An Isolated Empire: A History of Northwest Colorado
BLM Cultural Resource Series (Colorado: No. 12)
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Chapter IV:
mining buildings

Gold! The magic mineral that brought thousands of seekers to Colorado promoted this state's first boom. As the miners worked their way up the canyons and gullies, they discovered "free" gold in placers. This meant that along watercourses, flakes of gold were abundant and could be panned or sluiced. However, the major sources of gold were locked in hardrock quartzite which required milling. Hence, early miners confined themselves to the creeks and rivers.

As the surge of civilization swept against the Rockies, miners passed over the Divide and found that the Blue and Eagle River areas were rich in gold placers. In 1859, one of the first major mining towns on the western slope was founded. This was Breckenridge, named after John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, a leading American politician. However, his name was somehow misspelled and the incorrect spelling has persisted. [1] By 1860 various gulches along the Blue River were being placer mined, and a few hard rock shafts had been sunk. In 1861 the population of the district was over 5,000, and other mining camp towns arose. [2]

During the early 1860's, hundreds of men fanned out over the Colorado Rockies, filtered into the parks, and then worked into the far west. Among these men were Joseph Hahn, a German immigrant, William Doyle and George Way. Hahn wandered into the Elk River area in the early 1860's and discovered that placer gold was available, [3] but he was unable to develop his discovery until after the Civil War. In 1865 he took in Way and Doyle as partners, and the little group moved to Hahn's Peak. Doyle reported: "We found gold on every side of the peak, but not in sufficient quantities to pay for work with the pan, which was the only means we had of washing it out." [4] When the fall of 1865 came, the men quit the area for the winter. In 1866, they guided some fifty men into Hahn's Peak area and began serious mining operations. They found the rich yields running from ten dollars to fifteen dollars per shovelful, and a boom began. [5] Shortly after July, 1866, a mining district was organized and Hahn was elected "surveyor", Doyle "recorder", and Way "judge." [6]

With winter approaching, the men decided to split up. Doyle and Hahn agreed to remain at the camp while Way went out for supplies, including saws to build sluice boxes. Way failed to return, and soon Hahn and Doyle were on the verge of starvation. In April, 1867, the two men set out seeking help. On the way to Empire, using snowshoes, Hahn died of exposure, and Doyle was found nearly dead at Troublesome Creek in Middle Park. [7] George Way was never heard from again, and was accused of having run off with the money that had been entrusted him to buy goods. The upshot of the Hahn affair was that the Hahn's Peak area was forgotten.

Hahn's Peak was "rediscovered" in 1867 or 1868 by accident. A local resident known as "Bibleback" Brown (so-called because of his humped back), whose actual name was John Brockmeyer, found some rusting mining tools along Willow Creek in the Hahn's Peak area. Logically, he concluded that mining had taken place in the region. Brown confided his information to Bill Slater, a workman on the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming, who promptly left for the Elk River Valley.

Slater and Brown built a cabin along Savery Creek and began mining operations. The news of the strike reached Rawlins, and in 1872 the first family in the Elk River Valley moved into the area. Noah Reader and his family were helped by Slater and Brown to construct a cabin, and the settlement of the valley had begun. [8]

In 1872, the same time the upper Elk River was being settled, Hahn's Peak was a booming mining town. The population had increased to over 500 during the summers, but the region was deserted in the winters; however, the citizens of Hahn's Peak felt secure enough to create a mining district in 1874. At this time officials were elected, and the boundaries of the district were defined as being bounded by the Bear (Yampa) River to five miles the other side of Hahn's Peak, and from the Little Snake River to five miles east of Hahn's Peak. [9] In 1876 this region was carved from Grand County, and Hahn's Peak, being the largest town in the area at the time, became county seat of Routt County.

As was typical of mining areas, the Hahn's Peak District had numerous small camps. Such places as Columbine, Farwell (National City), Whiskey Park, and Slavonia were built in and around Hahn's Peak. These towns were purely summer camps and were generally used as bases for placer mining. Poverty Bar, Bugtown and other small places provided camps that were a bit more rough than "civilized" places like Hahn's Peak townsite. The first mining was placer, using pans and sluice boxes. By the 1880's major hydraulic mining enterprises took over and proceeded to wash away hillsides; this was more profitable but hard on the landscape. It was estimated that some fifty miles of ditches were built to carry water for hydraulic purposes. In addition, most of the smaller mining companies turned to the use of hydraulic equipment, some of which can still be seen at the townsite of Hahn's Peak. [10]

hydraulic mining
Hydraulic Mining Was Often an Extremely Damaging Method of Extracting Precious Minerals. Montana State Historical Society

