While Colorado is famed today for its beauty and many diverse recreational opportunities, in the late 1800s the draw was getting rich quick by finding gold or silver. Mining is integral to the history of Colorado as many of the state’s cities were founded as mining towns. Let’s explore some Colorado mining history.
Silver and Gold in Colorado Mining History
It’s no surprise that silver was abundant in Colorado when you consider how many of the state’s communities have “silver” embedded in their names: Silverton, Silverthorne, Silver Creek, and more. Miners were also drawn to Colorado to seek gold, which was also abundant but often buried deep in the mountains and bound to other rocks and minerals. It required more work to find and remove the gold.
Colorado’s gold rush began in 1859. One of the first prospectors to make finds and spark a gold rush was George Andrew Jackson, an experienced ‘49er from California’s gold rush, who found gold where Chicago Creek and Clear Creek come together. John Gregory discovered gold that same year near what became Central City.
In 1860, Charles Baker and other prospectors found gold and silver along the Animas River in an area that came to be called Baker’s Park. More about that a little later.
Denver, Colorado’s largest city, began as a gold mining town in 1858, but the gold played out. Coal had also been mined in the area beginning in the 1850s. Denver became a supply hub for mining towns around the region. You can guess how the name for their basketball team, the Denver Nuggets, was inspired!
The mineral-rich mountains of Colorado have also produced molybdenum, zinc, copper, lead, and other metals.
Colorado’s Biggest Gold Nugget and Richest Mine
The first, biggest, and most valuable of anything is always exciting.
The biggest gold nugget ever found in Colorado was discovered in 1887 by prospectors Tom Groves and Harry Lytton near Breckenridge. The crystalline gold nugget they dug up weighed in at 13 pounds, 7 ounces before being washed. It even had a name: Tom’s Baby, for when Lytton swaddled the giant nugget for its ride into town!
The richest mine in Colorado is still producing. The Cripple Creek & Victor Mine, which began as the Cresson Mine, produces hundreds of thousands of ounces of gold each year. It is the richest gold producing mining operation in the United States and is now a huge open pit mine.
Winfield Scott Stratton was Cripple Creek’s first millionaire when he staked a mining claim on July 4, 1891, dubbed it the Independence, and then bought his independence from ever having to work again when he sold the claim in 1899 for 11 million dollars.
Durango’s Mining History
The San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado were rich with silver and gold. By the 1860s, hundreds of gold miners were prospecting the area trying to get rich quick.
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad Company quietly bought up land and formed the town of Durango in 1880 to serve the mining camps. Today, the rail line is still there and gives tourists a fun way to explore the area.
A year after its founding, Durango was a booming town with 2,400 residents. By the early 1900s, it had become a vacation destination thanks to the natural beauty of the area and proximity to fascinating locations such as Mesa Verde, which became a National Park in 1906.
Silver and Notoriety in Silverton
In 1874, Silverton, just 50 miles from Durango, was settled. It was on land called Baker’s Park, which we promised to revisit. Baker and the others didn’t stay in the 1860s. The Civil War was looming and the Ute Indians, on whose land they had trespassed, didn’t make them welcome.
The 1870s brought the return of prospectors with a vengeance and the Utes didn’t stand a chance to stop them due to their vast numbers. By 1883, Silverton had 2,000 residents, 400 buildings, and a red-light district, common to many Western towns where the law usually turned a blind eye. The town was basically divided into the law-abiding half and the other half, dubbed Notorious Blair Street.
The law didn’t completely ignore what was happening on the “other” side of town. In 1883, there was a grand jury indictment about 117 “lewd women” who had been accused of practicing the world’s oldest profession. The women were fined and the proceeds helped support the booming town.
Mining continued in Silverton until the early 1990s. Today, people visit for the wide array of outdoor activities that can be enjoyed there year-round. It’s also the other terminus of the railway in Durango.
Telluride and Ouray
Telluride, Colorado, today famous for skiing, was rich in silver, gold, zinc, copper, and lead. Silver drove the mining boom in the 1880s and famous mines are still known today, such as the Tomboy, Pandora, Smuggler-Union, and Sheridan.
Ouray’s rich gold and silver deposits were found in the 1870s. Today, the area is rich with ghost towns you can explore and Ouray is a town of fewer than 1,000 people. The mountainous Million Dollar Highway traverses the 25 miles between Ouray and Silverton.
Exploring Mines and Panning for Gold
Colorado has hundreds of ghost towns and closed mines. Most can’t be accessed, but some enterprising folks offer mine tours and the chance to pan for gold at locations around the state.
In fact, many Colorado state parks allow visitors to pan for gold and note that, while technically anything found in a park belongs to the state, visitors can keep flakes they find. If a nugget is discovered, prospectors are encouraged to report it to the rangers.
You never know. You may make the find that sparks Colorado’s next gold rush and a new page in Colorado mining history!