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Another summer in COVID. Which actually is little bother to us since there is so much to see here in our own state that we can drive to, and we tend to stay in self-catering units anyway. We're not quite ready to brave the international travel scene again, so the main trip I had planned for us was a trip to Leadville, another mining town about a two-hour drive away. You can read about all the wildflowers we found HERE!
We traveled there with our 4Runner hoping to explore 4x4 roads and find mining ruins like we found around Fairplay and Breckenridge and as we do around our own neck of the woods. Find these we did, several of which were on a scale to dwarf any ruins around our home turf, such as the New Monarch ore bin, one of the best preserved in the Leadville mining district.
Whenever I go to write a post on Colorado, I get sucked down a nerdy rabbit hole into reading lots of history, some of which I have shared. I'm going to share more now, I can't help myself. So dear readers if you're interested, I'll tell you a bit about Leadville, the most dramatic boom-bust town and arguably the most important in Colorado's mining history. The upshot of a lot of the research is realizing I need to go back and see a lot that I didn't before. It's also the upshot of being there during COVID, as a lot of the museums in town weren't open. It's the heritage of my state — I'm drawn to it. If you just want to see the photos, scroll on down a ways.
In spite of the name "Leadville," silver mining is what made the kings around here, though lead production was second only to silver. At 10,150 feet above sea level, Leadville is the highest incorporated town in North America, with a backdrop of some of the highest peaks in Colorado, over 14,000 feet. Below, Erik and I overlook the town from Venir Shaft ... you can just pick out the little dots making up Leadville in the valley. The very tallest peaks are actually out of the frame to the left.
The first load of placer gold (taken from the surface such as with sluice boxes or panning, as opposed to hard rock mining) near present-day Leadville was discovered in California Gulch in April 1860. By the end of that summer thousands of people had ascended into the gulch in search of sparkling fortune, a veritable swarm of optimistic humanity.
But the boom was short-lived — by 1865 placer miners were already leaving in droves as the deposits were becoming depleted.
As yields of gold were plunging, the Civil War at this time was eliciting more demand for gold or shares in gold mining companies, which it turned out had little in proven reserves. Then the Indian War broke out on the Great Plains in 1864 disrupting transportation of the gold to the eastern states through 1865. Stamp mills were failing. Numerous factors conspired to bust the gold rush by about 1866.
By 1868 mines and mills had closed, miners lost their jobs, towns dried up, and people left both the mining region and Colorado itself. So from the time of the discovery of gold in the region in 1858, which led to the creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861, Colorado’s first mineral boom had gone bust in roughly ten years.
During those heady golden years in California Gulch, the miners began to find what they called “black cement,” “black sand,” or “the damned blue stuff.” All they understood at first was that the mysterious substance clogged sluices and frustrated placer mining. About the time Colorado became a state in the union, 1876, two experienced miners from the South Park area decided to rework the old placers in California Gulch. They used hydraulic mining to recover gold, but as they did so, they noticed the dark rock that had frustrated the placer miners. They decided to take samples over to an assayer in Alma, who determined that the mineral was a rich silver-lead ore with substantial amounts of iron.
Well these two, rather than brashly announcing their find, quietly went to work. First they began to acquire claims high on Iron Hill near the gulch, which they discovered as the source of the rocks they had assayed. Then they searched for a place to sell the ore they might produce, and came into contact with an ore buyer from St. Louis. He came to Iron Hill and was so impressed by the content of the ore that he immediately obtained wagon teams to carry the product over the mountains to railheads from which it was shipped up to St. Louis for smelting. Although still turning a profit, they all recognized that transportation was very expensive.
And so, as the drum roll begins, heralding the next boom, in 1877 the company buying the ore decided to erect a branch smelter north of California Gulch, known as the Harrison Works (the main thoroughfare of Leadville now is Harrison Avenue), to provide a local ore market. It was getting difficult to keep the silver secret now as ore emerged from the Iron Hill mines and the Harrison Works smelted it to bullion.
Suddenly the news of silver in them thar hills spread like a wildfire and by mid-1877, hundreds and then thousands of miners were once again making their way to California Gulch. They overwhelmed the existing community of Oro City located in the steep-walled gulch; a new community arose around the Harrison Works which would become Leadville. It went by several other names until 1878 when the town petitioned for its first post office. Horace Tabor became the post master and gave the town its name after the lead ore found in the area. You, my readers, met Horace back in my post about Buckskin Joe when he was married to Augusta. But it was here in Leadville where he made his fame with his second wife, Baby Doe. But we'll get to that story in a bit.
Almost overnight, Leadville blossomed into the second or third largest city in Colorado. Its ore production dwarfed everything that Colorado had produced in the previous two decades combined, and by the early 1880s was the largest silver and lead producing center in the United States. There was even talk of moving the state capitol to Leadville.
As the silver industry boomed spectacularly, men who would become some of the wealthiest in the country arrived and made their fortunes here, such as Meyer Guggenheim, a Swiss immigrant who invested in his first Leadville mine in 1880, and I think we all know how well that went for him, founding one of the most illustrious family names in America. Horace Tabor, a well-known name in Colorado, made a fortune on the Matchless Mine, though he did not invest so wisely as the Guggenheims.
And so hooray hooray everything is peachy keen in Leadville, people are getting rich, but slowly, for several reasons, silver prices started slipping by a couple cents a year in the late 1880s, though hardly anyone noticed as the fortune factory continued. Then in 1893 two things happened, but only one of them is typically talked about in articles on the silver bust. I had only heard of the one even after previously researching some on Colorado mining. That one is the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which devalued silver in the U.S. that had previously been propped up by the government. I was therefore very interested to read the following in the article, The Mining Industry in Colorado.
