by Mary Lowers
Since the first few explorers of European origin entered the San Luis Valley (SLV) stories of gold and silver discoveries have been told. Not all of the tales were fantasy. From 1859 to the present, Colorado mines have produced over forty-five million troy ounces of gold. The mines on the west flank of the Sangre de Cristo Range contributed to this wealth.
The exploratory missions by the Spanish into the SLV include the parties of Juan Archuleta in 1664 and Juan Ulibarri in 1706. This area was the northern boundary of Spain in the Americas and the southern boundary of France on the continent. These early Spanish expeditions, and possible French incursions, were looking for mineral wealth. In 1790 a French Canadian party of explorers crossed into the SLV where they claimed to have found gold. The story goes that they buried their treasure at Round Mountain near Poncha Pass. A sole survivor of this expedition known as Le Blanc took a map showing where the treasure lay back to France. No one has unearthed the buried gold to this day.
The early Spanish prospectors left abundant evidence along the western side of the SLV. Primitive mining tools and arrastras, crude ore crushers built on flat rock near streams, have been found. Arrastras processed ore extracted from the rock using a horizontal arm anchored to a center post and pulled by a horse or mule, allowing the heave stone to crush the rock. Evidence of early mineral exploration has been found in and around the mining camps of Duncan and Liberty south of Crestone. Tales of lost Spanish gold abound in the valley.
After the Louisiana Purchase, the Pike expedition (1807) came to the SLV, crossing into the valley over Médano Pass to the Great Sand Dunes. Pike was detained by Spanish authorities who thought (probably correctly) that the expedition were spies for the United States. While in Santa Fe a mountain man by the name of James Percell told Pike of gold discovered in Colorado.
By the 1840s gold seemed to be found all over Colorado. The Fremont Expedition (1843) found evidence of gold in five or six locations in the Colorado mountains. These tales of gold were passed over when actual nuggets from Sutters Mill in California went east, setting off the gold rush of 1849. The first concrete evidence of gold in Colorado was brought east by a Delaware Indian called Fall Leaf who had been part of the Gunnison Expedition of 1853.
It is said that a ledge of gold-bearing quartz crops out here and there along the western Sangre de Cristos. Throughout the 1800s a succession of prospectors showed up in SLV mining camps with samples of very rich gold ore they found lying on the surface of the ground in various spots. The Precambrian granites of the Crestone area are home to some of these rich deposits. This knowledge, coupled with numerous lost mine tales, encouraged the belief of many miners and prospectors that an undiscovered rich discontinuous vein of gold-bearing quartz exists somewhere along the western flank of the Sangres.
In the 1840s the Mexican government encouraged settlement in the SLV, awarding land grants to families from what is now New Mexico to settle the northern reaches of the Mexican Empire. After the Mexican American War, south central Colorado was opened to settlement from the east. The Homestead Acts of 1854-1863 set the stage for an influx of American and European settlers. The American Civil War displaced many people, particularly former Confederates, many of whom chose to make new homes in the western territories. Wars and the potato blight in Europe caused many Irish and German immigrants to flee Europe in hopes of a better life. In 1872 two hundred German settlers founded a colony in the SLV. In the same era three hundred and fifty Dutch settlers made their homes north of Alamosa. There were English settlers around La Garita and Mormons settled in the southern SLV.
It was in the years between 1870 and 1880 that the SLV gold rush began in earnest. In 1879 high grade ore was found in Burnt Gulch above Crestone. A tent city of miners grew into the Town of Crestone.
Boom town Crestone was an exciting place to be. As Gladys Sisemore tells the story in her book Drillin’, Loadin’ and Firin’ about the mining days, “main street consisted of unpainted buildings with false fronts, leantos, tarpaper shacks, and tents. Throughout the day and into the night loads of lumber and supplies came. Shavings and scrapes of lumber littered the roadways as town grew. It was fast becoming a rip-roaring mining town.” In the “boom days” there were ten thousand souls living between Villa Grove and the Great Sand Dunes.
The rumors of gold brought waves of prospectors to the SLV. The canyons and drainages north and south of Crestone were found to have veins of gold-bearing sulfides. John Duncan found deposits of gold at Pole Creek. Thomas Ryan found rich deposits at the mouth of Deadman’s Creek. Large deposits of gold were discovered near Cottonwood Creek. The northern SLV consisted of nine mining districts on the west side of the valley. These districts included from north to south, Raspberry Creek, Orient, Crestone, Spanish, Cottonwood, Sangre de Cristo, Duncan, Liberty and Camp Commodore. The Crestone District begins sixteen miles southeast of the Orient District, around present day Valley View Hot Springs, and ends near the mouth of North Crestone Creek. Crestone Mining District owned five patented mining claims: Cap Sheaf, Sunbeam, Homestake, Longfellow and Cleora. An area of some 160 acres east of and adjoining the Crestone District known as The Placer was to be divided into town lots. This plan was abandoned when gold nuggets were found there in the process of drilling a well.
Gold just seemed to be everywhere. The Town of Crestone supported rich mines to the south. The richest area for mineral wealth was in a twelve-mile stretch between North Crestone Creek and Short Creek near the ghost town of Liberty. The Crestone Mining District experienced two “booms”. The first went from 1883 to 1890. Gold was still there but too expensive to extract. People left to find more promising gold fields. The mines that had been running full tilt were silent. Then when gold prices jumped in 1900 the “big boom” for the SLV mines occurred.
In these boom times mines and mills roared day and night. These were hard rock mines removing gold encased in rock. As Gladys Sisemore said, “muckers, diggers, single-jackers, double jackers and dynamite men” were plentiful and in demand. They cleaned out tunnels, timbered them and opened up new levels in the mines. Employment was high and anyone not working was up in the hills prospecting. New businesses to serve the miners were opening daily. Crestone had a couple of assay offices, blacksmiths, lumber yards, contractors, billiard parlors, feed stores, livery stables, lodging (like Mrs. Wilcox offering a bed in a tent for twenty-five cents a night), five doctors and two newspapers, the Crestone Eagle (after which the current Eagle is named) and the Crestone Miner.
Gladys Sisemore describes Crestone’s heyday this way, “The deep hum of the winch as it wound up the cable from shafts that were sunk ever deeper . . . a constant reminder of prosperity.” When the railroad came to the SLV at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century vast amounts of mineral wealth left the valley by rail for the eastern slope. Around 1903 the mines began closing. The price of gold went down and the price of extraction went up. Gold on the western slope of the Sangre de Cristos was mostly found in isolated pockets. The population plummeted as miners went to more promising jobs in Creede, Bonanza or the Cripple Creek District. Many of the SLV mining camps disappeared or were carted off for materials such as lumber and bricks.
There are fifty-one mining claims currently on record in the Crestone District. Some are on private and some on public land. Almost every claim lists gold among the minerals found there.
Well it seems as though there’s still gold in them there hills. As of 2006 mining interests have staked more than 5000 claims in Colorado. According to the Federal Mine Safety Administration, there are nine active or intermittent hard rock mining operations in the state. Five of the nine are gold mines. Some 942 people are employed in the industry.