Legends that won’t die: Louisville’s ghostly bootleggers and the myth of the haunted mine tipple

Everyone loves a good ghost story.

As part of a 2016 Louisville get-together, a Denver-based ghost hunting group shared online the eerie narrative of the ghosts haunting The Melting Pot restaurant at 732 Main Street in Louisville. The ghost-hunting narrative, fit for any prime time cable channel, cites a legend that the mining tunnels under Main Street were used by Prohibition-era bootleggers to distill and sell alcohol, and to travel to and from the scattered speakeasies. According to legend, a still exploded in the mine tunnel under The Melting Pot, killing three bootleggers. The bootleggers were buried in the explosion, so the story goes, and it took workers several days to reach the bodies. Two bodies were recovered and third was never found, “it is said.”

Fast forward to the year 2000 and beyond, and ghost hunters’ tales of apparitions of the noisy, drunken “third bootlegger” abound. And not only in and around The Melting Pot, they say, but in “different locations on Main Street.”

The narrative continues. “It is also rumored that the original mine was built on sacred Native American burial grounds, and in moving the shaft, the owner of the restaurant had disturbed angry spirits. The mine shaft was re-erected and the restaurant did open, but met with one mysterious mishap after another. Screws in support beams disappeared, the roof collapsed twice, and breaker boxes kept short-circuiting. According to the paranormal experts, both ghosts of the Native Americans and the old bootlegger now reside in the building.”

Pausing for a moment to dissect the Internet-based narrative (and we all believe the Internet, right?), a couple of inconsistencies rise to top.

First, The Melting Pot building with the prominent mine tipple structure was built in the mid-1980s by restaurateur Rick Ross, who reassembled the massive wood timber mine tipple (not a “shaft” or “mine”) brought from Madrid, New Mexico. A mine tipple is the dominant above-ground structure, shaped like an “A,” that was used in local coal mines to haul coal cars and miners up and down the mine’s main shaft. During the area’s peak of coal mining, roughly 1905-1910, dozens of massive tipples dotted the east Boulder County landscape.

Prior to the tipple reconstruction project at 732 Main Street, a non-distinct one-story storefront housed Senor T’s, a terrific Mexican restaurant ably owned and managed by Ted & Carolyn Manzanares. Senor T’s moved across Main Street in about 1978, and Rick opened his Black Diamond Restaurant in the former Senor T’s building about 1982. He later expanded onto two lots to accommodate the tipple project, and anchored his delicious menu with one of the best hamburgers the town’s ever known.

Second, the coal seams under downtown worked by the Acme coal mine until 1928 ranged from 70- to 200-feet deep. This means that any mine tunnels, known as entries — the expansive areas where coal was removed and also called rooms — were well below ground.

Active mine or not, the stupidity of hauling barrels of tunnel-made hooch up a 7-story or more mine shaft is outdone only by the stupidity of lighting and operating the still’s open flame in a coal mine tunnel potentially filled with methane gas.

Oddly enough, one long-deceased Louisville businessman probably did make whiskey during Prohibition — a scheme called the “Coal Mine Still.” Carolyn Conarroe (1927-2018) explained the old-timer’s scheme in her book “Louisville Legends: The Record as History,” which included loading barrels of whiskey in a truck, then hiding them with coal from a mine east of Louisville. The truck, illegal whiskey and coal then made its way to Omaha, Nebraska. No mention of the whiskey being made inside a mine tunnel, nor anything about an explosion or multi-day rescue attempt. If the legend of bootleggers dying in a tunnel were true, he would have talked about it.

Third, the Native American portion of the ghost hunters’ narrative is problematic. If Native American spirits were indeed peeved about a tipple being built on their sacred New Mexico grounds, I believe they’d be happier than heck to see it disassembled and sent elsewhere. If they did hitch a ride on the tipple parts and pieces, imagine how peeved they’ll be 100 or more years from now, when the building’s torn down and hauled to the landfill.

And the likelihood of home-grown spirits from Native American burial grounds along or near Louisville’s Main Street is remote. The Arapaho and Cheyenne Indian tribes that traversed east Boulder County for millenniums before the white man arrived rarely buried their dead. Southern Utes “buried” their dead in caves or in rock fissures, both rare in Eastern Boulder County.

As 1860s Cheyenne warrior George Bent explained in his circa 1900 letters to George Hyde in the book “Life of George Bent,” Indian burial sometimes involved stacking rocks around and over the body, but finding rocks on the tall-grass plains was difficult and the ground was frozen part of the year. To facilitate the deceased’s journey to the afterlife, he or she was instead placed on the nearest sturdy tree branch adjacent to a stream or river, or laid to rest on an elevated platform built from fallen tree branches.

The Arapaho and Cheyenne believed that the way your body left the living world was how you would spend your eternity in the afterlife. If you were laid to rest face up toward the sky and in the open air, then that’s how you’d spend eternity — enjoying the Universe. If you were buried under dirt, with no passageway to the afterlife, then you were stuck underground and wouldn’t have a whole lot to look at. That would get pretty boring over the long run.