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Mining Tours

Very few people have ever actually visited a gold or silver mine but most people do have a curiosity about them.  If there was ever any place to satiate your curiosity regarding the subject it would be on the San Juan Skyway.  In the late 1800's the golden era of mining was in this region.

Mining Tours

Very few people have ever actually visited a gold or silver mine but most people do have a curiosity about them.  If there was ever any place to satiate your curiosity regarding the subject it would be on the San Juan Skyway.  In the late 1800's the golden era of mining was in this region.

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Mining Activities

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Activities: Mining Tours,

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Mining Tours Along the San Juan Skyway

In the late 1800's mining in the San Juan;s was 'everything'.

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Mining Towns in the San Juans

First the Utes traversed the San Juan Mountains for centuries. They didn’t stop to mine. The Spanish first came in the 18th century. New Mexican miners worked for a season or two and then went home. No doubt the Spanish attempted to extract treasures from the mountains. In the 1820s trappers looking for beavers worked San Juan Mountain streams. Christopher Houston Carson “Kit” roamed in the mountain area and elsewhere in the Southwest making his legend with trappers, traders, and explorers. Kit apparently was convinced that the mountains contained gold and silver. In 1859 the Pikes Peak gold rush made its way into Colorado. Participants in the gold rush became known as the “Fifty-Niners”.

Gold was discovered on the slopes of the San Juan Mountains in 1861. Thousands of miners flowed into the mountains in the next 20 or so years. Mining in the San Juans boomed creating mining towns such as Silverton, Ouray, Rico and others. Charles Baker led a small party into the San Juans and then promoted his discoveries. A rush of prospectors headed from New Mexico up the Animas River on Baker’s toll road. The rush petered out but, in 1869, prospectors worked their way up the Dolores River to Rico.

Over the years the San Juans became home to some of the most famous and productive gold mines in Colorado. Situated at the center of the historic San Juan mining district, prospecting began in the 1860s around Silverton, but it was not until 1871 that the first profitable silver vein was discovered in nearby Arrastra Gulch. Sunnyside Mine, in Eureka, 8 miles northeast of Silverton, was one of Colorado’s leading gold producers until 1931. Towns like Silverton and Eureka took root to serve miners in the surrounding mountains. By 1880, Silverton, the largest high-country town, had more than a thousand inhabitants. All that remains of Eureka is a town site and the skeleton of the enormous Sunnyside Mill. At one time, Eureka boasted of a population of three thousand and a booming business district. Otto Mears routed his Silverton railroad through Eureka. In addition to silver, the Sunnyside Mine also produced copper, zinc, lead and cadmium ore.

Ouray emerged as Silverton’s mining center rival. Newspaper wars between the towns erupted and flourished. Across the mountains, isolated from its neighbors, the little camp of Columbia (soon to be Telluride) joined the competition. Initially mining was done by lone prospectors who laid their own claims and mined them with the help of a few other miners. In the 1870s, when large deposits of silver were discovered in the San Juan mountains, it attracted large companies to mine the silver. These large firms slowly took over the mining and by the 1880s mining was dominated by them. These companies provided the long-awaited investments in mills and smelters needed to work the ores profitably. Then came railroads to solve regional transportation problems.

The Denver & Rio Grande (D&RG) gave Silverton a very bright future. In 1880 the new town of Durango sprang up thanks to the D&RG. Soon the mining town of Durango also became the regional smelting, business and banking center. Shifting of the US monetary standard to gold in 1893 marked the beginning of the end to mining in the mountains. A number of silver mines closed leaving those that produced a mixture of silver, gold, and other minerals. By the start of the First World War, most of the mining in the San Juans’ towns had come to an end.

In 1875 several prospectors found gold near Ouray. They named their strike the Mineral Farm. Soon two more deposits were found that became the Trout and Fisherman mines. By 1878, Ouray could boast of three hotels, three churches and two newspapers. Mines sprang up in the Red Mountain, Uncompahgre and Mount Sneffels areas. Red Mountain Town, once the largest mining camp on Red Mountain Pass, located equally between Silverton and Ouray, has a couple of remnants including collapsed buildings, foundations and various mining relics. Ouray earned the distinction of being the most elegant mining town in the San Juans. The Beaumont Hotel was the most elegant hostelry in the mountain region. Gold from the mountains near Ouray produced millionaires like Thomas Walsh who gave the town a 7500-volume library (and the Hope diamond for his daughter).

