Land of Contrast: A History of Southeast Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 17)
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Chapter XI

The year 1858 proved a watershed in Colorado's history, for at that time gold was found in large enough quantities to spark what was called the Colorado "Gold Rush." Discoveries of small amounts of placer gold in Cherry and Dry Creeks, at the base of the Rockies, near the Platte River Valley, caused a depression-ridden nation to hope for another boom the size of California's 1849 Gold Rush. Gold was not found by wandering fur trappers or natives, although they certainly knew about the strange glittering metal, but rather by veteran placer miners from Georgia. Three brothers named Russell went from the Arkansas River (Santa Fe Trail) north to Dry Creek, where in July 1858 they found "good diggings." Based on the meager gold they found, promoters in Kansas and Missouri "boomed" the Russells' find into the Pike's Peak Gold Rush. A nationwide depression, beginning in 1853, caused merchants at these western "ports" to lose business. The Oregon Trail was virtually dead as was the Santa Fe Trail. Upon hearing of "gold" in Pike's Peak country, they promptly began a propaganda campaign aimed at luring Americans into the far west. [1] Russells' success was soon followed by others. John Easter, a Lawrence, Kansas butcher, went to Pike's Peak country by way of the Arkansas River Valley, as had the Russell party. This little group tried panning around Pike's Peak and found nothing. They went into South Park with no luck, and just as the party was ready to turn south, news of Cherry Creek came forth. The Easter expedition rushed for that region and began placer operations. Like the Russell group, the Easter men (also called the Lawrence party) found some gold, but it was hardly a bonanza. Nevertheless, some die-hards stayed for the winter in 1858 and staked out town sites. Montana City died quickly, but St. Charles town lived a little longer. Across from it arose the village of Auraria. In the end, the cities were combined and Denver erected. However, gold at Cherry and Dry Creeks soon ran out, and miners began working upstream toward the mountains, searching for a main source of gold. [2]

Clear Creek was the nearest canyon, and soon placer miners were working up and down that drainage. Gold was found, but not in paying quantities. Cries of "humbug" and fraud were heard from the canyons of Pike's Peak. Thousands who rushed to Colorado soon learned that there was little gold and that living conditions were horrible, at best. Nevertheless, persistent gold seekers aspired to find the "mother lode." George A. Jackson, in 1859, discovered large quantities of ore along Clear Creek. Central City was founded a mile west of the discovery. Meanwhile, miners found "color" in Boulder Canyon during July 1859. The significance of these finds cannot be underestimated, for they preserved a flagging gold rush. Discouraged miners were leaving by May 1859, and Jackson's claims revived the "boom." Naturally, merchants in Kansas and Missouri cashed in by issuing "guides" to the goldfields, describing the fastest, cheapest, or easiest way to "Pike's Peak." Promoters who issued these often grossly misinformed guides touted the virtues of their cities as the place to outfit for the journey. [3]

