[Montrose CO | September 2021 | By Kathryn R. Burke]


The San Juan mountains are criss-crossed with mining claims, tunnels and trails. During the height of the hardrock mining days, before the turn of the last century, the discovery of gold and silver in the San Juan Mountains, drew thousands of fortune-seekers.

The intrepid folks who mined these mountains were incredibly industrious and inventive. Think about how easy it is to haul stuff around today, then look at what these people did with little more than mules. They hauled heavy equipment up to the mines, iron cook stoves to the boarding houses, ornate bars to the bordellos and gaming saloons—all of it transported by foot or pack mule.  


They built mills, mines, boarding houses (complete with entertainment and dining halls!), post offices, and entire towns, many at impossible heights. They built aerial tram systems to carry ore out and men and supplies in. A few brave souls even lived up there year round. When the towns burned—fire was common—slap-dash wood buildings heated by woodstoves—they built them again. And to haul the ore out, and supplies and people to serve the mines, they built railroads —four of them from Silverton! —and laid track to the tallest town in the Alpine Loop, Animas Forks—above 12,000 feet!


And —imagine this—they did it all without filing a single permit or waiting for building inspections. What needed to be done got done, as quickly and possible. It was a different world back then.


Prospectors came north from the Durango area, to mine the area that came to be known as the Alpine Loop. Approximately 65 miles round-trip on today’s Jeep roads, the area is bound by Silverton to the south, Ouray to the north, and Lake City to the eastthe heart of the San Juan Mountains mining region. But back then, there were no 4-wheel vehicles and (somewhat) improved roads. Towns and mining camps were connected by rough mule trails, some traversing mountains peaking at over 14,000 feet, and, in more accessible places, rugged wagon roads. The arrival of the narrow gauge railroad in 1882 helped, but the terrain was too difficult and steep for trains to connect it all.  So, for most, it was still pick, shovel, and pack mule to get to their claims.

San Juan Mountain winters are harsh, and in the beginning, the area inhabited by hostile Ute Indians. Many miners, including Charles Baker, sought shelter and safety at lower elevations during the winter. In the 1860s, many also left to fight in the Civil War—most on the side of the Confederacy, but with the end of hostilities, they returned to once again seek their fortunes. After the Utes were forcibly removed by the Brunot Treaty of 1873, the mining district boomed.

Gamblers, saloon keepers, and “shady ladies” soon followed the prospectors. Claims were filed, mining camps were born and grew to incorporated cities almost overnight, with bulging populations. Riding on the passage of the Bland–Allison Act in 1878 and then the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, which required the U.S. government to purchase millions of ounces of silver each year, Colorado prospered. But it all started out as tent cities with no services, and the local saloon was just a jug of whiskey in somebody’s saddlebag.


1860s. Colorado’s “Gold Rush” began when gold was discovered near present-day Denver in 1858. Prospectors headed west, hoping to “strike it rich!” Gold was discovered in Baker’s Park (present-day Silverton) in the early 1860s, then silver. By 1891, miners in San Juan County (Silverton area) had extracted more than $761,000 in silver compared to $192,000 in gold. Silverton was the first of the Alpine Loop towns to have a railroad—in fact, at the height of the mining boom, it had four!


In 1870, the Little Giant Mine on the north side of Arrastra Gulch (about four miles northeast of present-day Silverton, and on the east point of the Loop) drew prospectors to the area. About the same time, rich silver veins discovered along Hensen Creek, which became the Ute and Ulay mines, some of the best-know silver producers in Colorado. Between 1874 and 1903, the mines produced $12 million in minerals (more than $280 million in today’s dollars). Located in Hinsdale County, the mines were responsible for the development of Lake Cty, just east of the mines.


In 1875, prospectors from Silverton and Howardsville came over the mountain and discovered gold. The townsite of Ouray, at the north end of the Loop, was created and incorporated a year later. with a population of 400. By the early 1880s, Ouray was the second most prominent town in the San Juan Region, behind Silverton. At the height of the mining boom, it had more than 30 active mines. And, in just 15 years, the population grew from 400 to 2,500 (more than it has today).


Fortune-seekers flooded into the area, especially the 8-square miles (south of Ouray) known as the Red Mountain Mining District. It stretched from Ironton Park south to Red Mountain Pass At its peak, the District had nearly 40 mines and a population of over 3,000 people crowded into seven small towns: Albany, Congress, Chattanooga, Guston, Ironton, Red Mountain City, and Red Mountain town.



Getting materials up to the mines was difficult, and done with mules. Teams gathered in town, near central supply points, then headed up to the mines with the timber to shore up the tunnels What started out as long board, ended up a lot shorter by the time the planks arrived at their destination. A boy leading a pack grain could make u to $3.50 a day. Big money then, but a long trip, so he could only make one trip a day.


Depending the terrain and grade, travel between towns depended on mules, horses,  and wagons. Roads were often steep and treacherous, and nearly insurpassable in the winter months. A few managed it on skis. A lot of the miners came from the Austrian Alps, and were accomplished skiers. Others did it of necessity. Local history tells of a pastor that treked between Ouray and Silverton, and other mountain town mining camps…all year long!  The mail (mostly) made it too, as mailmen braved the elements to deliver the mail.


This  picture by famed photographer, William Henry Jackson, depicts the trail that eventually became the Million Dollar Highway between Ouray and Silverton. It was barely one-buggy wide. One wonders, what did people do when two teams met on those steep, narrow trails? Did one team back up to let the other go past? There are also stories of entire strings of pack mules plummeting over steep cliffs.


BY 1890, Otto Mears, known as the Pathfinder of the San Juans, had constructed over 200 miles of toll roads throughout the San Juan Mountains. His most famous, between Ouray and Ironton at the start of the Red Mountain Mining District, was blasted from solid rock, and built at a point where your only choice was to go through his gatehouse. Being an astute businessman, he also sold whiskey and cigars there, so the stop would be a welcome one. To get through though, you had to pay a toll.


In 1882, William Jackson Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) steamed into Silverton. (Today, the Durango & Silverton Railroad follows that same route, now powered by diesel rather than coal, due to the ever-present threat of fire.) Between 1887 and 1889, Otto Mears had also built three more railroads, the highest reaching Animas Forks at over 11,000 feet.


Mear’s Silverton Railroad connected the mines and towns of the Red Mountain Mining District. But it never reached Ironton. Or beyond. The grades were too steep and the passes impossible. Locomotives turned around at the Corkscrew Turntable.  (A few remnants are still visible today.) From there, everything continued on by coach or wagon.


The Silverton, Gladstone, and Northerly reached Gladstone (north of Silverton and east of the Red Mountain Mining District) in 1889. By then, Gladstone had gone from mining camp to mining town. But the buildings were wood, and the town eventually burned, as did so many others during that era.


Silver lake Complex

Mining complexes were becoming fairly sophisticated. Electricity and telephones had reached the region by 1885. Instead of lighting a lantern, you could flip a switch and have light. Rather than writing a letter which could take weeks, even months, to arrive, you could speak to someone over the phone. It wasn’t dial-up or mobile phone, of course, but depended on relay through a switchboard. Ouray’s historic Beaumont Hotel housed telephone operators in an office off the lobby.


Besides wagons, stagecoaches, and buggies, another popular form of transportation—at least for the miners above Silverton, was the tram. Dressed in their Sunday best, with new wages in their pockets, they rode the ore buckets to town. Where they spent it on booze and brothels, also leaving considerable sums in the gaming parlors.