Colorado Gold Country – The Early Gold Rush

Gold Nugget - Breckenridge Mine Colorado
Gold Nugget - Breckenridge Mine Colorado
Silverton Colorado 1900
Silverton Colorado 1900

Even a casual interest in Colorado gold would lead one to conclude that there were three distinct periods of search and discovery of the yellow metal in that State. In addition, when you take a look at the flow of argonauts into the State, it is apparent that things moved from east to west and back east again within the borders of the “most mountainous State.”

The three significant Colorado gold discoveries were, in order, around the Denver Area, in the middle & west slopes of the state with particular emphasis on the Leadville and San Juan County Area, and, finally, back to the Front Range and Cripple Creek. There were a host of small finds, mostly placers which waxed and waned in turn. It is in the above three areas, however, that we find the major roots of the State’s financial growth, and the foundation of its importance as a specimen- producing State today. Gold has long since ceased to be a major contributor to the State’s economy, but the wealth produced by these mines and the specimens, along with some fabulous gold jewelry,  still garnered from them provide us with countless tales and stories.

Because of the rugged terrain of much of the State, it took some time for the western settlers to penetrate into the heart of the Rockies. Colorado was not totally by-passed during the California Rush of 1849. In fact, it was a small group of Indiana prospectors going west who first stumbled on, and then passed up, the placers in Ralston’s Creek, near where Denver was to rise ten years later. But for this brief stop, which played such an important role later, little occurred in Colorado’s gold history until the late 1850s, when the California rush had died down and the merchants of the Midwest “take off” points began to suffer financially. Cities like St. Louis, Lawrence, Kansas, and many others had been hit by a severe depression in 1857, and they needed a gold rush to bring them back to life. It seems almost absurd now that a find of about $100 in dust would trigger a rush which would eventually unearth millions elsewhere in Colorado. But, this is what happened. A small party of prospectors, led by William Russell, headed for the previously mentioned Ralston’s Creek placer diggings in 1858. Results were so bad that everyone left for home except a small group which persisted in working Cherry Creek, on the doorstep of modern Denver.

Breckenridge Colorado Mining District
Breckenridge Colorado Mining District

A small pocket of gold was dug, worth maybe $100, and with this in their jeans the boys headed hack east. Actually, the first reports were carried hack by a trader, John Cantrell. Somehow, either by innocent enthusiasm or purposeful design, the amount of gold found at the placers was so inflated that within a year a full-fledged rush was on, and over 100,000 people finally made the drive from the Midwest to Auraria, the early name for the diggings. Merchants, newspapermen, and everyone interested in promoting the rush got into the act. Stories got so badly twisted that even the rush itself, the “Pike’s Peak Gold Rush”, was grossly misnamed. Pike’s Peak is well over 50 miles south of the first diggings. As argonauts slowly began to realize they had been had by the promoters, the mood was pretty sullen, sometimes angry, around the diggings. Many left for home in disgust. Others, upon hearing certain newsmen were in the area who had been early enthusiasts, decided to stretch a neck or two. Reason, or maybe luck, prevailed and the newsmen escaped. The remaining prospectors, however, decided the mountains might hold riches yet unfound. And therein lies the seed of the great gold discovery on Clear Creek, west of Denver.

In January 859 John H. Gregory was prospecting up North Clear Creek which rushes down from the Loveland Pass area west of Denver. He found ‘color” in his pan, enough to cause him to head for Denver City for a grubstake, but not before he had found the approximate location of the “lode”, the source of the free gold. Back to Golden he went and got the grubstake and two partners. In May they returned to Vasquez Fork, the earlier name of Clear Creek, and the source of the free gold. This was standard practice, find the richest float and follow it until it stopped. Then work the slopes of the creek hoping to find the hard rock from which the gold weathered out. As Gregory’s partners dug he worked his way up the slope to the very top of the hillside. There he stood on a massive quartz dike which jutted out and ran right down to the creek bed. The dike was to prove out as a bonanza of gold in quartz. Gregory filled his pan with the eroded rubble atop the dike and slid down to the creek. Bingo! A half ounce of gold stared out at him from the drag in his pan. That was fabulous pay dirt and the race was on. Crushing the rusty looking quartz Gregory and his partners were able to get as much as two ounces to the pan, an unheard-of find! Claims were staked and the news was out. The wild rush began and overnight Denver City and Auraria moved into the ravine, creating three new settlements; Black Hawk, Central City, and Mountain City. Later, Gregory found a rich side shoot to the main vein and his good success became a miracle.