During 1859, miners spread out into the mountains, emulating Jackson's experience and hoping to find another place like Clear Creek. They struggled their ways over the Continental Divide and on to the Blue River where placer gold was mined. Of more interest were hundreds of miners who moved over Kenosha Pass, or followed the South Platte River through Eleven Mile Canyon, into South Park. South Park's mining history dates from June 1859 when J.B. Kennedy, J.L. Shank and D.M. Slaughter went to the park to pan for gold. However, they were driven off by hostile Utes who killed several members of the party on July 9, 1859, near what became known as Deadman's Gulch at Kenosha Pass. [4] The next mining attempt was made in late July 1859, and the party consisted of W.J. Curtice, Clark Chambers, M.V. Spillard, T. Cassaday, J. Merill, Catesby Dale, William Holman and Earl Hamilton, who entered the park by way of Kenosha Pass. They found Tarryall Creek and proceeded to work that drainage. Holman staked out a claim and called the place "Pound Diggings." News of the Tarryall find caused excitement along Clear Creek, and a rush ensued. Soon Tarryall was overcrowded and latecomers were sent packing. Disgruntled prospectors found deposits along Beaver Creek on August 19, 1859. A settlement called "Graball," in reference to stingy miners at Tarryall, was founded. The name was later changed to Fairplay, and it soon became the largest town in South Park. [5] As South Park became famous, more and more prospectors flooded the region. A group of seven men, led by "Buckskin" Joe Higganbottom, of fur trade fame, found gold eight miles south of Fairplay, while four other men formed the "Snow Blind District of Gilpin Gulch" at the foot of Mount Lincoln. [6] Winter weather drove out all but the most determined, and South Park awaited the spring thaw. The new year, 1860, saw more activity in the park. By late spring the mining camps of Tarryall, Fairplay, Buckskin Joe and others were in full operation. With the greatest optimism, "cities" were planned. W. J. Holman laid out Tarryall City, while Earl Hamilton platted Hamilton City next to Tarryall. [7] Hamilton City boasted a drug store, six groceries, a lawyer, two doctors, a meat market, two blacksmiths, three boarding houses, a hotel, five stock ranches, the recorder's office, a justice of the peace, and a St. Vrain-Easterday provision store. The town had thirty-five finished buildings with thirty more "on the way." [8] Tarryall City boasted three hundred buildings (surely exaggerated) in the spring of 1860 with local miners panning "$100 per day" in gold. Tarryall and Hamilton had rivals, such as Jefferson City, which claimed a population of 2,000. Equally, Buckskin Joe promoters alleged 2,000 miners were crammed into Buckskin Gulch. [9]

As the park filled, a few unhappy miners crossed the Mosquito Range into the Upper Arkansas Valley. This activity centered around Mount Massive, where a little gold was found, but not enough to excite a rush. On April 25, 1860, Abe Lee found "color" at California Gulch, and a stampede to the Arkansas occurred. By summer, 5,000 miners filled the area and were busily placer mining every stream they could find. Among first arrivals were Samuel Kellogg, Horace A.W. Tabor and his wife Augusta. [10] The California Gulch boom caused a town site to be laid out, and Oro City arose. With the better claims paying $50,000 or $60,000 a year, the place was touted as the "great Camp of Colorado," an overly optimistic view of gold mining at this time. However, this activity in the central Rockies did have a positive effect throughout the region. [11]

Not only were towns created where miners appeared, but materials needed for building and development were not readily found. Lumber, for instance, was simply not available. First settlers cut down every tree in sight for cabins, buildings and mines. Soon sawmills were imported from Missouri or Kansas, and milled lumber became available. Then, wooden houses, stores, warehouses, sluices, flumes, and other structures were erected using local trees. Within a few years the hillsides were decimated, and virtually all original growth was gone. Early photographs of mining towns depict barren hillsides with rivulets of erosion beginning. Clearly, mining booms were hard on the environment. [12] In addition to destroying timber, mining camps were unsanitary, with raw sewage dumped into creeks and garbage tossed into the streets. Disease was common, primarily thanks to filthy conditions. Fire was an ever-present threat because of all wooden buildings. In its earliest stages, nearly every mining town was wiped out by a conflagration, and then it was rebuilt with more "fire resistant" materials, such as brick or rock. [13]