"Then on June 26, 1893, came disaster. On that day, the British Parliament accepted the report of the Herschell Committee, which recommended that Her Majesty’s Mints in India cease the coinage of silver rupees. Overnight, the price of silver plunged from 80 cents to 64 cents an ounce, then continued sinking to 60 cents an ounce. Almost instantly, the American silver industry began shutting down. Mines closed, mills closed, and smelters closed. Railroads curtailed service, banks failed, and real estate investors sold their holdings at heavy losses. Thousands of people lost their jobs. In mining, unemployment soared in all the silver regions, reaching 40% to 50% in the larger communities, and nearly 100% in places supported by only one or two mines.
By July, virtually the entire silver industry had come to a halt. The Silver Crash of 1893 was a catastrophe in the West, and especially in Colorado, where silver production formed the backbone of the minerals industry and the state economy. Later in the year, the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 put even greater pressure on the industry. Some historians believe that in Colorado the ravages of the Crash created an economic crisis equal to or worse than the ravages of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The psychological impact of the collapse was also so great that innumerable historians have written–incorrectly–that it destroyed the silver industry in Colorado and the West. As 1894 began, the price of silver finally stabilized at about 60 cents per ounce, and the silver industry gradually came back to life. The mines, mills, and smelters reopened; so, too, did many ancillary businesses. But there were significant changes that were quickly evident. The most obvious change was in wages. The price of silver was now lower than it had been six months before, and as the industry rehired workers, the wages offered workers were lower as well. So, in effect, hardrock miners, mill workers, and smelter men bore the brunt of the silver collapse. That, of course, had important consequences. The 1890s witnessed a dramatic increase in unionization and the beginning of a virulent labor-management war that would last for at least a quarter century."
Up to this point, most of the information I've imparted has come from the extensive article sponsored by the National Register of Historic Places titled, "The Mining Industry in Colorado." I've excerpted some direct quotes into my post, but it's messy to denote them (save the one above) amidst a lot of paraphrased and other-sourced material, and it's not like this is a school research paper, haha. So just know, that is my primary source for the above history. Another prominent source for this whole post is Leadville.com.
But now let's go back to the story of Horace and Baby Doe Tabor, who were dramatically affected by the silver crash. Potentially the most famous mine in Colorado is the Matchless Mine because of the legendary drama of the personal lives involved. Baby Doe Tabor is known by most Coloradoans, I think, and her association with the Matchless, but perhaps not beyond our state, although there have been two operas written about her. I saw one of them performed at the Central City opera house, which is actually the town in which she lived with her first husband. So for those who don't know, I will summarize this story:
After moving to Leadville with his wife Augusta and working as the postmaster, Horace Tabor was already mayor of the town by 1879 and making a fine enough penny as a merchant and mine investor. The Matchless claim was bought in 1878 by other folks who did not see a big return on it. Tabor bought into it in 1879 and spent a heck of a lot of money to gain exclusive title before it had even produced anything substantial because it lay along the east-west trend of the ore discovered in several nearby "bonanza" mines and I guess you could say he had a suspicion it would pay off.
Sure enough, a shaft dug near a corner of the claim in 1880 hit a rich vein of silver. By January 1883, the mine had produced what in today's dollars is about $485 million in silver ore. The was quite a meteoric rise in fortune.
Meanwhile, over in Wisconsin, a beautiful Elizabeth McCourt had married one Harvey Doe, Jr., and they moved to Central City, Colorado, to work the Fourth of July mine (near where I live) which his father owned an interest in. But Harvey was barely able to make a living much less a profit, and he stuffed his new wife into miner's clothes and made her personally work a shaft in the mine. (!) The rough men of Central City, save for her own husband, expressed their affection and appreciation of her beauty and gritty spirit by giving her the nickname Baby Doe — the miner's sweetheart. It stuck.
In 1880 Baby Doe attracted the attention of the newly wealthy Horace Tabor, who had become at odds with his wife Augusta over how to live with their new wealth in Leadville. Augusta was a spendthrift while Horace wished to live lavishly. Baby Doe left her husband and Central City behind to pursue a liaison with Horace. Their affair soon became public knowledge, and of course rather scandalous, so in 1882 after divorcing their spouses, they got married.
The newly married couple flaunted their spectacular fortune by spending recklessly and throwing lavish parties at the mansion they built in Denver. They were one of the five richest families in the country.
Their fairytale ended in 1893 with the silver crash. Because of his irresponsible spending and unwise investments, Horace couldn't ride out the crash, he lost his fortune, eventually resorting to menial jobs to keep his wife and two daughters fed. He passed away in 1899 and legend has it that his last words to Baby Doe were, "Hold onto the Matchless. It will make millions again."
And so Baby Doe did just that. After Horace's death the mine was sold to settle the mining company's debts, but Baby Doe's sister actually bought back the mine a year later and granted Baby Doe the legal power to conduct all the business regarding the Matchless. The ore produced by its lessees declined in quality and quantity and eventually the mine was foreclosed on. By this time Baby Doe had moved into the little superintendent's cabin and was essentially destitute. Shorego Mining Company, owned by a wealthy Denverite, bought the mine to allow the now elderly Baby Doe to stay in her cabin and she was apparently being supported by benefactors including former fellow Leadville citizen, the famous Molly Brown, although Baby Doe was not cognizant of these generosities. In her mind, which became increasingly prey to dementia, she was a proud woman who did not accept charity.
In the winter of 1935, Baby Doe was found frozen in her little cabin. It appeared she had died of a heart attack some days earlier, alone and destitute yet holding onto the Matchless. Even though she was renowned for her stunning beauty, in the end it was her grit and pluck, as once demonstrated in her first marriage, that proved to be her defining feature.
Shorego eventually donated the mine to the city of Leadville for its historic value as the story of Baby Doe had become well-known by mid-century.
If you visit Leadville, you can tour the mine and Baby Doe's cabin, the house in which Horace and Augusta lived, and the Tabor opera house in downtown Leadville.
Below is an old photo of the Matchless ruins, I don't know the year, in the National Mining Museum.