Gold Nugget - Breckenridge Mine Colorado
Gold Nugget – Breckenridge Mine Colorado

We must not let you continue with the idea that Gregory was alone responsible for the start of the “Rush of the 59ers.” While he worked the North Fork of Clear Creek, George Jackson was prospecting the North Fork as well. A mountain lion stole his victuals and he was forced to go cross- country to reach the South Fork of the Creek. Stumbling onto some hot springs he also had the good fortune to spot and shoot a mountain sheep. With the fresh meat to sustain him he gave the pan one more dip. It was still so early in the season that he had to build a fire on a promising sandbar to loosen the gravel for his pan. It was worth it! Back to Auraria he went to wait for the Spring thaw. Between them Jackson and Gregory started a bonanza drive that would yield over two and a half million in gold the first three years.

The geologic source of this gold is of interest to us. In Tertiary times, millions of years ago, huge granitic batholiths had forced their way toward the surface of the earth. They didn’t make it but were exposed later by erosion. Pike’s Peak is a good example of the top of a batholith. Before exposure these batholiths had to be buried under great amounts of sediment and seas. Still trapped in the molten magma of the batholith were the enriched metal-bearing liquids. As the granitic magmas cooled, the riches — gold, silver, etc. — were concentrated more and more until they finally forced their way into the faults and open joints, solidifying as rich gold-hearing quartz veins. In relatively recent times, during the Quaternary, uplifting and erosion exposed the tops of these batholiths and, along with them, the gold-bearing quartz veins. Since quartz is highly resistant to weathering the veins later stood out, explaining the rugged outcrop that Gregory had worked. In the final chapter of our brief account of Colorado Gold we will discuss another great gold deposit at Cripple Creek, also due to the batholithic sources.

The Jackson/Gregory discoveries formed, in placers. Even the quartz veins released free gold. Not so in Colorado. Originally all the gold was chemically combined in what the old timers called “sulfurets”. We call them sulfides, like iron pyrite which very often encloses free gold. After exposure, weathering had broken down the sulfurets and released the gold to be discovered in the Jackson/Gregory placers. Once the surface pickings were gone, however, the miners discovered their profits going down the river in the tailings. The old mercury recovery processes which worked so well in California were darned near worthless in Colorado. Front the mills at Black Hawk and elsewhere came tailings from which only 25 percent of the gold had been extracted, the other 75 percent was lost. How soon after prove things. A chlorination process was also employed. The details are not important here. What is important is that with the beginnings of the Colorado gold mines comes a new age of more complicated extractive methods and chemical processes. A new age which required huge quantities of capital to purchase machinery, equipment, and pay men to bring out large amounts of ore to keep the huge and hungry machines active to earn their keep. Unfortunately, these newer methods assured few crystallized specimens of gold would survive the stamp mills of the Black Hawk area. Not so for some of the gold finds made immediately on the heels of the Gregory Gulch find.

Fanning out from the Denver City area, argonauts sought the yellow metal in every stream bed and dry gulch. Once over the Front Range the whole of South Park opened before them. South Park, that magnificent grasslands surrounded by high snow-capped peaks which even today yields specimens of beautiful blue barite. But, in 1859 the cry was for gold, not mineral specimens. Along the eastern slopes of the Mosquito Range many a gold pan was dipped and many a mine was dug. Some of these mines, particularly around Alma and up Buckskin Joe Gulch, were later to yield magnificent specimens of bright red rhodochrosite, unequalled anywhere in the world! On the other side of the Mosquito Range was Leadville, as yet undiscovered. It was there, in the l870s that the working of gold placers triggered the discovery of the fabulous silver deposits which made Leadville what it is today. But for gold specimens it was the discoveries along the Blue River and French Creek north of the Mosquito Range, on the eastern slopes of the Tenmile Range that opened the specimen-rich Breckenridge mines. These mines were only of minor importance as far as wealth was concerned when compared to Cripple Creek. Breckenridge has yielded what 1 feel are among the finest crystallized gold specimens ever found in the IJ.S. Much of the California “lode” gold may be better, but Breckenridge gold is second to nothing else. Anyone who has visited the Denver Museum of Natural History in City Park, Denver, can attest to that. There, nestled in a black velvet-lined vault for all to see are unbelievable specimens of brilliant yellow leaf and crystallized gold from the Wapite Gold Mine. The source of magnificent gold specimens such as these is worthy of comment.

