An aura of mystery and timelessness surrounds the San Juan Mountains. Indeed, some sections of the Old Spanish Trail through the San Juan wilderness are still marked by trees blazed by early Spanish explorers and travelers. Old Spanish prospect pits, arrastres, and tunnels can be found throughout the San Juans. The La Plata Mountains have yielded abundant evidence of early Spanish mining activities including the skeleton of a man clad in Spanish armor and the remains of primitive arrastres and sluice boxes. The Escalante-Dominguez expedition found evidence of earlier mining activities in the La Platas when they passed through the area in 1776. Anglo-American prospectors in the Silverton area also encountered abundant signs of early Spanish activity. Arrastre Gulch, near Silverton, contains old Spanish arrastres actually cut into the bedrock. An old mine found in Poughkeepsie Gulch, north of Silverton, contained primitive copper tools of Spanish make. Tree-ring dating of timbers left in an old Spanish mine on Elk Creek, near Silverton, yielded a cutting date of 1712.
Tales of lost mines and caches in the San Juan Mountains are rife, but many are historically based. Indeed, the existence of many lost mines in the San Juans is supported by official documentation (including assay records in Durango, Silverton, and Ouray). Prospectors of the San Juan Mountains should always remember that the Tomboy/Camp Bird region, northeast of Telluride, was scoured for 20 years before the fabulous Camp Bird lode was discovered in 1895. One of the top 3 gold mines in the state of Colorado was found in an area that had been thoroughly prospected for 20 years!
Some 25 years before the Escalante-Dominguez expedition of 1776, a group of Spaniards and Frenchmen discovered an extremely rich gold mine somewhere near the headwaters of Ute Creek. This group of prospectors included Toribio Hernandez, Felecito Garcia, and Rene de L'Archeveque. (Rene de L'Archeveque was the son of Jean de L'Archeveque, one of the murderers of LaSalle
in 1687; Jean de L'Archeveque was a member of the ill-fated Villasur
expedition which was massacred by Pawnee Indians near the Platte River
on August 15, 1720.)
The mine was located near the Continental Divide within sight of those two famous landmarks: La Ventana (the "Window") and El Serro de la Piramide (the Rio Grande Pyramid). According to Felecito Garcia, the "Window" could be seen from the portal of the mine!
The miners quickly established a routine of working the mine and transporting the ore to local caches. (One of the largest caches was "2 sleeps away" in the Piedra River watershed, somewhere in the mountains surrounding O'Niel Park. This cache has never been found.) After each season, the miners carefully concealed the portal of the mine with timber and rocks. The Ventana Mine was worked for several years until the early 1770's when the miners' luck ran out. Ute Indians attacked the Spaniards while they were working the mine, killing several. The panic-stricken survivors fled from the mine but were ambushed again by the Utes. This time Toribio Hernandez and Rene de L'Archeveque were killed. Felecito Garcia was one of the few survivors to emerge from the wilderness. Before he died, Garcia revealed the location of the mine to his son. Garcia told him that the mine was west of La Ventana, somewhere on the Ute Creek drainage, and that the "Window" could actually be seen from the portal of the mine. The legend of the Lost Ventana Mine was born. (In 1919, an alleged descendent of Felecito Garcia entered the San Juans in search of the lost mine. Jose Garcia combed the slopes of Ute Ridge but found nothing.)
The existence of the Ventana Mine is supported by occasional discoveries of rich "float" along Ute Creek. (One specimen of float assayed out at $58,000 per ton!) A mineralized zone does exist near Indian Ridge, roughly 2 miles northwest of Ute Ridge. It is conceivable that one or more rich veins also crop out along the Continental Divide near the headwaters of Ute Creek. Finally, in 1936, a treasure hunter discovered a cache of rich gold ore on West Ute Creek. (This cache was found near timberline.) The following year, another cache of gold ore was discovered on Middle Ute Creek.
The San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado have a venerable mining history extending back to the time of the early Spaniards. The first official Spanish incursion into the rugged San Juans was the Rivera expedition of 1765. The Spaniards apparently missed most of the important gold and silver deposits but left evidence of their prospecting activities throughout the area.
It would be left to the American prospector to open up the rich mineral deposits that lay hidden in the San Juan Mountains. A mountain man named James Purcell is said to be the first American to discover gold in the land that would eventually become Colorado. The discovery occurred in 1805 but the location is lost to history. Thirty-eight years later, in 1843, a member of the Fremont expedition discovered evidence of gold in five separate places in Colorado. Fremont returned to Colorado in 1848 but was stymied by one of the worst winters in recorded history. His expedition dissolved in the snows of southwestern Colorado.
Almost forgotten in the tumult following Fremont's disastrous fourth expedition was an event that occurred near present-day Lake City prior to the break-up of the party. A member of the expedition discovered gold near the junction of Slumgullion Creek and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. But it would be another 12 years before the first significant discovery of gold in the San Juans would take place. In the summer of 1860, a party of prospectors led by Charles Baker stumbled upon extremely rich placer deposits on the upper Las Animas River. By the following summer, prospectors were scouring the streams for placer gold.
In 1864, the Dolores River country was penetrated by a small party of prospectors led by Robert Darling. A number of promising veins were discovered by this expedition. In 1869, Sheldon Shafer and Joe Fearheiler located the Pioneer lode near present-day Rico. This area would eventually prove to be extremely rich.
1870 was a watershed year for prospectors and miners in the San Juan Mountains. Rich strikes were made near Rico, Silver Creek, Baker's Park, and Summitville. Two years later, one of the richest discoveries of all occurred near Lake Emma, at the head of Eureka Gulch.
There, revealed in all its glory, was the immense outcrop of the
fabulous Sunnyside vein. Discovered by George Howard and R.J. McNutt,
the Sunnyside vein stretched across the head of the valley, totally
exposed along its entire length.
In 1878, the "Carbonate Craze" hit southwestern Colorado. Prospectors poured into the San Juans in search of mineral deposits similar to those found at Leadville. And they found them! Silver-bearing carbonates were discovered in the western part of the range, near Rico.
During the last quarter of the 19th Century, some of the richest mining properties in the San Juans were discovered. In 1881, the famous Red Mountain District was opened up by a prospector named John Robinson. Robinson discovered the unique "chimney" deposits while out hunting for his dinner. In 1887, it was Rico's turn again. That year, Dave Swickheimer uncovered the fabulous Enterprise "blanket" deposit on Newman Hill. The following year, the famous Tomboy vein was discovered high in the mountains above Telluride. Then in 1889, the first spectacular discoveries of silver ore were made in the central San Juans, near Creede. That summer, prospectors Nicholas C. Creede and George L. Smith stumbled upon massive veins of amethyst laced with native silver. In 1893, the Beartown sylvanite deposits were discovered at the head of Bear Creek, near Kite Lake. These deposits turned out to be incredibly rich. Some of the best ore assayed out at an astounding $4000 per ton! In 1895, the fabulous Camp Bird lode was discovered in Imogene Basin by Andy Richardson and Tom Walsh. The Camp Bird Mine eventually became one of Colorado's most prolific producers of gold. But the rugged San Juan Mountains were still not done! As late as the 1930's, rich mineral deposits were still being uncovered in the mountains. The fabulous Red Arrow Mine on Parrott Mountain is a case in point. Huge masses of pure gold were recovered from the Red Arrow after its discovery in the 1930's.