It just so happened that one of the nights we were in Leadville, the historical society was having a free drive-in movie at the mine. They had a big blow-up screen and a sound system, concessions and free (and delicious) popcorn. Unfortunately it was so cold sitting in our camping chairs at 10,200 feet above sea level on a cloudless night, that once I finished my first bag, in spite of being offered another, I just sat still in my blanket cocoon, afraid that any movement would let in a chill. The movie was Into The Spider-Verse, which was such a funny juxtaposition of modern entertainment at this old historic site.
I took a picture of one of the buildings beneath the moon.
So the silver boom lasted 16 years and created some fabulous and lasting wealth for certain investors. And then .....
One J.J. Brown had been steadily working as a miner in Leadville in the 1880s, progressing from miner to superintendent. In 1886 he married a woman named Molly and for a time they moved up the hill a few miles to live in Stumpftown (more popularly called Stumptown). Today there are but a few remaining structures, the largest and most intact below. Reflected along with the building are the orange-colored tailings dump of a mine behind.
For some context of the grand landscape in which these high altitude miners lived ... can you find the cabin above in the photo below?
In 1892 J.J. was brought in as a partner in the Ibex Mining Company which owned the Little Johnny Mine. That year the company discovered gold in the mine, but like their savvy predecessors who discovered the silver, they kept this bit of information to themselves until they could buy the claims surrounding the Little Johnny, as they had determined that the gold vein traveled sideways under neighboring claims.
So when silver crashed in 1893 sending many mining companies spiraling downward, the Ibex Company was poised to start the next gold boom. When they announced the find in 1893, the grade of gold was shown to be so pure and the vein so wide, it was called one of the world's richest gold strikes to that date. It revived the mining town’s economy and in fact aided the entire state's financial recovery. By November of 1893, the Little Johnny was shipping 135 tons of gold ore per day. Move over silver barons, the Ibex Company's in town!
Nothing remains on the surface of the Little Johnny mine, but several other structures from the Ibex Company's holdings remain. The largest is the Ibex ore house, below. It's kind of hard to get a sense of scale, but it's very large, taller than the New Monarch pictured above. I read that it's the largest preserved historical mining structure in the Leadville district. I don't think there is any active upkeep, it's just well built! It sits amid mounds of mine tailings. In elevation, this is about 1,400 feet above the town of Leadville, nearing tree line.
A stone's throw away (if you have a really strong arm) from the ore house stands the headframe of the Irene Shaft, referred to as Irene #2. This is a later shaft sunk in the 1950s to an impressive depth of 1,750 feet. So its bottom is several hundred feet lower than Leadville. I'm not sure exactly when it stopped operation, but potentially not until the 1990s.
J.J. Brown's name might have been more famous considering his extraordinary wealth, but he was eventually eclipsed by his wife, the well-known survivor of the Titanic who was dubbed the "Unsinkable Molly Brown" for her courage in helping other survivors evacuate the ship, later establishing the Survivor’s Committee. Molly used the spotlight from her Titanic fame to promote women’s rights and she become the first woman to run for congress in 1914. Although incredibly wealthy and living in virtual opulence for the day (the house she lived in in Denver can be toured), Molly's standard and values always lay in service to others. She founded or participated in several philanthropic projects, volunteered during WWI, and was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1932. J.J. was also very generous with his money, in marked contrast to Horace Tabor and Baby Doe. Despite their shared values, J.J. and Molly eventually separated but remained friendly.
Okay, well I imagine you've had about enough Leadville history and biographies. Let's put in a few more photos! We've moved away now from the Ibex complex; below are abandoned and collapsing structures at the Venir Shaft.
It's a great location for an overview of the valley where Leadville lies and the mountain ranges behind. I read that Leadville was at one time referred to (at least by some) as Cloud City. It looks like we are so high up that the ceiling of clouds is just above our heads, as if we could maybe reach it with a tallish ladder. Erik looks like he's about to walk right on off the edge of the plateau.
But in fact he just sat down and we had lunch.
It was strangely difficult to identify a lot of the ruins we ran across from the internet (because we typically wander aimlessly and explore first, then learn about what we found later) — a problem I did not have with the things we ran across in the South Park and Breckenridge areas. To the best of my reckoning, the pics below are from the Tucson Mine in the Iron Hill area where the silver was first discovered. If you're reading this and you know differently, let me know! I have my idea because they look very like a photo labeled the Tucson Mine from the Mining History Association. You can see from the first pic how precarious so many of these abandoned structures are, soon to be only piles of planks.
Below is a headframe we ran across; couldn't tell you at all where we were at, haha. Just wandering. You can see Chewie over on the left for scale.
A tailings dump rises up like a mountain on the moon. No other structures around it, just a big hill.
Lastly, below are a couple historic photos of Leadville from the National Mining Museum, which I very highly recommend taking a visit to if you are in the area. Admission is very reasonable at $12 and it's chock full of interesting history and artifacts, and tons of really cool rocks if you're impressed with our planet's geological wonders. The photo with the burros I actually bought the print for a whopping $3 there. Burros were such an important part of Rocky Mountain mining life, I think they generally are not given their due credit for how invaluable they were as pack animals. They are standing in what was and still is the main street of Leadville (Harrison Ave.).
Read more about Leadville: Evergreen Cemetery
Read more about Leadville: Wildflowers
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This summer, 2021, in mid-July Erik and I took our 4Runner, Chewie, on a trip to Leadville, Colorado, to explore some of the 4x4 roads around there, expecting to find a lot of old mining ruins. I'll tell you about its mining history in the next post. Leadville is only a couple hours driving time from our home, so not exactly an epic road trip. But this is what I love about where we live — there is just so much to explore and we don't even have to go very far. We stayed in an Airbnb about a 10 minute walk away from the main drag in town, which was perfect for evenings out.
We did find remains still standing of the 19th and 20th century mines, but I decided to make a separate post dedicated to the wildflowers we saw, as the profusion was unexpected and turned out to be a highlight of the trip.