Cripple Creek Colorado 1900
Cripple Creek Colorado 1900

Prospectors had spilled over from the Denver area into the magnificent high alpine valley called South Park. This we’ve already mentioned. Again, there were so many prospectors they spread out over the mountains ringing South Park. Over Hoosier Pass to the north and into the Valley of the Blue River they went. Jackson had made his find in April 1859. The Blue River was first panned in October of the same year, that’s how fast the argonauts moved around and over the mountains. The Blue River and French Creek were rich placers. It is said that there was so much free gold along the banks of the river that even the dust in the main street could be panned for a few dollars. The placers lasted four years and then things began to play out. Meantime, Breckenridge became a swinging town. The stories are legion about the place, but the one I, like is about the Scotsman, Alexander Southerland, who ran a hotel in Breckenridge. He had a novel way of announcing dinner each night lie played an English ditty on h.is trumpet, the same trumpet he had used to signal the charge of the Light Brigade while in the British army at Balaclava in 1854.

The lode gold finds at Breekenridge came after the placers played dirt. The one that produced so much fabulous wire and leaf gold was made by Henry Farncomb. It seems .Henry felt there ought to be a rich source to all that placer gold, and he set out up French Creek to find it. Find it he did! In the stream bed he found a tangle of bright yellow wires and sheets of gold so thick and rich that he named the find the “Wire Patch” mine. Digging uncovered more and more tangled masses of free gold, all crystallized, all nearly pure and all his. His, that is, as long as he could defend what became known as Farncomb Hill. He actually had to barricade himself and fight off poachers, but it was worth it.  One nugget uncovered on the hill weighed in at 13 pounds, seven ounces. And it was a “Wire Patch” of crystals. Earn- comb finally retired a millionaire, but others continued to work the hill, later producing the Denver Museum pieces. Even when the lode mines played out, Breckenridge continued to produce, for in 1898 the first of a gaggle of gold dredges was brought in to re-work the gravels. They didn’t leave much, extracting over $35 million in free gold. The disgusting remains of that work, the long snaking piles of barren gravel, still mar the heart of this beautiful glacial valley.

While on the subject of dredges, signs of their dirty work still remain across too much of Colorado. The aforementioned South Park, near Fairplay and Alma, bears the scars, excrement of the dredges. In fact, even the hones of the old dredge that worked near Fairplay are still there.

Gold dredges are simply nothing but highly mechanized “panners”. The front edge of the barge has a mechanical bucket arrangement which digs deep into the gravels, scooping up everything from the finest dust to glacial boulders. Every dredge attempts to reach bedrock, so some can dip down as much as ninety feet into a gravel bed. These biggest machines were employed in Alaska later. In fact, some of Colorado’s early machines ended up in Alaska.
Once the gravel was scooped up it was run over a host of screens and mechanical sorters inside the cavernous building on the barge. Copious amounts of water were used to help sort, just as would be done in a rocker, sluice, or long torn. The gravel was soon tossed aside off the barge, resulting in an endless trail of barren gravel, piled sometimes twenty feet or more high alongside the barge. Scooping up the front and expelling the debris to the rear, a large dredge might be likened somewhat to an earthworm which sucks in soil, extracts the valuable mineral foods and expels the remains as excrement. So, the dredges did their digging, extracting, and excreting.