Towns needed roads, and transportation paths were carved up canyons and along waterways, always following the path of least resistance. Later, railroads used the same trails, as did paved highways in the early twentieth century. The early days saw crude, two-rut paths serve as primary transportation routes throughout Colorado. The plains traffic, mostly from Kansas and Missouri, was heavy, but it was also easy in that there were no mountains. Trails across the plains developed rapidly. First prospectors used the traditional Santa Fe Trail-Arkansas River path to about where Bent's (Old) Fort had stood, then they turned north along Fountain Creek, over Monument Hill, and into the Denver Basin. While the road was fairly good, it was slow; miners were always in a hurry. There were advantages in the Arkansas River route. For instance, Bent's (New) Fort served as a place to reprovision and repair. One could always count on fresh vegetables, milk, and meat along the Arkansas River, where a few farmers and traders maintained establishments like that of Charles Autobees. [14] This route became known as the Cherokee Trail or the "Old" Cherokee Trail. The next most popular trail was the Platte River Road that ran from Omaha to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, with a southern cutoff into Denver. This route had fewer amenities along the way, but it was faster and possibly a little flatter. By 1861, the trail was recognized as superior; seen in the fact that Wells Fargo and Company used it, as did the Central California, Overland and Pike's Peak Express Company (CCO&PP). Freighters preferred the Platte Road as did stage travelers. A tri-weekly stage ran from Omaha to Denver, and daily stages moved west from Ash Hollow, Nebraska. Thousands of prospectors (and would-be millionaires) used the South Platte Road to the Rockies. Deep ruts were cut into the plains, just as the Santa Fe Trail was deeply imbedded. [15] The other major route to the goldfields was the Smoky Hill Road. At first, the trail was used by the U.S. Army as a shortcut to Bent's Fort, and then as a secondary road into the Rockies. This path was difficult, and it contained few watering holes. However, it was shorter and faster than other main trails. The Smoky Hill Trail had three branches in Colorado; and they led through southeastern Colorado, across the plains, into Denver. The road was popular enough that in places it was ten miles wide. However, travelers on the Smoky Hill Road reported dead bodies and open graves: victims of starvation. There were reports of Arapaho natives feeding starving travelers along the trail. [16] There were places where no water was available for 150 miles. The Smoky Hill Trail was known as the "Starvation Trail" with good reason. By 1865, the main road was abandoned in favor of the South Smoky Hill Road. [17]

The Smoky Hill Trail followed the Smoky Hill River, roughly paralleling to day's Union Pacific Railroad line from Cheyenne Wells to Limon, Colorado, and then on into Denver. This trail did not develop any ancillary facilities, such as trading posts or villages. [18] No matter what route they used, "Pike's Peak or Bust" settlers came by wagon, horseback, muleback, on foot and dragging hand-carts. One inventive soul even tried a "wind wagon," or a wagon with sails. The inventor made it from Independence, Missouri, just as far as the first gully, which swallowed up wagon, sails and all. No matter what mode of transport, some one hundred thousand Americans crossed Stephen H. Long's Great American Desert to the Rockies, where they first built cabins, and then towns. [19]

As noted, a major problem was supplying mining camps located in the high Rockies. These places were virtually inaccessible, and, even with crude roads, getting heavy machinery, goods, and other necessities in was most difficult. The logical solution was to bring heavy goods across the plains by wagon, deposit them in a central location and then transship them in smaller loads into the mountains. This is how supply towns arose in Colorado. Denver was the first and most obvious supply point. From here Clear Creek Canyon's residents were provided with nearly every possible kind of goods. Boulder was another supply town that serviced Boulder Canyon and Gold Hill. South Park was supplied by a new settlement along the Arkansas River, just east of the "Royal Gorge," called Canon City. The town site was laid out in October 1859 by William Kroenig, William H. Young, Robert Bercaw, Charles D. Peck, and the Smith Brothers. With the hope that Canon City would be the "gateway" to gold fields of South Park and the Upper Arkansas, Kroenig quickly built his cabin and began surveying a road over Currant Creek Pass to the Tarryall Diggings. [20] As it happened, most miners preferred the Fountain Creek-Ute Pass route into the park, and Canon City did not become a major supplier for the mines. However, fresh vegetables and fuel were always in demand. Jesse Frazer, along with Hosea Hoopengarner, C. Harrington and John Leland, filed coal claims to supplement their gardening efforts. Eight miles east of Canon City, Florence was born. At first a tiny agricultural settlement, Florence became a major coal producer in the 1870's. In 1860, Gabriel Bowen located a claim on Fourmile (Oil) Creek for an "oil spring." While these resources were not immediately developed, they were used during the 1870's and later. [21] By fall 1860, Canon City's newspaper, the Times, reported that several mills, including a steam-powered sawmill, were in business there, and that some 800 people called the place home. [22]

Farther down the Arkansas River, at its junction with Fountain Creek, settlers used the site for crossing the river and grazing their animals. The area became part of the Cherokee Trail, famous in initial gold rush days. At this location, a little settlement called Fountain City arose, and it served travelers, farmers and others in the immediate region. However, because the town site was prone to constant flooding, it did not develop. Pueblo, on the other hand, was located on high ground, overlooking the Arkansas River, and grew as a supply center. The two villages were as one site. [23]

