campers as well as additional visitors on Monday.

The bulk of the visitors are from neighboring states like Colorado and South Dakota, Josie said. She did get a call from a woman in Denmark but wasn’t sure if the woman ever made a reservation.

Voight and others have spent the summer mowing grass that hadn’t been trimmed in untold years. They chopped down dead trees and cleared rubble from rooms in some of the town’s remaining buildings. Voight’s chainsaw often buzzed late into the summer evenings as he worked.

“This place has changed drastically in the past few months,” he said.

On Wednesday, he finished grading the road to the plateau where visitors will watch the main event. Voight, along with Josie and helpers from the Western Plains Historic Preservation Association and Western History Center, was still hard at work Thursday morning in anticipation of the arrival of the first visitors later that afternoon.

“Don’t get me started on rabbitbrush,” he said ruefully while walking among formerly overgrown home sites, before launching into a brief tirade against the stubborn plant that has taken over much of the town.

But all the work seems to have paid off. Homesites are clear and ready for tents and trailers. The workers uncovered an old sidewalk that runs alongside Main Street.

“We didn’t even know there was a sidewalk here until a few weeks ago,” Voight said as he walked along the street, pointing out bushes heavy with chokecherries as he went.

It’d be nice to make a little money, since all the renovations and archaeological work are privately funded. But it’ll all be worth it, he said, if people come away with a little understanding of the town he has come to love so deeply.

“A lot of people don’t even know about Sunrise — I didn’t know about it,” he said, though he grew up on a ranch near Chugwater, about 60 miles down the road.

Slow decline of a mining town

Voight bought the town and about 2,000 acres of surrounding mining claims in 2011 in hopes that he could continue to mine some iron out of the once prosperous site.

He didn’t know much about the town’s abandoned buildings or the people who had lived in them. He didn’t even know about the 13,000-year-old artifacts buried just across the street from the old YMCA. He was just hoping to make a little money.

“I didn’t even know what a clovis point was when I bought the site,” he said, speaking of the ancient arrowhead-like artifacts found at the dig. “I hated rocks."

Now, he easily rattled off facts about both the town and the geological formations that make it special as he pointed to a panoramic photo showing the town as it was in 1926.

Originally a copper mining site, the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company built the iron mines and the majority of the town for its workers in the last years of the 1900s. The Rockefeller family, in response to a deadly strike protesting the conditions of other mining towns, set out to make Sunrise a gleaming example. The family built a school, a YMCA (complete with a basement bowling alley) and comfortable single family homes for the workers who pulled more than 43 million tons of iron from the pits.

At its peak, Voight said, between 700 and 800 people lived in the town, which was home to three car dealerships. But by the '50s, the population had dwindled to an average of 300 or 400. About 200 people still worked at the mine on the day it was shut down due to plummeting iron prices.

All mining operations ceased by 1980 and the iron company went bankrupt. After a complicated legal process, the land and the mining claims ended up in private hands.

By the time Voight took over, the property was overgrown after about 50 years of abandonment. Most of the buildings were demolished, and those that remained were full of the previous owner’s stuff: old cars, sinks, chairs, mining magazines, a full-size fire truck. The grounds were littered with debris that accumulates naturally in an inhabited place. He once found a refrigerator buried in the ground, the door accessible from the surface. Somebody made their own root cellar.

Walking near the former homesites on Thursday, Voight plucked a rusted piece of metal from the grass.

“The lawn mower finds this stuff all the time and spits it out,” he said.

Voight and George Zeimens, the director of the historic preservation center and the lead archaeologist working on the town’s digs, also hoped that maybe, possibly, a new benefactor for Sunrise’s scientific projects might be found in the eclipse crowds.

Along with guided hikes and a square dance, attendees will have the opportunity to tour the town’s digs where Zeimens and his crew have found more than 2,000 artifacts in the past three years. Some are remnants from native people who used to mine the area for the red ochre more than 13,000 years ago.

As far as Zeimens can tell, that makes Sunrise the oldest mined area to be documented in North America, he said.

“There’s nothing like this site on the continent,” he said while setting up a small exhibit on his findings in the YMCA building, which will serve as an events center during the festivities.

The dig, which is funded through a consortium of private donors, could be developed into a tourist attraction with the right support, Zeimens said.

When he bought the land, Voight didn’t realize he’d also become the owner of an extensive collection of ancient artifacts. Everything Zeimens and others find on the land technically belong to him. But Voight said he knows this is bigger than him as an individual.

“In a nutshell, it doesn't really belong to us,” Zeimens said. “It doesn’t really belong to Voight. It belongs to all of us. To humanity."

“Research will hopefully be going on here 100 years after we’re dead and gone,” he added.

One-man band

One thing remains consistent in Sunrise, despite changes in ownership or mining operations — the bright red dirt.

The dashboard, the floor, the white paint of Voight’s truck was coated in a fine coat of red dust that settles quickly into the creases of your palms. On the dash sat a worn book, “Sunrise: a Chronology of a Wyoming Mine."

“It’s my Bible,” he said, hopping into the driver’s seat. “I always keep it with me."

He cherishes the place he has called home. Naturally gregarious, he spoke with his hands as he described the landscape as seen from his truck window — occasionally letting go of the steering wheel altogether. He noted the layers of rock and dirt, described how the pigeons that live in the abandoned pit mine sound like a faraway train when they coo simultaneously.

In his research about Sunrise, he found that the miners’ sweat often became red after working in the dirt for so long. After all the work he’s put into his town, his sweat is tinged as well.

“I sweat red every day,” he said, smiling beneath his cap that probably would have been green, save the red dust embedded in its fabric.

But along with innumerable stories and facts, Sunrise has given him empty space and quiet. It suits him, he said. He has time — or at least, will have time after eclipse festivities are finished — to sit quietly and think. Or, even better, he said, sit and not think at all.

“I’ve never been bored once in my life, or lonely,” he said, looking out from the plateau above the town where the eclipse visitors will experience the morning dusk. “But this is where I’m most calm."

But for at least one weekend, he's willing to give up that solitude so that others can come to appreciate the land he calls home. The visitors have been warned about the dirt and how it seeps into your clothes and skin. The website suggests wearing dark-soled shoes. Inevitably, however, some of that red dirt will journey back with the travelers to their respective homes.

“That’s just part of Sunrise — it sticks with you,” Josie said.

Follow crime and courts reporter Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer

 

 

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Features Editor

Elise Schmelzer joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 after graduating from the University of Missouri and interning at newspapers around the country. As features editor, she oversees arts and culture coverage and reports stories on a broad variety of topics.

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