The extraction was a highly-refined panning process which used settling tables, riffles, mercury, and the entire gamut of techniques known for capturing the fines of yellow metal. Dredges were efficient. Oh! So efficient! The barren rock piles have remained largely useless though currently at Breckenridge they are building condominiums on those in town. The fine yellow muck the barge expelled partly filled the moving pond on which the dredge traveled and the rest of the muck polluted the stream for miles downstream.

Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine - Cripple Creek Colorado
Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine – Cripple Creek Colorado

If you look at a map of Colorado’s diggings you’ll note a decided northeast to southwest trend, starting near Denver and heading toward the southwestern corner of the state. Before heading further in that direction we might just make mention of the Denver Mint as owned by the U.S. Government today. This mint, so popular with tourists and coin collectors alike, got its start with the gold discoveries of the early years. It started as a private mint, owned by Austin and Milton Clark and Eli Gruber. These men had had experience with coinage before coming to Denver, and came to the territory in June of 1860 with the express purpose of opening a bank. They soon began minting gold coins, using the newly won yellow metal from Gregory Gulch and beyond. Coins in denominations of $2.50, $5, $10, and $20 quickly replaced the barter and “pinch of dust” system of high finance. The coins were minted for two years starting with nearly pure gold coins of $10 and $20 denomination. Gradually, alloying of the gold was introduced to harden the metal. They even got into the paper money business and, by 1863, just three years after they opened their doors, the Clark, Gruber mint was bought out by the U.S. Government. There were two other mints started in the region, both in 1861. They were the John Parson and Co. Mint and the J.J. Conway and Co. Mint. The former was in Hamilton while the latter was in Georgia Gulch to be closer to the source of supply. Coins from this area are, of course, collectors’ items today.

With the discovery of gold in the California Gulch region just south of modern day Leadville, a whole new era of prosperity opened. I must point out that this discovery, along with so many others, seems to have been due in part to the handiwork of one of Nature’s little creatures, this time a heaver. Seems a beaver dam had held hack some sediment in ‘which Abe Lee spotted the glitter that started it all. He panned out a decent drag of color and announced to his partners that he had all of California in his pan. Hence, California Gulch got its name and Leadville its start. Such a furor has occurred over the later silver and lead strike in Leadville that we sometimes fail to recall that the Gulch was a rich one, yielding maybe a million or more that first season. Like all placers, it only lasted a few years, and the place almost became a ghost town before someone had sense enough to assay the ugly black stuff everyone had tossed aside and found it to be high grade silver (ire!

There were so many strikes in that middle region west of South Park it would hardly be worth recounting them. Each had its moment of glory hut didn’t last. But, southwest of that area were the rugged San Juans, the most magnificent of all the Colorado Rockies. Strikes galore occurred and some of the mines arc still producing today. Some of the old gold and silver towns of the region are mining more gold from the pockets of tourists than they ever did from the ground. Be that as it may, the San Juan Country of Southwestern Colorado remains today one of the most beautiful mountainous regions in the U.S. A recent trip into that country from Cortez north, through Rico, Telluride, into Ouray, then south into the famous Silverton to Durango country convinced me that there is no finer region for mountain scenery. People call Ouray and environs the “Switzerland of America” and they understate it!

The San Juan country was penetrated by gold seekers long before the 59ers struck it on Clear Creek. Juan Maria Rivera sought gold in the San Juans in 1765. Some ten years later, two Franciscan Friars searched the mountains for wealth and lost souls. Apparently a considerable number of Spaniards entered the area if one is to consider the legends of lost mines and hidden gold. We do know that white trappers coming from the east entered the region and discovered gold about 1800. Zeb Pike, the army officer whose name graces the Peak he failed to climb, was told of gold in the South Park area by trappers in 1806. Later explorers, among them William Gilpin and Capt. J.C. Fremont found gold in the area. There is no doubt at all that Colorado gold was known long before the big discovery by Marshall in California in 1848.

