Towering high above the beautiful Wet Mountain Valley, the distinctive conical mountain known as Horn Peak rises up along the eastern spine of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Standing 13,450 feet high, Horn Peak and its smaller companion, Little Horn Peak (13, 143 feet), dominate the western skyline in this part of the Wet Mountain Valley. From the slopes of Horn Peak, the towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff are clearly visible on the valley floor below the mountain, while across the Wet Mountain Valley, one can make out the historic mining town of Rosita. The slopes of Horn Peak are drained by three streams which flow into the valley. These are Cottonwood Creek, Hennequin Creek, and Dry Creek. Dry Creek is distinguished for its small waterfalls halfway up the mountain.
Horn Peak, and Little Horn Peak, which rises up just south of Horn Peak, were both named for an early pioneer in the Wet Mountain Valley named Elijah (or Elisha) P. Horn. Elijah Horn was one of the 1st settlers in the valley. Arriving in 1869, Horn homesteaded beneath the peaks that bear his name.
1869 was indeed a memorable year for Elijah Horn. Situated as he was near the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristos, Horn had plenty of opportunities to prospect the surrounding mountains. While wandering through the Crestone Range, south of his ranch, Horn stumbled upon a vast system of caves that came to be known as the Spanish Caves. Located in the Marble Mountain, Music Mountain, Milwaukee Peak area, the cave system may be the site of the legendary Caverna del Oro, home of a fabulous ledge of gold. A number caves occur in the area, many of them quite extensive. Near the entrance to one of the caves, Horn discovered a large red Maltese Cross painted on the rock wall. Below the cave entrance, he found the crumbling remains of an old fort. In the thickets nearby, Horn discovered a decomposed skeleton in rusted Spanish armor. Further search revealed
additional Spanish implements in the Music Pass area, 2 miles south of Marble Mountain. Horn came to believe that a long lost Spanish gold mine lay somewhere in the Crestone Range near the Spanish Caves. Unfortunately, he never found it. But Horn need not have looked so far south for a legendary lost mine. The peak towering over his ranch was home to one of the most famous lost mines in the entire region.
The Lost Skinner Mine was discovered by a prospector named George Skinner around 1863, a mere 6 years before Elijah Horn settled in the Wet Mountain Valley. Hailing from Illinois, Skinner had been prospecting the area since 1860. He was seen occasionally in the Wet Mountain Valley and in Denver, where he bought his supplies. After 1863, his visits to Denver changed. Now, he brought gold ore to sell!
Shortly after Skinner's discovery, his visits to Denver ceased. Indeed, it was as if he had dropped off the face of the earth. After a few years, his family grew concerned. In 1868, George's brother came out west to look for him. After many fruitless searches, he discovered an abandoned cabin on Horn Peak which contained a number of letters written by George! In one of the letters, George mentioned his gold strike, describing it as a "wonderfully rich mine". But as for George himself, there was no sign.
The following year, as Elijah Horn laid claim to the land at the foot of Horn Peak, George Skinner's brother returned to the very same area to search for some sign of George. That fall, he finally discovered the skeletal remains of his brother at the foot of a cliff in the Horn Peak area. Scattered around the skeleton was a large amount of gold ore and some weather-beaten equipment, including George's diary. George Skinner had finally been found, but his mine remains hidden, even to this day.
The history of mining in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado must surely begin with the early Spaniards. Concrete evidence of their activities has been discovered in the La Veta area, in the Crestone Range near Marble Mountain and Milwaukee Peak, and on the western side of the Sangres, near the old mining town of Liberty. The Spaniards were followed by American hunters and trappers during the early part of the 19th Century. Occasionally, these mountain men would gaze down into a beaver stream and pluck out a gold nugget. During the 1840's, a trapper named Norton discovered a few small nuggets in a stream in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The Sangres of south-central Colorado slept for another 30 years before the rumors of gold in the mountains were finally confirmed. During the latter part of the 19th Century, a succession of moderately-rich strikes was made along the western edge of the Sangre de Cristo chain. Between Crestone Creek and Blanca Peak, a distance of less than 40 miles, seven small mining camps rose up along the foot of the mountains. From north to south these include Crestone, Spanish, Cottonwood, Sangre de Cristo, Duncan, Liberty, and Camp Commodore.
Crestone lies 7 miles west of Horn Peak, near the mouth of North Crestone Creek. The town served as a supply center for the gold mines further south during the last quarter of the 19th Century. Crestone boomed until around 1886 when mine production began to lag. The discovery of fresh deposits of gold-bearing quartz in 1890 rejuvenated the camp.
The mining camp known as Spanish was located 3 miles southeast of Crestone, near the mouth of Spanish Creek. Founded in 1889 when the rich Independent Mine was discovered nearby, the camp boomed at first. When mining operations finally swung into full gear, the Independent produced $500 worth of gold-bearing quartz every day! Unfortunately, the shallow surface deposits were quickly worked out and profits began to decline. But the mine hung on for nearly 30 years before being abandoned around World War I.
The mining town of Cottonwood is located 2 miles southeast of the old site of Spanish, near the mouth of Cottonwood Creek. Founded in 1893, the camp boomed for nearly 6 years. Ore from the Cottonwood mines consisted of easily milled, decomposed gold-bearing quartz. Indeed, the ore was so rotten the gold literally fell out almost by itself! The ore bodies eventually ran out in 1907.
The mining camp known as Sangre de Cristo was located about 3 miles southeast of Cottonwood, near the mouth of Deadman Canyon. The exact location of the camp is unknown as no structures remain on the site, but the town was founded near the Golden Phantom Mine, which lies close by. Sangre de Cristo did have a post office which was in operation from 1876 to 1884.
The mining town of Duncan lies 5 miles southeast of Cottonwood, at the mouth of Pole Creek. Duncan was founded by John Duncan, one of the first prospectors to work the area. Duncan discovered gold-bearing quartz veins on Milwaukee Hill as early as 1874 but it wasn't until 1890 that the town of Duncan began to spring up. It turned out to be very short-lived. In 1900, the residents and miners were evicted by the owners of the vast Baca Grant which included most of the productive gold mines on the western side of the Sangres.
The mining camp of Liberty is located only a mile and a half southeast of Duncan, near the mouth of Short Creek. The first settlers in the Liberty area arrived during the 1880's but when 1900 rolled around, the population grew dramatically as the evicted residents of the Baca Grant moved south. Unfortunately, only low-grade ore bodies were found in the area. None were rich enough to support all the miners in Liberty. The town dwindled and was eventually abandoned in 1921.
Camp Commodore is located 20 miles south of Liberty, on the western slopes of Blanca Peak. The mining camp was founded in 1899 when prospectors discovered gold-bearing quartz veins in a patch of wild raspberries, along Holbrook Creek. The gold ore from the mines near Camp Commodore produced "nuggets the size of wheat grains". But like most mining camps, the ore bodies eventually failed and the miners drifted away.