The San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado contain some of the most rugged country in North America. Superimposed upon this awesome wilderness is a rich zone of mineralization stretching from the La Plata Mountains north to Silverton and Ouray and east to Creede and Summitville. The San Juans have been described as "the best and worst mining country ever struck". These mountains are uniquely enriched in ore deposits but the ruggedness of the area has always impeded exploration and production.
Ouray County is home to some of the most forbidding country in the entire San Juan complex. Located along the northwestern edge of the great San Juan volcanic field, the county is blessed with spectacular mountain scenery. Towering alpine peaks and deep glacial valleys dominate this part of the San Juans.
Ouray County is also home to a number of well-documented lost mines. These include the Lost Owl Creek Mine near Ouray, the Lost Oak Creek Mine on Whitehouse Mountain, and the Lost Colorado Lode near Engineer Mountain. This last mine is located in some of the most treacherous country in the entire San Juans, the headwaters of Bear Creek.
Some of the richest gold ore ever to come out of the San Juans was discovered somewhere in this very same area, near Bear Creek. In 1906, a Swedish miner named Gus Lindstrom stumbled upon this fantastic gold deposit while traveling from Lake City to Ouray. Lindstrom's route from Lake City was up Henson Creek, across the southern edge of American Flats, and then down Bear Creek
Trail to the old toll road near Bear Creek Falls. While hiking down the Bear Creek Trail, west of American Flats, Lindstrom was caught in a blizzard which forced him to seek cover. He eventually found a "cleft in a ledge of rock" where he was able to take shelter from the storm.
It was at this time that he made his discovery. There, at his feet, was a 12-inch vein of pure calaverite! Lindstrom filled his gunny sack with ore while he waited for the storm to abate. Later that day, although it was still snowing, Lindstrom was able to resume his journey down to the Bear Creek Trail. The gentle, but steady snowfall was sufficient to slow him down and obscure most of the local landmarks. Nevertheless, Lindstrom was able to strike the Bear Creek Trail before nightfall.
Lindstrom's calaverite ore was analyzed at the assay office in Ouray. When the assay came back, Lindstrom was astounded by its richness. The incredibly rich ore assayed out at over $200,000 per ton! Unfortunately, Gus Lindstrom was never able to find his way back to the notch in the mountainside containing his calaverite vein. In 1909, Lindstrom was committed to the State Hospital in Pueblo.
J.T. Boyd, one-time superintendent of the Camp Bird Mine, was one of the few people who actually saw Lindstrom's ore during the fall of 1906. Although he never found Lindstrom's vein, he did find several pieces of calaverite "float" along Bear Creek. In 1917, a prospector named Phil Dunbar found the same kind of float near the headwaters of Bear Creek. No one has ever been able to locate the vein itself. One of the richest lode deposits in mining history still lies hidden somewhere in the upper basin of Bear Creek.
Ouray County, Colorado has a venerable mining history extending back to the days of the early Spaniards. It was in 1776 that the famous Escalante-Dominguez expedition passed through the Dallas Divide area on its way to California. The Spaniards mapped and explored much of the Colorado/Utah border region including the San Miguel and Elk Mountains of Colorado and the Uinta Range of Utah. The expedition never made it to California but was forced to return to Santa Fe, arriving there in January, 1777.
For nearly a century, the rugged mountains surrounding the headwaters of the Uncompahgre River were home only to the Ute Indians. That all changed in 1875. In the summer of that year, prospectors penetrated the area for the first time. A number of rich strikes were made including the Fisherman Lode, the Trout Lode, and the amazing Mineral Farm Group of veins. The first significant discoveries in the Ouray area were made by Gus Begole, Jack Echols, A.J. Staley, and Logan Whitlock. Rich strikes were also made that summer in the high country near Engineer Mountain. Located 6 miles southeast of Ouray, Engineer Mountain lies in the heart of some of the most rugged and inaccessible country in the San Juans. A sizeable mining camp appeared just east of Engineer Mountain on the high, flat divide separating Bear Creek from Henson Creek.
In 1876, the famous mining town known as Ouray sprang up in the Uncompahgre River canyon, at the base of Box Canyon Falls. As the summer of 1876 progressed, a number of rich mineral deposits were uncovered in the mountains surrounding Ouray. As prospectors fanned out, they discovered large ore bodies near Ironton, Mount Sneffels, and Hayden Mountain.
In 1879, prospectors found placer gold in the streams near Dallas Divide. A small, boisterous mining camp sprang up in the area. Known as Gold City, its name was later changed to Uniweep, then Dallas. First visited by Spaniards in 1776, the Dallas area lies between Ridgeway and the small mining town known as Placerville. It served as a way station between the two towns for many years.
During the early 1880's, prospectors continued to uncover rich mineral deposits in the mountains south of Ouray. In 1881, a number of unusual pipe or "chimney" deposits of silver ore were discovered at Red Mountain. In 1882, additional rich strikes were made on Engineer Mountain. By the mid-1880's, the Ouray region was churning out a fortune in silver and gold. Total production from the various mining districts vaulted the Ouray region into third place in Colorado mining.
By the early 1890's, it appeared that all the great mineral deposits had been discovered in the mountains of Ouray County. Prospectors had been scouring the rugged slopes for nearly 20 years - certainly all the large deposits had been found. But incredible as it may seem, the largest and richest deposit of all was yet to be discovered. After eluding prospectors for 20 years, the fabulous Camp Bird lode was finally located at the head of Imogene Creek, during the summer of 1895. The Camp Bird vein was the best of the best - a true bonanza! It turned out to be one of Colorado's greatest mineral deposits.