Agriculture was developed as early as 1867 near the mining district. S. B. Reid was growing vegetables in that year, while the Elk River Valley saw the introduction of some cattle by the mid-1870's. The main population center of northwestern Colorado was Hahn's Peak, until about 1875. At that time other settlers arrived and began to develop the Yampa River Valley. [11]

Closer to the mountains, the other major mining district in northwest sector was the Breckenridge District, which flourished during the 1870's and 1880's. By the mid-'70s, some eighty-four miles of ditches had been built from the Blue River, to provide water power for sluice and hydraulic mining. [12]

William Blackmore noted in 1869 that the Blue River country was producing silver ore averaging $600 per ton, and that copper had been discovered in Middle Park. He predicted a boom in that region but it never came. He stated that northwestern Colorado, as yet, showed little sign of development in that "No lodgement amounting to permanent occupation has yet surmounted the rigors of the Sierra and found a location within this area." [13]

The other area of mining activity in northwestern Colorado was in North Park. By the early 1870's Independence Mountain was being exploited. These claims were placers, and there were several major operations going by 1875. From the Rabbit Ears Range north to Wyoming, scattered placers were being worked. The Endomile claim was 1500 feet by 300 feet and showed $20 to $35 per ton in gold. [14] The largest placer was the Independence Mountain operation, which was 160 acres in size and had 135 feet of flumes, 100 feet of pits, and one shaft. Production was estimated at three dollars per day per man. Gold was a primary mineral in production. [15] Lead, copper, and zinc were also produced. These two placers were discovered in 1875 and were worked off and on until the turn of the century.

The major problem that faced western Colorado during the 1860's and 1870's was the total lack of transportation. Even Breckenridge was not served by a railroad until 1882 when the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad reached that town.

The United States had long projected a transcontinental rail route. The Civil War intervened and prevented development of a main line. But after the war, interest was renewed and construction began on a national railroad. From the east, the Union Pacific Railroad built westward out of Omaha, while to the west, the Central Pacific started to build over the Sierras to meet the oncoming Union Pacific. A railroad was uppermost in the minds of westerners, and the businessmen of Denver attempted to get the Union Pacific to build into Denver and through the Rockies. The town of Empire went to work trying to convince the railroad that Berthoud Pass was an ideal route. Captain E. L. Berthoud was called in to consult with the railroad. He advised a narrow gauge route over the pass. It was estimated that the cost of construction would come to $100,000 per mile. [16]

William Byers in his Rocky Mountain News urged the citizens of Empire to complete the wagon road over Berthoud Pass so the Union Pacific engineers would see the route in the "best light." [17]

Needless to say, Byers had an interest in the plan, for the railroad would pass Hot Sulphur Springs. It was projected that by using the Berthoud Pass route, 209 miles could be saved compared to the Wyoming route; also, $178,920 in costs could be cut. However, nobody thought to mention the cost of maintenance during the winter. [18] In the end, the Union Pacific used a southern Wyoming route and by-passed Colorado.

When the Union Pacific reached Rawlins, Wyoming, transportation south into northwest Colorado became possible. By 1868 the only roads into northwest Colorado led out of Wyoming into places like Hahn's Peak. The railroad helped bring in settlers, and by the mid-1870's there were scattered homesteads along the Yampa River Valley. In 1873, a weekly mail route from the Little Snake River to Rawlins was begun under the auspices of R. M. Dixon. The Dixon Post Office (now Dixon, Wyoming) was the first to serve northwestern Colorado. It served Hahn's Peak, the Yampa Valley, and Elk River Valley. [19]

The railroad also brought visitors to the area. In 1869, an English adventurer, Frederick T. Townshend, came to Laramie by rail and then visited North Park. He described a hunting trip out of Fort Sanders, Wyoming (Laramie). He stated that North Park was "...a plain about thirty miles long by fifteen broad through which flows the Platte River, rising in one of the surrounding mountains." [20] The party, including soldiers, were attacked by unspecified Indians (probably Ute) but the natives were driven off without injuries. The Townshend trip indicated that the transcontinental railroad made access to northwestern Colorado easier. [21]

Thanks to having a rail line within fifty miles of the northwestern corner of Colorado, the Yampa (Bear), Little Snake, Elk and White River Valleys were opened for development. By the 1870's cattle were being brought into the region, both because of good grasses and because transportation was available. The North and Middle Park areas also benefited from the Union Pacific on the same basis.

Map 4. Early MIning and Settlement >(click on map for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 31-Oct-2008