Shrouded in mystery and legend, the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado are home to some of America's most famous lost mines. These include the fabulous Lost Ventana Mine near Ute Creek, the Clubfoot Mine on Parrot Mountain, the Lost Sheepherder Mine near the head of Lime Creek, and the richest of all, the Lost Crazy Swede Mine on Bear Creek. Another of the great lost treasures of the San Juan country is the famous placer deposit discovered by R. E. Stewart during the summer of 1852. Known as the Lost Stewart Placer, this fabulous deposit of placer gold has been called the "Lost Adams Diggings" of southwestern Colorado.
The Lost Stewart Placer is located in one of the most unlikely places in the entire San Juan region. Situated high up along the Continental Divide, the Lost Stewart Placer lies in an area largely underlain by sterile andesites and silicic ash-flow tuffs. Adding further to the mystery, placer deposits of gold generally occur at much lower elevations where stream action has a chance to sort out the lighter fragments from the heavier gold. And finally, the volcanic history of this part of the San Juans seems to lack any periods of significant mineralization.
During the summer of 1852, Captain R.E. Stewart was in command of a detachment of soldiers bound for northern California from the Spanish settlements in New Mexico. Stewart's party followed the Old Spanish Trail from Abiquiu until they reached the hot springs on the San Juan River, near present-day Pagosa Springs. Here they
deviated from the trail to avoid the Ute Indians camped nearby. Stewart's party traveled north-northwest for one day until they found a "well-hidden place near the foot of the high mountains." Here, they set up camp.
The next day, Stewart's party headed west into the mountains. Climbing above timberline, they crossed the Continental Divide and entered a small valley enclosed by the surrounding mountain slopes. The lower end of the valley was bounded by a series of "low, timbered ridges". A small stream flowed through the valley.
It was in this valley that Stewart made his discovery. The small mountain stream was filled with fine gold and small nuggets mixed with black sand. Stewart filled his pouch with a sample of the sand and later had it assayed in Sacramento, California. The next day, shortly after leaving the little valley, Stewart was forced to re-shoe his horse. Only after his arrival in California did he realize that he had left his shoeing tools back in the San Juans.
It wasn't until 30 years later that Stewart was able to return to the San Juans to look for the placer. He spent many years searching for it. On one of his prospecting trips into the mountains, Stewart and a companion named Dave Mueller found the rusted remains of a shoeing hammer, rasp, and clenching iron just below the Continental Divide, near the headwaters of the Pine River. But the rich placer forever eluded him. The fabulous Stewart Placer still lies hidden somewhere in the heart of the rugged San Juan Mountains.
The history of mining in the San Juan region of southwestern Colorado must surely begin with the Rivera expedition of 1765. Although Spanish prospectors are known to have penetrated the rugged San Juans prior to 1765, the Rivera expedition was the first official foray into the mountains. Unfortunately, Rivera failed to uncover any of the fabulous mineral lodes that would later make the San Juans famous.
For 40 more years, the mineral potential of Colorado remained a secret. Then in 1805, a mountain man named James Purcell became the first American to find gold in Colorado. The pace quickened after that. During Fremont's 1843 expedition, Major William Gilpin discovered gold in 5 separate places in Colorado. Five years later, a member of Fremont's disastrous fourth expedition found gold in the San Juan Mountains, near present-day Lake City.
In 1860, the first significant discoveries of gold in the San Juan Mountains occurred in the Silverton area, along the Animas River. It was during that year that a prospecting party led by Charles Baker penetrated the mountains in search of gold. And they found it in abundance! By 1861, the area was crawling with prospectors. In 1864, the Dolores River country was prospected by a party of miners led by Robert Darling. Five years later, the fabulous Pioneer lode was discovered along the Dolores River, near present-day Rico. The following year, the first discovery of rich gold deposits in the southeastern part of the San Juans occurred near Summitville. 1870 turned out to be a watershed year for prospectors in the San Juans. Besides the Summitville discovery, rich strikes were made near Rico, Silver Creek, and Baker's Park.
As the 1870's gave way to the 1880's and then the 1890's, the gold and silver strikes in the San Juans grew richer and more fantastic. In 1872, the fabulous Sunnyside vein was discovered at the head of Eureka Gulch, near present-day Lake Emma. Then, in 1878, the so-called "Carbonate Craze" hit the San Juans. Prospectors poured into the mountains in search of silver-bearing carbonates similar to those found at Leadville. In 1881, the unique "chimney" deposits near Red Mountain were discovered by John Robinson. Robinson was out hunting when he found them!
In 1887, it was Rico's turn again. It was during that year that Dave Swickheimer tapped into the famous Enterprise "blanket" deposit on Newman Hill. The following year, the fabulous Tomboy vein was discovered high in the mountains above Telluride. The year after that, the first spectacular discoveries of silver in the Creede area were made by a prospector named Nicholas C. Creede. The focus now shifted back to the eastern San Juans.
In 1893, extremely rich veins of sylvanite were discovered at the head of Bear Creek, just below the Continental Divide. A small mining camp called Beartown sprang up nearby. The ore was incredibly rich but the veins were thin and shallow. Beartown quickly withered away when the ore bodies finally played out.
Finally, in 1895, one of the biggest gold producers in Colorado mining history was discovered in Imogene Basin, above present-day Ouray. The fabulous Camp Bird Mine turned out to be the Mother Lode! It has poured out a river of gold and silver for more than 100 years.