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Historic Mines and Ghost Towns

“the wildest and most inaccessible region in Colorado, if not in North America”… a region of “unparalleled ruggedness, and sublimity more awful than beautiful…”

… Hubert H. Bancroft in 1890

These San Juan Mountains that I was enjoying so much were described in that way at about the time that the region was being flooded with prospectors.

Not only are these mountains some of the most rugged in the U.S., but they also contained an incredibly rich zone of ores like silver and gold that stretched from Silverton (guess where they got that name 🙂 ) to Ouray to Telluride and to nearby towns like Creede and Summitville.

I had a chance to see a lot the mining history during my drives over the Million Dollar Highway (guess where they got that name :)). I thoroughly enjoyed this drive – it runs between Ouray and Silverton is considered one of the most scenic and spectacular mountain drives in North America. This famous section of the so called “Skyway” winds through the iron-colored Red Mountains, along the sheer sides of the Uncompahgre Gorge ( no guardrails!), through tunnels and past cascading waterfalls. And, as I mentioned, it runs along or near many mining relics.

I read where the San Juans were described as “the best and worst mining country ever struck.” Seems these mountains were uniquely rich in deposits but the ruggedness of the area had always impeded exploration and production. But that all changed in the 1860’s when the first prospectors arrived. The Civil War interrupted exploration but things really got going in the 1870’s.

In fact, it was the miners, flooding the region in the late 1800’s in search of silver and gold, who would forever change the face of the San Juans. Many of the high-country roads that I would drive over in my rented jeep, are access routes that the miners developed over a hundred years ago. The century-old ghost towns of Sneffels, Red Mountain Town, Animas Forks, and Mineral Point, as well as abandoned mines along the way, are all evidence of this area’s rich history.

One of the best preserved of the old mining towns is Animas Forks. I drove over Hurricane Pass at 13,000 feet to get there and kept asking myself “how could this town even exist?” I know their motivation but had to stand in awe of the challenges they overcame to get here. The ghost town stands at 11,000 feet and at one time 500 people lived in an area where signs today warn of avalanches. By 1876 the town had a hotel, a general store, post office and two newspapers –not to mention the requisite saloons!

The so-called “Bay Window House” overlooks the headwaters of the Animas River and was the once proud home of a successful businessman in town

Very simply, signs of the mining history are everywhere – the landscape is dotted with mining camps, prospect pits, and old tunnels – most of them abandoned.

Now I know some would look upon this as scars on an otherwise spectacular landscape but I had to marvel at the “history museum” that I saw everywhere in the landscape. I often stood amazed at the incredible challenges the miners had to overcome to mine the ore – extreme altitude, steep slopes, avalanches and rock slide, harsh winters and so many others.

So scar to some – but really very interesting when you stand on a steep slope, at an altitude where you can barely catch your breath, and look upon the history of some very rugged folks in a very rugged land who helped fuel this country’s Industrial Revolution…

Go ahead, start whistling “God Bless America” with me 🙂

Take care…See you down the road…

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken Johnson #

    Enjoyed your photos. The guide I had out of Ouray gave the reason for no guard rails along the Million Dollar Hwy: “The avalanches take them out so we quit replacing them.” At one point they built a sloping roof over the road for the snow to slide across rather than taking the road out.

    July 16, 2012
    • Stephen #

      thanks for following along and taking time to comment – the Million Dollar Hwy is simply amazing – part terrifying, part exhilarating, but always amazingly beautiful (if you can take your eyes off the road for a second !) Not surprised to hear the story of the guardrails – there are avalanche signs everywhere along with “launcher site” signs – I guess they lob shells into the hills to control things a bit

      July 16, 2012

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