During the 1859 rush, people would stop over at this location, and finally a few pioneers set up a town company to develop the area. Stephen S. Smith was Pueblo's first settler, and he called the place Fountain City. In 1860, the town company changed its name to Pueblo, and on May 22, 1860, the residents of the village met and formally founded Pueblo. The site was platted on July 1, 1860. Thanks to its location along major north-south trade routes, the place flourished by providing services to miners, farmers and merchants. [24] Pueblo attracted farmers from as far as seventy-five miles to trade in town. Pueblo became a center for trade and commerce, not only for the gold fields, but also for places like the San Luis Valley, where farm goods went to Pueblo and then were resold to mining communities. The Huerfano River valley also produced farm goods, such as vegetables, fresh milk and other staples, and sold them at Pueblo. Pueblo residents soon built irrigation ditches from the Arkansas River, and by 1860 crops abounded in the valley, providing even more farm goods for the booming Rockies. [25] As Pueblo grew, typical problems of urbanization occurred. By 1860, People's Courts were established to mete out justice, and in 1862 Pueblo County, which took in all of southeastern Colorado, was organized. Also, in 1862 a U.S. mail route was established to Pueblo that, in turn, assured the town would "funnel" communications up the river to the gold regions. [26] Pueblo's trade importance became evident in 1862 when its first flour mill was erected. To be able to produce refined goods was of considerable importance in early Colorado history, for local goods were much cheaper than those from St. Joseph or Omaha. The next year, 1863, saw Pueblo's first school opened and run by George Bilby. [27]

Perhaps the most serious sign of permanence was Richens L. "Uncle Dick" Wootton's construction of two houses in 1861 at Pueblo. Uncle Dick Wootton was not only famous for his exploits in the fur trade, but also as a developer in southeastern Colorado. Wootton farmed along the Arkansas River during the 1850's, ran small trading posts in the Huerfano Valley, and in the 1860's obtained a right-of-way through the Maxwell Grant from Trinidad to Raton, New Mexico. He built a toll road over Raton Pass and proceeded to open trade among Pueblo, Walsenburg, and Trinidad into New Mexico. The road became a major transportation corridor and was eventually purchased by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe for its railroad line to Los Angeles. [28]

As the Arkansas River Valley developed, so did other drainages, such as the Huerfano and Purgatoire Rivers. Demand for food was so great from the numerous mining camps that farms arose in these areas. J.M. Francisco established a community at Francisco Plaza, near the Spanish Peaks, in 1862. This became La Veta, Colorado, in later days. [29] Madrid Plaza, on the Purgatoire, was founded in the 1860's by the Madrid family. J.M. Madrid, interviewed in the early 1900's, recalled that some nineteen settlements were located along that river west of Trinidad. For instance, the Barela family founded a plaza on San Francisco Creek in 1866, while Torres Plaza and Vigil Plaza were both founded by New Mexican settlers at about the same time. [30]

In addition to a need for farm goods, the mining boom created demand for fresh meat. John Wesley Prowers brought 600 head of cattle from Missouri during 1861 and grazed them along the Arkansas River prior to shipping them north to Denver to supply hungry mining camps. The results were so profitable that Prowers added one hundred stock cows in 1862 and used the region from the Purgatoire north to the Arkansas and east to the Kansas line for grazing. This area became the core of a great cattle empire of the 1870's. While Prowers may have been astute enough to begin southeastern Colorado's cattle industry, he was not the first to use the area. In 1859, John C. Dawson trailed a modest cattle herd from Texas using the north side of the Arkansas River, along Fountain Creek and on into Denver. These efforts paved the way for men like J.W. Prowers and J.W. Iliff, eastern Colorado's two most famous cattle barons. [31] By the mid-1860's one hundred thousand head of cattle roamed the plains of southeastern Colorado, generally concentrated along the lower Arkansas River. Charles Goodnight pioneered a new trail in 1864 when he drove cattle from Texas up the Pecos, over Trincheras Pass, north past Pueblo, across Monument Hill, and to Denver. Today's Interstate 25 closely parallels the Goodnight Trail from Pueblo north. [32]

