In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, four major industries evolved within the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. These included mining, logging, cattle grazing (at lower elevations) and sheep grazing (at higher elevations). Each of these major industries has fueled the economy of the San Juan region for over a century.
Sheepherding has always been important to the peoples of the American Southwest. Indians, Hispanics, and Anglos have all engaged in the business of raising sheep. Even the famous Ute chief Ouray owned large herds of sheep which he proudly maintained.
The San Juan Mountains have figured prominently in the sheep industry as a source of prime grazing land since the early 1880's. This came about as low-lying fields and pastures became overcrowded with herds of cattle and sheep. The valleys and meadows along the headwaters of the San Juan River and its tributaries offered excellent grazing land and the sheep men took advantage of it. The high mountain pastures of the San Juans filled up with herds of sheep during the summer months.
The 1890's witnessed an economic slump in the mountain west brought on by drought and falling silver prices. The recession profoundly affected every aspect of life in the San Juan Mountains, including sheep raising. Fortunately, by the early 1900's, the industry had recovered somewhat. By 1903, nearly 300,000 sheep were grazing the high mountain pastures of the San Juans. Along with this glut in sheep populations came an increase in the numbers of men who managed the herds.
During the 19th and early 20th Centuries, sheepherders in the American West were mostly Hispanic men and boys who were extremely self-reliant and trustworthy. One of the many men entrusted with the care of the herds at this time was a Mexican sheepherder named Sasario Silva.
Sasario Silva worked as a sheepherder for the A.M. Hubbard ranch of Aztec, New Mexico during the summer of 1909. That summer would prove to be a truly momentous time for the young sheepherder. Somewhere near the head of Lime Creek, in the heart of the San Juans, Silva discovered an extremely rich vein of gold-bearing ore. The vein was fairly thin (2 to 3 inches wide) and consisted of native gold in a rusty, iron-stained quartz gangue. Silva collected samples of the ore which he displayed to his friends, family, and boss. Unfortunately, he was not fated to enjoy his discovery for long. He died shortly after his return from the mountains.
As far as anyone knows, Silva never revealed the exact location of the gold or for that matter ever returned to the vein himself. The rich lode remains hidden to this day.
The San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado have a long and rich mining history extending back to the days of the early Spaniards. In 1765, a prospecting expedition led by Don Juan Maria de Rivera journeyed north from Santa Fe, eventually reaching the Gunnison River in Colorado. This was the first recorded incursion into the awesome range of mountains that the Spaniards initially called "Sierra de las Grullas" (Mountains of the Cranes), but later renamed the San Juans.
Eleven years later, an exploring party led by Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez penetrated the southern and western flanks of the San Juan Mountains on their way to California. In the La Plata Mountains, the expedition encountered unmistakable signs of earlier Spanish mining activities. The fathers mapped and explored much of the Colorado/Utah border region including the San Miguel and Elk Mountains of Colorado and the Uinta and Wasatch Ranges of Utah.
After the Escalante-Dominguez expedition of 1776, the San Juan Mountains lay dormant for nearly a century. Occasionally, groups of Spanish prospectors would journey north from Santa Fe, vanishing into the mountains in search of gold and silver. Old Spanish mine workings have been reported in many sections of the San Juans including the Dolores River valley (near Rico), the Animas River valley (near Silverton), the La Plata Mountains, the headwaters of the Piedra River, and the Needle Mountains. But for 84 years, the San Juan Mountains and the rich mineral deposits that lay hidden beneath the surface slumbered.
1860 was a pivotal year in the history of the San Juans. The first significant discoveries of gold in the San Juan Mountains by American prospectors took place during the summer of that year. Led by the famous Colorado mountain man Charles Baker, a party of prospectors discovered rich placer deposits of gold near the headwaters of the Animas River. By the following year, prospectors were scouring the streams for placer gold.
In 1864, the Dolores River country was penetrated by a prospecting expedition led by Robert Darling. This part of the San Juans would prove to be exceedingly rich. Massive deposits of gold and silver were discovered in this area in 1869, 1870, 1878, and 1887.
During the last quarter of the 19th Century, some of the richest mining properties in the San Juans were discovered. In 1881, the famous "chimney" deposits near Red Mountain were discovered by John Robinson. Six years later, the fabulous Enterprise "blanket" deposit was discovered by Dave Swickheimer on Newman Hill, near Rico. The following year, the rich Tomboy vein was discovered high in the mountains above Telluride. Fabulous new strikes were almost a yearly occurrence now. In 1889, the first spectacular discoveries of silver ore in the Creede area were made by Nicholas C. Creede and George L. Smith. The San Juans were booming!
1893 was another pivotal year in the history of mining in the San Juan Mountains. Repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act during the preceding year produced a catastrophic drop in silver prices. Silver mines were forced to close all over the West. The depression impacted the San Juans in very real terms. Twelve mines closed in Silverton alone. But 1893 also brought good news to the prospectors working at the head of Bear Creek, near Hunchback Pass. It was during the summer of that year that small but extremely rich sylvanite deposits were discovered in the area. The Beartown strikes provided little relief to the depressed economy of the San Juans, but in 1895, the fabulous Camp Bird lode was discovered in Imogene Basin by Andy Richardson and Tom Walsh. The Camp Bird Mine turned out to be one of Colorado's top 3 gold-producers! But the San Juans were not finished yet. As late as the 1930's, rich mineral deposits were still being uncovered in the San Juans. The fabulous Red Arrow Mine on Parrott Mountain is a case in point. Huge masses of gold "the size of hen's eggs" were recovered from the Red Arrow following its discovery during the Depression.