In our home area it had been a fantastic wildflower season so far when we left for Leadville which is about 2,000 feet higher in elevation. The higher the elevation, the later the flowers are to bloom, so we happened to time our trip precisely at the peak. I just can't gush enough over how spectacular the flowers were.
Plus what was remarkable to me was how we saw flowers of every stage of summer all open at the same time. For example, in our 'hood, the shooting stars and columbines are early summer flowers and typically will be done blooming before the elephant heads open, but in Leadville we saw all of those blooming at the same time. Summers are very short at 10,000-12,000 feet above sea level, where we were seeing all these flowers, so I guess they don't have time to muck about and wait to open in a nice orderly fashion; it's just a free-for-all: "Everybody bloom!"
We came into Leadville in a very roundabout way from outside of Fairplay because I wanted to check out Weston Pass, one of several throughways between Leadville and the South Park area. It was mostly just a dirt road — you would want a high-clearance vehicle, but there was nothing technical about it. And, as (knock on wood) seems to be our typical luck driving off-road in Colorado, we encountered nearly no-one.
I've often said that it feels like the Front Range, where Erik and I live, was made for the world — everyone comes up to our mountain area from the Boulder/Denver area — and the rest of Colorado was made just for the two of us and Chewie.
The most famous pass connecting Leadville to Fairplay is Mosquito Pass. Last year we started up it from the Fairplay side, so this year we drove up to the start of it on the Leadville side. Our intent was not to take the pass over but take a route that spurred off of it, Birdseye Gulch, which connects to Highway 91 across the Arkansas River. What we had absolutely no idea about was the extensive wildflower fields we would come across.
Fortunately it was later in the afternoon when we pulled into this area, and so a perfect place to enjoy a couple happy hour beers among the flowers. Gobs of yellow flowers that I think are arrowleaf balsamroot, but if you know differently, let me know!, and red paintbrush, blue columbine, white and purple penstemon, blue harebells, pink buckwheat, and loads of other flowers whose ID I don't know.
As I was lying down in the field with my camera, Erik said, "Your dad would have loved to take a picture of you," which is true — my dad was fond of taking pictures of me as a kid in flower fields when we were backpacking. So Erik grabbed my other camera and snapped a couple photos of me in a very happy place — happy physically, mentally and spiritually.
But the crowning wildflower experience, pretty much of all time, not just of this trip, was discovering what we dubbed "columbine heaven." We use COTREX to explore 4x4 routes around Colorado, a GPS program that you can use to pre-download maps onto your phone or other device and it has a pretty good database of off-road trails. Sadly, we've discovered that a lot of county roads shown on COTREX have been closed (gated off) by entitled individuals claiming the public roads as private property, which is really super uncool.
In this case, though, rather than the frustration of finding a mapped trail to be closed, we found ourselves driving down a trail that was not in the COTREX database. We figured we'd keep following it as long as it stayed pretty easy. As we came down a hill at tree line, I noticed a sea of blue off to the right. At first I thought I saw a columbine, but then I thought, "There's no way those are all columbines," for I've never seen such a vast open field of them before.
But, my friends, that was indeed the way. Gobs, gobs and more gobs of blue columbine, Colorado's state flower. We calculated that there must have been as many as 2,000 blooms fully open in this sea. I couldn't get a photo to properly illustrate the profusion. But here is me, taken by Erik, and some close-ups of some of the flower bundles.
The typical bunch had around 20 blooms, almost more of a columbine "shrub" than a "flower," and we estimated at the least 100 bunches just on the open hillside to the right of the truck. There were some more on the other side of the road, too.
It was so magical, and we were the only people there, I half expect that after we left, the field just dissolved into the sunshine, as if we had parted the curtains into a mystical realm that vanished behind our backs, and that we could never find it again. Probably all the locals know about it, but once again it seemed as if the world there had been created just for me, Erik and Chewie.
If you happen to follow me on Facebook, you will likely know that I love elephant heads, they are perhaps my favorite flower of all, and we saw plenty of those in bloom around the area at the higher passes.
At this little brook both elephant heads and columbines were in bloom, but the columbines were single blooms in miniature compared to Columbine Heaven. Still, to see two of my favorite flowers next to the same brook is exciting to me, I suppose I am easily amused. We didn't continue up the "road," but this made a nice happy hour spot one day.
I read a lot of articles and posts of people raving about the flowers at Hagerman Pass, so we checked that out. We did not take the hiking trails, which apparently are spectacular, but even the drive over was lovely, crossing the Continental Divide at 11,925 feet above sea level. Still snow in mid-July.
Well since this post is about nature, here are a couple lakes along our meandering routes.
One morning we took the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad (LC&S) ride — a 2.5-hour slow ride along a historic track built, of course, for the booming mining industry in the late 19th century. Originally a narrow-gauge track, like many railroads tying their fortunes to the brief abundance of mining towns across the Rocky Mountains in the late 19th century, its heyday was relatively short. It was converted to a standard gauge in the 1940s. The engine that now pulls the tourist carriages is a diesel engine.
The train's website and other sites advertising it make it sound like it is heart-pumping excitement ("adventure! adventure!"). I'm sorry, but if you're over about 10 years old, I have to say that "adventurous" is a little overstatement. (Although as we were sitting in our seats still parked at the depot waiting for the train to depart, the couple near me asked their toddler, "Who's ready for an exciting train ride?" I shot my hand up and said, "I am!") A lot of the mountain range views that generally are to be had were obscured to us by the heavy smoke of massive wildfires scorching the western area of the country.
Here the train is crossing over a 4x4 road that we had driven in Chewie just the day before.
It's a very fine, slow-paced scenic route on which it is easy for your imagination to jump back in time and put you onboard ... especially for me after having been to the South Park City Museum inside the period depot and inside the caboose of its train. The LC&S chugs for eleven miles up to a water tank before turning back, though the tracks continue another three miles toward the Climax Mine.