While the eastern plains developed, mining in the Rockies did not fare so well. The blush of discovery was over by 1861, and mining slowly became a depressed industry. The year 1861 saw a period of retraction in most South Park camps as well as at Oro City. The major problem was lack of "loose" or placer gold in streams. The rush of 1859-1860 cleaned out drainages, and by 1861 miners were digging shafts in an attempt to extract quartz in which gold ore was locked. While mining techniques were standard for these times, Colorado quartz ores would not yield their minerals. South Park miners at first used the old Spanish arrastra method of milling by which a mule tied to a long pole would drive a large round rock on a flat stone surface, thus crushing ore. However, the system was inefficient and could be used for only high-grade ores. [33] Colorado miners soon imported metal ore stamps to pulverize stubborn local ores. By 1862, Laurette town site could boast of two steam-driven and two water-powered stamp mills, in addition to five older arrastras. Montgomery had six quartz mills, and three hundred men worked the various mines in Mosquito Gulch. Even with this ore-crushing equipment, and transportation, organized mining districts (like the Independent Mining District), were doomed. [34] Extracting minerals from these crushed ores was just too much for frontier technology. Only the richest ores were worth refining because they had to be sent to either Boston or Swansea, Wales. There were no local smelters, and 1860's technology was not adequate to deal with the extremely complex ores of this region. The end result was a steady decline in production followed by abandoned mining camps. Perhaps the most telling statistics were in the census of 1860 that recorded 10,610 persons in Park County and the 1870 census that showed only 447 souls left in this county. [35] Samuel Bowles reported in 1868 that only one of two hundred cabins at Montgomery was occupied, while at Tarryall maybe three cabins were in use. Hamilton was described as a place of fifty mud-patched cabins, two hotels, mostly vacated, and a population of two dozen. [36] An earlier visitor, Bayard Taylor, reported in 1866 that Jefferson City was abandoned and only two hundred miners still lived at Fairplay. [37] Difficult ores were not the only problem for South Park's miners. A flood on the plains in 1864 cut off traffic from the east and, for a considerable time, slowed delivery of badly needed heavy machinery. The Civil War interrupted supplies to mining camps as manufacturers switched production to meet the war effort while, at the same time, native raids by both the Arapaho and Cheyenne disrupted trade routes. Even the Santa Fe/Cherokee Trail was attacked by Cheyenne raiders. These events conspired to make mining less and less profitable as the 1860's marched forward. [38] The mines of Oro City, such a promising place in 1860, also slowed production. The Printer Boy and Pioneer Mines were still the biggest producers in Lake County, but they were not providing a fraction of the 1861 finds. Both Park and Lake Counties yielded $7,762,000 in gold from 1859-1867, but from 1868-1870 production was a pitiful $385,000. [39]

South Park and the Upper Arkansas River basin were not the only areas explored for gold. Most every canyon along the Front Range was prospected, with results that were less than encouraging. The Wet Mountain Valley was explored, but no gold deposits were found. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains were looked at, also with minimal results. The San Luis Valley hosted prospectors who worked various creeks and streams emerging from both the Sangre de Cristos and the San Juans. Kerber Creek, Saguache Creek, Poncha Creek, and San Luis Creek were all tested, but deposits were meager. The Valley was also used by transient miners on their ways to other places. In March 1861, T.C. Wetmore, of Canon City, went on a prospecting trip into the San Juans. He returned in June and reported that these mountains contained vast potential but that the native population had to be removed in order that Europeans could explore further. Wetmore suggested that a treaty was needed to permit miners into the San Juans. He apparently did not realize that the treaty of 1849 covered this matter, and various prospectors were indeed trespassing on native lands. [40] The Wetmore trip only served to point up an ever-growing tension between native and European inhabitants in Colorado. By the mid-1860's resentment flared to hostility, and the native problem loomed large in territorial politics.


1. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit., pp. 60-61. Also: Robert G. Athearn, The Coloradans (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.)