The Guston Mine, 11 miles south of Ouray, was a major silver and lead producer in 1881. Otto Mears railroad from Silverton serviced Guston along with other mining towns strung out along Red Mountain Pass. The town of Guston no longer exists but there are fine ruins of the Guston Mine complex. 8 miles south of Ouray, in Ironton, the man who had discovered the Guston Mine staked a claim he called the Yankee Girl. Ironton thrived with this and other mines and Otto Mears spent a small fortune to develop the Ouray-Ironton route. The ghost town of Ironton is easy to find and attracts visitors even though there are no intact buildings.

Founded in 1873 where three nearby rivers met (including the Animas River), Animus Forks originally was called Three Forks of the Animas. By 1876, Animas Forks was a thriving mining city. At this time the town had a hotel, a saloon, a post office, and a general store. And by 1883 there were about 450 residents. There was even a local newspaper called the Animas Forks Pioneer. Though mining brought plenty of people to Animas Forks, the harsh conditions of winter at 11,000+ feet altitude made winter living nearly impossible. In 1884, a 23-day-long blizzard covered the town with so much snow that those living in town had to travel from building to building by snow tunnel.

After this, most residents left and moved to Silverton. By the 1910s, the population was dwindling and Animas Forks was a ghost by the 1920s. Today, several of the original buildings in Animas Forks are still standing along the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway.Due to the high altitude and rough terrain, however, the best way to explore the region is by Jeep or other high-clearance 4×4 vehicles. The road beyond Animas Forks through Engineer Pass to Lake City is 4-wheel drive only. From Silverton, take County Road 2 for about 12 miles until you reach Animas Forks Ghost Town.

The Idarado gold mine was located in the San Juan Mountains in the Sneffels Red Mountain Telluride mining district of Ouray County. The mine operated in the 1880s producing gold. The Idarado Mine was near the now-ghost town of Guston. The remains of the operation are visible from the Million Dollar Highway, north of Red Mountain Pass. between Ouray and Silverton, Colorado. The tunnels of the Idarado extend some 5 miles (8 km) west under 13,000 foot (4,000 m) mountains to the Pandora Mill near Telluride. One mile east of Telluride, the town of Pandora was named for the Pandora Mine discovered in the 1870s. But Pandora actually was dominated by the huge Smuggler-Union Mill that processed ore from the Smuggler and Union mines high in the mountains behind the town.

Also located in the Sneffels-Red-Mountains-Telluride Mining District between Telluride and Ouray, 5 miles southwest of Ouray, Camp Bird was the company town that grew up around the Camp Bird Mine. This was one of the fabulous gold producers that made its former owner, Thomas Walsh, immensely wealthy. The mine was active between 1896 and 1990. The Camp Bird boarding house was a three-story structure built to accommodate as many as 400 men. No expense was spared in the construction of the boarding house. It still stands. A few historic homes remain at the Camp Bird site. The lower mill site also still has some remaining houses, including the superintendent’s office and company housing.

The former mining town of Rico situated in the southwestern part of the San Juans reveals much of a past mining life in Colorado. Historic buildings still dot the main street. Many have been refurbished to house new businesses. Buildings and relics from the mining boom of the 1880s remain in various conditions throughout town. In addition, there’s an old depot and railroad grade along the Dolores River.

Between Telluride and Rico is the small ghost town of Alta. With an elevation of 11,800 feet, this mining town was home to a few hundred people. From 1877 to 1948, it was a hub for mining activity in the area and originally known as the Gold King area. The mill burned in 1948 but several original buildings are still standing. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the site includes several original buildings, including cabins, a boarding house and outhouse buildings. While 2WD vehicles may be able to make the trek, 4x4s are recommended, especially for visitors who want to continue on to Alta Lakes. Follow W 145 Spur Hwy/CO-145 west out of Telluride, and at the traffic circle, take the 2nd exit for CO 145 S. Turn left onto Alta Lakes Road, about 6 miles south of Telluride, and continue for about 4 miles into Alta.

Dunton, 36 miles northeast of Dolores, is an excellent ghost town of 18 buildings, mostly log cabins. Founded in the 1880s, when the Emma Mine south of town was discovered, mining lasted until 1917. With a hot spring that attracts tourists, the town is better known as a resort than as a former mining camp. Legend says that this is the town in which Butch Cassidy holed up after robbing a Telluride bank.

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