You can bring your own food on board, so you can have yourself a little train car picnic and top it off with an overpriced ice cream bar from the "dining" car. Yum.
So another summer during COVID passes feeling grateful for having so much to see right here in my own state. Stay tuned for more from Leadville.
Read more about Leadville: Mining ruins
Read more about Leadville: Wildflowers
Read more articles about Colorado
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A few more words from our 4x4 driving trip based in Breckenridge, Colorado, with a little more Colorado history and photos. To me, the history is so much more accessible when you can still see the evidence of it in the remaining ruins which will dwindle with each passing year.
Before the gold rush in the Colorado mountains, about the only people who had reason to be living there besides Native Americans were fur trappers. Individuals and wagon trains might pass through the area on their way further west. In 1806 in what would eventually become Park County, a trapper told the famous explorer Zebulon Pike, who was mapping the western lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase for President Thomas Jefferson, that he'd found gold in the South Park basin. At that time neither man was interested in gold -- which seems almost incredulous given the crazy gold fever that possessed so many thousands of people half a century later. But the trapper was only concerned with beavers (which were quite lucrative at that time) and Pike was focused on completing his report.
When a prospector found nuggets of gold in 1859 near what would soon become the city of Denver, the discovery triggered a stampede of gold-seekers and families looking for fortune in the Rockies. Within a year and a half, the population of the area known as Colorado jumped from a few thousand Native Americans and a few hundred mountain men to more than 30,000 people scouring the mountains for their personal pot of gold.
It was this 1859 gold rush that inspired the creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861 -- a space (the same as the current state boundary) drawn around the intersection of the Kansas, Nebraska and Utah Territories, extending down into the New Mexico Territory. So my state took chunks out of those four territories to make its own.
About a third of those first rushers came to Park County where miners found millions of dollars of gold. Check out my post on South Park City to see what it was like living in these early mining towns.
Wise Mountain is within the network of 4x4 roads that connect between Breckenridge and Montezuma near Keystone. The cabin on Wise Mountain was built in 1878 and used by the Wise Mountain Silver Mining Claim. The mine shaft was an impressive 1,200 feet from base to summit. The cabin sat above a mining town, Swandyke, which like so many, has all but disappeared.
Anyone working up there above tree line had sweeping views of the surrounding area. It's an "I'm on the top of the world" feeling. Let's see if you have that Carpenters song stuck in your head now for the rest of the day. Even though there is little flora besides low tundra ground cover and few fauna beyond some cute rodents, I think the colors of the mountain rock make a pretty picture.
North of Breckenridge on Hwy 9, Tiger Road (CR6) leads into Georgia Pass. Erik had seen a point on one of our trails apps that said "Masonic Monument." We decided this sounded of interest and used COTREX to arrive at the spot. We looked around and around and found a small stone commemorative marker that was the "monument." It hardly seemed like something worthy of pointing out on a map considering how many larger and interesting unmarked sights are found in these mountains.
Curious, I researched after we got back to our condo. And what I found was very surprising. I didn't take a photo of it because I didn't realize at the time its significance. So as a previous paragraph ended with the observation that so many mining towns have disappeared, here is one of the most remarkable examples.
The stone "monument" does in fact mark where the first Masonic Temple on Colorado's western slope was built. It's all that remains, apparently along with a cemetery, which we did not spy (but now I want to go back and find it), of what was once the largest town in Summit County (which at that time stretched west all the way to the Utah border) and was nearly voted the capitol of the Colorado Territory in 1861: Parkville.
Parkville was founded in 1859 when placer gold deposits were discovered. This means miners panned the gold from rivers rather than digging mine shafts into the rock. Only two years later, Parkville had 1,800 residents, and miner's cabins filled the area. These miners were among the luckiest in Colorado's mining history. I read they could pan up to $10,000 in gold dust in a single summer. $10,000 in 1860 was an enormous amount of money -- a typical day's wage for average people was maybe $2 at best. It makes me wonder what those miners did with all that money. Did they blow it all in the saloons, did they retire in little mansions, did they invest and start wealthy family legacies?
Parkville was a rockin' town with a brewery and three theaters. It even had a private mint so people could do business easier than with bags of gold dust. I'm curious how large a bag filled with $10,000 of gold dust would be! They minted $5 and $10 denominations, I'm also curious how big of a pouch of gold dust you would plop down to get a $10 coin.
So what happened to the town? It basically destroyed itself, destabilizing the mountainsides by deforesting them and then using high pressure hoses to wash down gravel so it could be sifted through to extract the gold. Rock slides eventually buried the town.
So we passed by the buried town of Parkville and didn't even know it. But we had a lovely drive on the Georgia Pass road, passing Mt. Guyot whose summit is just shy of 13,400 feet.
We took a delightful lunch break with little pikas calling from the rocks around us.
Near the end of the day we found ourselves descending SOB Hill (really more of a pitch at the bottom of a longer, less challenging 4x4 trail). We didn't intend to go down this trail as I'd seen the rating of it and while Erik would surely be competent at it, we also were on vacation, not on our home turf, so we didn't want to risk injuring our 4Runner, Chewie, and not being able to drive home. However, we inadvertently ended up on it because I managed to screw up my phone that afternoon (big surprise -- I'm incompetent with it) and I couldn't log in to the COTREX maps we'd been using, so we were winging it.
We came to that pitch and it looked gnarly, but we saw another trail to the left and thought it was either a "chicken route" or the actual trail. So we followed it instead. It was easier but not easy. And after awhile it ended abruptly with a fallen tree across the trail. Absolutely no way around it and not enough room to turn around, so we had to back up the trail to the fork, which was even less easy. In the process, Chewie got injured but not so that we couldn't keep driving; we had to replace the rear hatch door after we got home, though. We realized then the gnarly section was in fact the trail and we had no option but to go down it.