2. Ibid., p. 61.

3. Athearn, ibid.

4. Virginia McConnell, op. cit., p. 63.

5. Frank Fossett, A Historical Descriptive, and Statistical Work on the Rocky Mountain Gold and Silver Mining Regions (Denver: Daily Tribune, 1876), p. 45.

6. McConnell, ibid., pp. 64-65.

7. Don and Jean Griswold, Colorado's Century of Cities (Denver: Smith-Brooks, 1958), pp. 62-63.

8. Rocky Mountain News, June 13, 1860, p. 2.

9. McConnell, op. cit., p. 74.

10. Jean Griswold, "The History of Leadville, Colorado to 1900," (M.A. Thesis: University of Southern California, 1933), p. 6.

11. Don and Jean Griswold, The Carbonate Camp Called Leadville (Denver: University of Denver Press, 1951), pp. 1-2.

12. Duane A. Smith, Rocky Mountain Mining Camps, the Urban Frontier (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1967.) See also: Muriel Sibell Wolle, Stampede to Timberline (Chicago: Swallow, 1974) and C. Eric Stors, Victorian Bonanza (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1973.)

13. Stors, ibid.

14. Janet LeCompte, "Charles Autobees" in: Mountain Men and the Fur Trade (Glendale, California: A.H. Clark, 1966), Vol.4, p. 37.

15. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit., pp. 63-64.

16. Margaret Long, The Smoky Hill Trail (Denver: Kistler, 1943), p. 19.

17. Ibid., p. 20.

18. Ibid., p. 39.

19. Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit., p. 66.

20. Frank Hall, History of Colorado (Chicago: Blakely, 1895), Vol. IV, p. 223. See also: H.H. Bancroft, "Early Days in Canon City," Colorado Magazine (1930), p. 110.

21. As related in Rosemae Campbell, From Trappers to Tourists: Fremont County Colorado, 1830-1950 (Palmer Lake, Colorado: Filter Press, 1972), and B.F. Rockafellow, "History of Fremont County." In: History of the Arkansas Valley (Chicago: Baskin, 1881.)

22. LeRoy R. Hafen, Colorado and Its People (New York: Lewis, 1948), Vol. 1, p. 197.

23. Milo Lee Whittaker, Pathbreakers and Pioneers of the Pueblo Region (Philadelphia: Franklin, 1917), pp. 51-52.

24. Ibid., p. 40, 42, 52, 53, and 48.

25. Ibid., p. 64 and 56.

26. Ibid., p. 58, 62, 63 and 64.

27. Ibid., p. 132.

28. Lavender, Bent's Fort, op. cit., p. 374, and Murray, op. cit., p. 57.

29. Raymond M. Beckner, Old Forts of Southern Colorado (Pueblo, Colorado: O'Brien, 1975), pp. 54-55, and CWA Interviews, A.K. Richeson, "Senator J.M. Madrid, Trinidad, Colorado," Las Animas County, Colorado, CWA No. 359/6. In: Colorado Historical Society, Denver, Colorado, MSS.

30. William B. Taylor and Elliott West, "Patron Leadership at the Crossroads: Southern Colorado in the Late 19th Century," Pacific Historical Quarterly, 42, (1973), pp. 335-357.

31. Murray, op. cit., pp. 41-42, and Ora B. Peake, The Colorado Range Cattle Industry (Glendale, California: A.H. Clark, 1937); J. Everetts Haley, Charles Goodnight (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1936); and Ernest S. Osgood, Day of the Cattleman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1929.)

32. As related in Haley, Charles Goodnight ibid.

33. As described in: James E. Fell, Ores to Metals: The Rocky Mountain Smelting Industry (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.)

34. McConnell, op. cit., p. 78, 106 and 109.

35. U.S. Census (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1860 and 1870.)

36. Samuel A. Bowles, A Summer Vacation in the Parks and Mountains of Colorado (Springfield, Massachusetts: Bowles, 1869), pp. 107 and 115-116.

37. McConnell, op. cit., pp. 109-112.

38. Described in: Ubbelohde, Benson and Smith, op. cit.

39. In: C.W. Hendrson, Mining In Colorado (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1926.)

40. Simmons, op. cit., p. 63.

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008