The San Juan country is a loose term for a whole series of mountains which encompass some of Colorado’s most noted mineral deposits: Creede, Silverton, Ophir, Telluride, Ouray, and more. Most of these places made their names and fortunes from the silver they produced, but gold was the catalyst. Searchers spread out through the ranges, following the golden thread into every gulch and over every peak in the area. And what peaks, magnificent 14,000-foot high crags whose bowels held the wealth of empires. Even the uninitiated would have known the region south of Ouray and north of Silverton would have to be mineral-rich. There stands, even today, one of Nature’s colorful billboards, announcing to the world that, “here lies the treasure you seek!” The “billboard” is Red Mountain, aptly named for its magnificent mineralized colors, red and yellow. Every prospector since the beginning of time has known that odd and colorful surface features often tag where Nature has been on the rampage, twisting and thrusting the crystalline rocks, cracking them and, later, filling the cracks ‘with wealth.

This area was not as easy to prospect as that which was west and southwest of Denver. For one thing the mountains were considerably more rugged. Even worse, the Ute Indians took a very dim view of anyone entering the area. So it was a dozen years later than the Clear Creek strikes that things really got serious. In 1871 Kendall and-his group found bonanza silver near Silverton. Mines like the Sunnyside, a big producer, were opened up. It was, like many of the San Juan finds, located high up near the top of rugged peaks. Nature made the boys work for their strikes! It is important to note that the big strikes were silver, not gold. Gold was there, however, as in the rich tellurides found by Tom Walsh at his Camp Bird group. That started Telluride on a second skyrocketing trip, the first coming from silver strikes in 1875.

The wild tales of the Ouray, Silverton, Telluride area are so numerous as to defy repeating. There are a couple we can make note of, however. The most grisly would have to be Alfred Packer’s tale. He guided a group of would-be argonauts down from Salt Lake to the Ouray area. They got there very early in the spring and were warned not to go up into the peaks so early. They hesitated but Packer’s braggadocio attitude carried the day and off they went. Nine weeks later Packer showed up at Sheriff’s office relating a sad tale of how his group had been trapped by a huge storm. The others had finally died of starvation and cold, hut he had survived. He looked mighty healthy but the sheriff had little else to go on so let Packer go. Weeks later the frozen remains of Packer’s companions were found, dead all right. But, they had been bludgeoned to death and partially eaten. No wonder Packer had looked so good after nine weeks in the treacherous mountains.  He was finally caught and tried, the only man ever convicted of cannibalism in the U.S.

In a more positive vein, Tom Walsh was working as a smelter owner when he needed a better flux to melt the ores coming from Silverton. He heard about some good quartz deposits along Canyon Creek. He sent Andy Richardson to check them out. The quartz was there all right but it was loaded with gold tellurides to the tune of $3,000 per ton. As a result, Tom Walsh got his start toward becoming a millionaire many times over, and Telluride blossomed into a booming gold camp. Today the Camp Bird group is still a wonderful source of mineral specimens. The same is true of the idarada mine on the other side of the mountain near, Ouray. Both are famous for magnificent quartz crystal groups, calcites, and fine pyrite, sphalerite, and gatena. Free gold is occasionally still found in the tunnels underground, usually in fine curling wires or flat blade-like ribbons growing right out of the quartz. As for Walsh, his millions served him well. His daughter ended up owning the very famous Hope Diamond, a magnificent 44½-carat blue stone currently displayed in the Smithsonian Hall of Gems. The tales of woe that followed that stone are another story which has been treated many times.

About the time the San Juan country was in full swing, particularly producing silver, Leadville burst forth to become the richest silver camp ever. Gold was there as well, but it was the white metal that made Leadville the roaring town it was. Since we’ve covered something of its history and geology in our article in silver, (September and October 1974 issues) there is no need to repeat it here. Its riches are legendary, veins 100 feet wide, mines sometimes producing as much as $100,000 in a 24-hour period, assays of 10,000 ounces of silver to the ton, sound hard to believe but that was Leadville. A story unto itself.