It required some spotting, and so walking down the trail to scout the route, I managed to slip and fall and bruise my butt up nice and pretty. So Chewie and I were injured, so there were a couple moments of "SOB!" cursing. Otherwise everything went fine, but this cabin back on flat ground was a welcome sight (the flat ground more so than the cabin). And the outhouse. I often think old miners' outhouses are quaint.
We stopped to take a picture of this pretty hillside with autumn aspens and colorful tailings on the way up Tiger Road.
South of Breckenridge on Hwy 9 toward Alma, is the picturesque Magnolia Mill just above Montgomery Reservoir. What used to be the mining town of Montgomery, established in 1861, now lies underneath the waters of the reservoir which supplies Colorado Springs, quite a ways southeast, with water. The town had a large dance hall and I read it sent President Lincoln a bar of gold from the Montgomery Mine. I guess the postal service was very honest not to nick a bar of gold, haha. I wonder how it arrived ... wrapped up in a box with a bow? "Happy birthday" "Top Secret: For Your Eyes Only" "To Whom It May Concern" ... I wonder how Lincoln reacted ... "ho hum, a bar of gold," or "woo-hoo a bar of gold!"
You can see that a bit of sheet metal has peeled back from a section of the walkway in the pic above. The breeze was gently knocking it against the structure making an eerie ghostly sound that gave the place a nice abandoned atmosphere. I saw it referred to as an ore walkway, ore probably traveled between the two buildings on a conveyor belt.
The original mill burned down -- a common fate of buildings in mining towns. It was rebuilt in 1930, which is what still stands now. Some of the large machinery is still inside in good shape (photo taken through a window).
In the evenings we relaxed under a full moon in one of our condo's hot tubs. As this was during COVID, pool and tub activity was limited and controlled, so we had a hot tub all to ourselves, which was delightful. Staying in a condo, cooking our own meals and driving ourselves around in our own vehicle was a perfect vacation during this strange time of pandemic.
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In this post I'll share some places we explored with Montezuma, Colorado, as the anchor. We explored three gulches off the Peru Creek Road, the most interesting of these in terms of mining ruins was Cinnamon Gulch.
At the mouth of the gulch, visible from Peru Creek Road (it's a dirt road, not a 4x4 track), are the steadily collapsing ruins of the Pennsylvania Mill, and further up the hill the mine and the tram house that conveyed ore between the mine and mill. The Pennsylvania Mine started operations in the late 1870s pulling out about every kind of valuable mineral in these mountains: gold, silver, lead, copper and zinc. Its biggest production year was 1893, the year of the silver price collapse. It operated until 1908 and then continued sporadically until the 1940s.
If you look closely, you can see the top of a wheel near the apex of the roof. A bird was standing there talking to us as if he was either the sentinel on duty to guard it or the tour guide explaining to us how the mill once looked and operated.
I wish I would have known about all these places a couple decades ago -- you can find photos on the internet that show how much more intact they all were even just 10, 15 years ago. I feel fortunate to see them at all before they're completely gone, as it's obvious that the trajectory for most of these is steeply toward a featureless pile of wood and metal.
I was surprised to find out this mine is considered the most toxic in the state. Reclamation efforts are ongoing, but currently no fish or other aquatic critters can live in Peru Creek.
As a bit of an aside, you might be wondering, as I frankly did, " How does moving earth around create something toxic that pollutes the water?" I picked this explanation up from the Summit Daily if you're interested:
"Most of the gold, lead, copper and other metals mined in Colorado are found in ore deposits with metal sulfides. Drilling huge holes in the ground exposes those sulfides to air. Those compounds then combine with oxygen and water, and a chemical reaction occurs that creates sulfuric acid, spiking the acidity level of rivers and streams. The process also releases heavy metals in higher concentrations into the water as it trickles over the rocks, turning creeks a ruddy, orange color. Plus hard-rock mining smashed large rocks into small pieces, which means more exposed surface area, intensifying the problem. This oxidation of minerals happens naturally, but mining operations greatly accelerate the process."
Trams are a feature prominent and particular to the old mines in the South Park-Montezuma area. I live in a gold and silver mining area also but most of our mines are at a lower elevation, below tree line, and trams were not employed ... either small mills were built nearby or other modes were used for long distance transport ... unlike this region where many of the mines were high up on bare mountainsides above tree line where tram cars would be unimpeded by the likes of trees, making them by far the most direct and efficient form of transport.
The most challenging of the three gulches to drive, Chihuahua Gulch, requires a high clearance 4x4 vehicle. There were no ruins to see, but the route was fun for Erik, his favorite kind of 4x4 trail -- some big rocks to clear but no cliffs to fall off of -- and there was a pretty hiking trail at the end. We were there late in the day and had not prepared for any real hiking, so we walked up it only a little ways.
The other is Warden Gulch. The road ends in a valley at a few splintered remains of a mine with completely gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. It made an excellent lunch spot.
I put Santa Fe Peak on our itinerary based on the recommendation of a fellow we met at the two Colorado Gambler 500 rallies we've been to. The description in the main source I was using to plan and judge the difficulty of routes also suggested it would provide excellent views and wasn't too hard. Well, part way up this trail is when Erik realized he really, really did not like driving these very narrow roads with loose rocks and nothing but sheer drop-off on the outside. You can just make out another vehicle parked facing uphill at the switchback below us.
In between the two switchbacks is when Erik realized this and got a bout of vertigo. We stopped and got out to walk it off and decided it wasn't worth continuing if it was just going to be stressful and not fun. If the driver isn't having fun, neither is the passenger. So we went back down and stopped to talk to the folks on the lower switchback. They had done the entire route two days earlier and said that's why they were stopped there on that switchback ... the guy was an experienced driver (his wife said he is usually "fearless") and he said he kind of regretted having done it because he'd never been so scared in his life. Haha. Basically it only got narrower with looser rock and steeper cliffs and they felt the view was just as good at the top as where they had stopped. So while I already wasn't feeling bad about turning around, it was nice to talk to those folks and feel justified for having done so. I later read a description of it that said, "May be intimidating for novice drivers." Erik is anything but a novice, and it sounded like the other guy wasn't one either. So I believe it's more correct to say intimidating for people simply not keen on narrow shelf roads on super steep treeless mountainsides and those who feel vertigo.
