San Juan County, Colorado is a prospector's paradise. Established in 1876 in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, the county comprises 389 square miles of rugged mountain peaks, deep chasms, and high alpine meadows. Superimposed upon this awesome terrain is one of the most remarkable mineralized zones in North America.
San Juan County is well-endowed with mining districts and mineral-producing areas. These include the little-known Beartown District and the renowned Silverton (or Eureka) District. The Beartown District is located in the southeastern corner of the county, near White Dome and Hunchback Pass. Also known as Gold Run, Bear Creek, Sylvanite, and Silvertip, the Beartown District produced incredibly rich ore worth up to $4000 a ton! But the district never really got off the ground. Although the veins were extremely rich, they were small and tended to pinch out at depth. The extreme remoteness of the area only served to hasten the demise of the mining district.
The Silverton District, on the other hand, is one of Colorado's richest mining districts. Located near the town of Silverton, the district has produced 1,500,000 ounces of gold and more than $50,000,000 worth of silver, lead, and zinc. In fact, the Silverton District produced so much silver that it became known as the "Silver Queen of Colorado".
San Juan County is indeed gifted with rich mineral deposits. It should also come as no surprise that the county has more than its share of lost mines and hidden lodes. These include Levi Carson's lost mine in the West Needle Mountains, the nearby Lost Estes Mine, and the famous Lost Sheepherders Lode on upper Lime Creek. But the county is home to one other lost mine. This one is located on Coal Creek, somewhere along the northern flanks of Engineer Mountain.
The vein was discovered during the summer of 1932 by two part-time prospectors named Sull and Charley Baker. The Baker brothers were searching for an abandoned mine when they made their discovery. While ascending Coal Creek, the two men came across an 8 to 10 inch vein of rusty, iron-stained aphanitic quartz studded with native gold. The vein was found near the confluence of Coal Creek and the small tributary that drains the foot of Engineer Mountain.
Typical of the rich, free-milling ores of the Silverton District, the Baker brother's ore assayed out at $44,000 per ton! The two prospectors could hardly wait to get back up to the vein. But when they eventually returned to the area they were unable to locate the deposit or even the section of exposed bedrock containing the vein. They never did find it.
Many prospectors have searched for the elusive vein. They've been encouraged by several discoveries of rich gold-bearing float along Coal Creek and Lime Creek. The famous author John B. Marshall picked up several specimens of gold ore in Coal Creek way back in 1933.
The San Juan Mountains slumbered for more than 80 years before a new group of prospectors showed up in the area - the Americans. It would be the American prospector who would unlock the vast riches hidden in the San Juan Mountains. The Spaniards seem to have missed all the major deposits but the Americans would prove to be much more persistent and luckier. The last four decades of the 19th Century would see a multitude of fabulous mineral strikes in the San Juan Mountains.
It all started in 1860 when a group of prospectors led by the famous Colorado mountain man, Charles Baker, discovered rich deposits of placer gold near the head of the Animas River. By the following year, prospectors were scouring the streams and mountain sides for placer gold. In 1864, the Dolores River country was penetrated for the 1st time by a party of prospectors led by Robert Darling. This section of the San Juans would prove to be extraordinarily rich. In 1869, the famous Pioneer lode was discovered in the Rico area by Sheldon Shafer and Joe Fearheiler. 1870 saw additional rich strikes near Rico plus the first discoveries of gold in the southeastern part of the San Juan Mountains, near Summitville. Then, in 1872, the strike that would make San Juan County occurred at the head of Eureka Gulch, near Lake Emma. It was during the summer of that year that the fabulous Sunnyside vein was discovered by George Howard and R.J. McNutt.