We started this story by suggesting we would move across the state of Colorado from the Denver area to the southwest and back again. The “back again” can only mean Cripple Creek. Located practically in the shadow of Pike’s Peak, a hard day’s horseback ride from Colorado Springs, Cripple Creek would be by-passed every time someone went from Colorado Springs to Leadville. Cripple Creek was a sleepy little cow pasture until Bob Womack got things stirred up. There had been a bit of a gold strike, actually a hoax, at Mt. Pisgah just west of Cripple Creek. For that reason alone, when Womack began touting his gold samples from Cripple Creek he got the horselaugh — another hoax, everyone said. By the year 1890 every gulch that looked promising had been prospected in Colorado. Cripple Creek didn’t look promising; another reason for by-passing it. What everyone failed to realize was that Cripple Creek represented a new type of ore deposit. The gold was in the form of two rare minerals, calaverite and sylvanite. True, there was a little free gold, but it seldom revealed itself. One vug encountered at the Cresson Mine in 1914 measured 40 by 50 by 15 feet and was lined with free gold, calaverite, and sylvanite. It yielded over a million dollars, but that was indeed a rarity.

Cripple Creek was the result of volcanic action, huge in scope, which had blasted its way to the surface, thrusting aside the granite crust. Badly fractured, this surrounding crust was invaded time and again with solutions heavy with gold compounds. A study of the region reveals that the mines by and large encircle the old volcanic zone.

None of the surface ore was high grade, sometimes assaying out at a couple of hundred dollars a ton. By today’s standards that would be rich but in those days, when milling, haulage, extraction, and the like were something less than perfected, low grade ore at Cripple Creek required huge investments of capital. After a series of thrusts and parries, mining started and the biggest boom Colorado was ever to see got underway. Tens of millions in gold were extracted. Millionaires popped up overnight. Most of the prospectors who hurried into the region behind Pike’s Peak didn’t know an outcrop from a float boulder, and amazingly ridiculous strikes were made. The oddest has to be the finding of a vein as a result of a strange agreement between two Irishmen down on their luck. Finding themselves down to their last silver dollar after weeks of effort and no results, the two Irishmen agreed over a campfire that they would dig once more, and then give up. Where to dig was the question. Finally, they agreed to dig at the spot where their dog chose to relieve himself the next morning. When the sun rose, Fido obligingly followed Nature’s call to the nearest bush. The two desperate prospectors dug in and struck it rich. Records do not indicate if Fido was a pointer! Three weeks later they sold out for over $100,000 cash. The obvious conclusion to this is the veins were everywhere and anywhere as far as the miners were concerned. While attempting to dig the foundation for a hotel in Victor a vein was struck. One prospector sank a hole with no luck. Another came along, dug right down beside him and hit pay dirt. Two fellows, not knowing a thing about mining, selected a spot simply because it was between where two other holes had been dug. They struck it rich! And so it went. The beautifully crystallized pale yellow to white tellurides of gold seemed to be everywhere. Some of the finest crystals of these two minerals ever found came from Cripple Creek.

Cripple Creek was, for Colorado, the last big gasp of 40 years of fabulous riches and amazing discoveries. Starting out as a gold rush in 1859, becoming a silver boom in the last quarter of the century, then becoming the biggest gold rush of all in the last decade of the 1800s was almost more than Colorado could manage. Manage it did, however, producing millionaires by the dozen, boom and bust times the likes of which we will never see again. More holes were opened up in the hillsides of Colorado than a mineral collector would investigate if he spent an entire lifetime. No wonder Colorado is one of the best sources of crystallized minerals today. Who among you would not cherish the beautiful amazonite and smoky quartz combinations still being found on the slopes of Pike’s Peak and surrounding mountains? What of the spectacular pyrites from Climax, Leadville, Gilpin, Rico, and more. Don’t forget the vibrant red rhodochrosites, blue haritcs, gem garnets, green fluorites, white jackstraw cerussites, brilliant sphalcrite, peacock covellite, tabular enargite, bright red proustite, and on and on. Most of all, however, don’t forget the brilliant yellow wires, ribbons, crystals, and plates of free gold, the huge silver nuggets, the delicately shaded silvery calaverites and sylvanites. It all started with Colorado gold but the story is without end. Go into the gold and silver country of Colorado. Surrounded by majestic peaks, clear cool air, lifted gently by the songs of mountain birds, you may find a treasure far more valuable than anything Jackson, Gregory, or Womack ever dreamed possible.