(It was this experience on Santa Fe that helped us decide to turn around at the North London Mine without much hemming and hawing when we saw Mosquito Pass looking a bit similar.)
Webster Pass connects Montezuma to Highway 285 north of Fairplay and is one of the higher roads in the state, crossing the Continental Divide at 12,100 feet. This also was underrated on the site I was using as my primary source. It said pretty much nothing about it except that it was a connector from Highways 6 to 285 and rated easy. This was essentially true of the north side -- you need a high clearance 4x4 but we didn't find anything actually challenging. The south side of the pass is a different story even though there is nothing technically challenging there either. But first let's stop at the top and marvel at this rather surreal landscape. The colors really reminded us of Haleakala Volcano on Maui.
After we got home I looked the pass up on some other websites and found most of them more accurately described the south side, pointing out the width of the shelf road with loose rocks and hairpin corners and the sheer drop-off. But to be honest, there is really no indication of this from the north side -- it's only obvious once you're looking down from the pass. As we came to the bottom of the south side, we saw signs there warning people heading up, "Experienced 4x4 drivers only," and "Road narrows, not suitable for full size vehicles, no turn around beyond this point." I guess maybe they figure you can discern that for yourself from the pass looking down, haha, but you might not know it starting up still below tree line.
But after Googling Webster Pass I see plenty of photos and videos of SUVs on the pass, so we weren't exactly scofflaws by driving our full size vehicle. But what was a little unnerving is I saw photos of vehicles both descending and ascending the south side. And the sign speaks truth: there is no turn around, so I don't know what you'd do if you met another vehicle, as there is also zero room, as in *zero,* room to pass and backing up or down the narrow rocky ledge would be eight steps beyond hair-raising. From the pass you can see most of the road and could probably tell if someone was coming up and wait for them, but I'm not sure that's true from the bottom of the south side.
So in spite of the precise kind of road that gives Erik vertigo, it was worth going down that for this view. Therefore in retrospect I'm glad I didn't read the other write-ups because we might have avoided going there, and we're both glad we didn't, even though Erik's shoulders were tightened up high enough to about brush the bottom of his ear lobes. Fortunately, wise or not, I always have faith in Erik's driving so it really wasn't stressful for me as the passenger.
Another day we entered this network of trails from Breckenridge and came out through Montezuma on Deer Creek trail, which is not difficult. We decided to check out an unnamed side trail that was a little more challenging and were delighted with what is these days a rare find -- a mine entrance that hasn't been intentionally (or unintentionally) collapsed and has the cart tracks still intact leading in. I don't know anything about it as far as when it was last mined, so I'm not sure why it has remained in such pristine condition. Because of its condition, though, I'm not inclined to reveal any more information about its location. Too many jerks these days who go around ruining things for everybody. Just enjoy the photo. :-)
A car below the mine who has seen better days.
And our trusty 4Runner, Chewie, who is in his prime. I love him and I was happy to spend a whole week with him in this area when we otherwise spend so much of our 4x4 time with Pinzy (our 1973 Pinzgauer) these days.
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These are two pretty aptly named old mines, whose lodes were discovered in the late 1800s but are long abandoned, near Fairplay, Colorado. Access is from County Road 18, also known as Fourmile Road, just past the junction of Hwy 285 and Hwy 9 South. There aren't any real technical sections, but a high-ish clearance vehicle and 4WD would be super highly recommended for the Peerless, where we also encountered snow on the trail up there in September.
I was very disappointed in the lack of information on these mines on the internet. Sobering to realize how much credit I have come to give Google for presuming it knows everything! About the only thing I learned is that they started as silver mines and later secondarily produced lead and zinc (after the collapse of silver prices in 1893). As for the history of them, I found barely a few scraps. If you're reading this and can provide more information than me, send me a message and your sources!
The ore from the Dauntless Mine and the Hilltop Mine was processed at the Leavick Mill alongside Fourmile Creek.
Following is some interesting (in my opinion) info I snagged from a brochure (mostly verbatim from a PDF) put out by the forest service. They put out a whole series of brochures about the South Park area. If you notice little round signs along the roadsides with numbers on them, they correspond to information in these brochures, so you can take your own informative auto tours. I picked mine up at the Fairplay visitor's center a couple years ago.
"The remains of the old Leavick mill on the right are a crumbling reminder of 1890's high technology. The first buckets of promise were brought to the surface [from inside a mine] by pulleys and hand labor. Then burros hitched to winches pulled the substrate into daylight. Later, tracks and ore carts streamlined the process, but burros still provided the power. The Hilltop Mine eased the burro's burden and added efficiency by constructing an aerial tramway to move its ore to this mill. It stretched 1.75 miles from the mine to the mill [!] with 125 buckets that could hold 400 pounds per bucket.
"Eventually railroad tracks were laid to the mill that anchored the town of Leavick which only had one street. Along that street, a store, post office, cookhouse, school and a few cabins clustered. The Hilltop Mine operated off and on until about 1920. [The Dauntless lies several hundred feet below Hilltop.]
"A common mine laborer could expect long hours, many dangers and low pay. For $1-3/day, including board, a miner toiled in dank and dusty tunnels. He worked in constant danger from falling rocks or cave-ins, from explosions caused by the buildup of gases in unventilated tunnel shafts, and from fires or snow slides that could trap him inside the mine. In the 1890's, this was a scene of bustling men and animals, puffing steam engines, and streams of ore cars."
Further up the road from the mill, we ran into a mama moose and her two children munching the bushes.
We didn't hike up to Hilltop Mine, but its name describes exactly where it is, nearly 13,000 feet above sea level. The hardiness of 19th century miners just astounds me ... they didn't have all our nifty technologies and materials. They carted supplies up in wooden wagons with burros, for heaven's sake, up super steep mountainsides to work and live in some of the harshest climate in the country, particularly through the long winters, living in wooden cabins and bunkhouses with virtually no insulation like we have today.
The road is closed at a gate at about 12,000 feet, so it's another 1,000 feet up to the Hilltop Mine. I didn't know anything about that mine at the time (error on my part), so we just walked up to the one we could see from the gate: the Dauntless Mine. Many people walk past both of these on their way to summit Mt. Sherman, yet another thousand feet higher, which is apparently about the easiest 14er to hike up.
Various rusting machines and appliances -- the first one is a cookstove, probably resided in a bunk house during the heyday.
Nature always wins, though, even where there is little in the way of life at such high altitude and brutal climate. I thought these thorny plants were pretty but also looked vaguely sinister crawling over the rotting wood, looking almost like an octopus or something.
In the photo below, the track to the left took mine carts from the mine to an ore bin, which has been torn down, and the right track took the waste rock to be dumped over the end. This info was given to me by a guy whose dad worked in this mine and others around it. He also explained that the large iron thing between the tracks is what's left of a tram motor that pulled the mine cars in and out of the mine.
I thought it was neat to hear from someone who had actually witnessed the mine run. "I spent many days through the summers up there following my dad. A friend and I watched the compressor, and sometimes we went in the mine with the miners and watched."
Getting to see pikas was another great component of checking out this mine. I absolutely adore these tiny but incredibly hardy creatures who live typically above tree line in extremely harsh climates, building their dens in the crevices of rockfalls and skree. Look at how large their furry feet are relative to their body, their size and padded toes help them scamper all over the jumble of rocks they make their homes in. These tiny souls weigh in at about six ounces. You'll see them collecting lots of grass in their mouths and carrying it into the dens, but they don't hibernate, they're simply building up their winter food cache. I've just recently learned that they are an indicator species -- meaning that changes in their behavior, location and numbers can be particularly evaluative of the effects of climate change in the area.
So the thing is, the first day I misremembered the map I was using via COTREX and didn't consult it once we started up Fourmile Road. So that day I actually thought we were at the Peerless Mine, which was where I had planned to go, when in fact we were at the Dauntless. I was confused when we reached a gate well before the mine, when the route information I'd read said we could drive right up to the mine. Well I figured out the next day, after looking at the maps, it was because we weren't at the Peerless Mine at all! Since I didn't know anything about the Dauntless or Hilltop mines -- they weren't mentioned on the website I was primarily using to plan our routes -- this is why we didn't know to hike up to the Hilltop Mine.
So a couple days later we decided to abort a route I had planned for us over Mosquito Pass, as we weren't super keen on the very narrow, rocky cliff-side shelf road, and decided instead to find the Peerless. The photo below is us driving the road to Peerless. Lop off about a third of the width of this road, put a whole bunch more rocks in it and add another couple thousand feet to the drop-off at a steeper angle to get a sense of what we aborted.
Heading toward "peerless" on the map wasn't very difficult, as there was only one road that branched off of Fourmile in that direction toward a mountain of that name. However, finding the actual mine is not what we thought, and we likely never found the main entrance. But I didn't know this until I got all the way home and "met" (online) the fellow whose dad worked there. I was expecting some ruins along the lines of the Dauntless with lots of artifacts and buildings, but the only thing we found was the entrance to what we presumed was the Peerless Mine. But according to the miner's son, this in fact is called the Twinkle Mine, of which he says: "My dad and a few other men leased the claim in about 1957 and tunneled in to a small stope they mined out. Don't think it paid the bills." [If you're wondering, "stope:" Stoping is the process of extracting the desired ore or other mineral from an underground mine, leaving behind an open space known as a stope."]
So where was the Peerless? As far as I can tell, we probably never even saw the main entrance. It's apparently near the saddle we drove up to where the driving trail ends. The little patch of snow just behind Chewie in the pic below has a shaft beside it down into the mountainside with a grate over it.
I asked if that was it, and he said possibly part of it but he thought the main entrance was below it. Anyway, the point being there were no buildings remaining, perhaps some splinters of wood we couldn't see from where we were.
So Peerless Mine itself was a bit of a bust, but the pursuit of it and the view at road's end is certainly fairly peerless. Absolutely amazing views on either side of the saddle (I didn't have a camera that could do it justice) -- one view down into the South Park basin and the other view down into the Leadville area. I realized the two are not really so far apart as they seem driving by road. A crow can get between them in no time! Assuming he's flying the same direction as the wind ... he wouldn't go much of anywhere trying to fly against it. It was quite calm on the mountainside but up on the saddle it was so windy I couldn't even hold my phone to take a picture with one hand, had to use both hands to keep it steady. The miner's son said of it, "They called it Gobblers Knob, said it was the only place they knew in the winter you could spit down wind and have it hit you behind the ear five seconds later. It was brutal. They parked at Leavick and pulled a sled with a little D4 Caterpillar dozer all the way to the Twinkle. They were glad to get underground, out of the wind to work."
Although sometimes 4x4ing it's super handy, even crucial, to run across another vehicle on the trail, I absolutely love it when we are all alone, which we were most of the time exploring this area. On this day we came down from the saddle to have a late lunch sitting on the tundra beside the trail. Neither of us was talking. I was privately thinking to myself that it's too bad I have to chew my food because even just the sound of my jaws mashing a soft burrito shell and pepperoni was extremely distracting to such deep silence, I wished I could just drink it in. Back in the car on the way down, Erik made the exact same comment, how when he stopped chewing his sandwich the silence was almost profound, the chewing was a distraction. When two people have such a completely random thought that chewing food is too much of a trespass, you know that's some divine silence.
Thanks to Herk Almgren for the firsthand info and personal memories.
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