The California gold rush of 1849 served as a crucible for the miners and prospectors who took part in the argosy. The effects of the California gold rush rippled out from the tumbling, nugget-filled streams of the Sierra Nevadas to nearly every part of the American West. One of these effects was an increase in prospecting and mining savvy. The California gold mines in the 1850's were a hard school of knocks for the prospectors who thronged into the Sierras in search of the yellow metal. Most of the gold-seekers found very little gold and were forced to return home empty-handed. Many of the Argonauts learned from the experience and became extremely competent prospectors. As gold districts in other parts of the West opened up, experienced miners and prospectors from California were many times first on the spot.
The famous Comstock District in Nevada drew miners from California like flies. Discovery of the fabulous Comstock silver deposits in 1860 brought a horde of California prospectors into the area. The timing of the Comstock discovery turned out to be perfect as most of the gold camps in California were in decline by the late 1850's. In 1860, the very same year as the Comstock strike, miners from California made the first discoveries of gold in the Leadville, Colorado area. Initially dubbed "California Gulch", the rich gold placers drew miners and prospectors like a magnet. A mining camp known as Oro City sprang up near the diggings. But like most placer districts throughout the West, the gold-bearing gravels were exhausted by the third year of operation.
Of course, the Leadville camp would eventually be known as the "Silver King of Colorado", but this most famous of silver districts started out as a placer gold camp founded by California prospectors.
Prospectors from the Golden State have also figured prominently in another part of American mining history, that of lost gold and silver mines. A number of famous lost lodes are attributed to California prospectors. One of the most famous of these lies in Ouray County, Colorado, in the high country near Oak Creek. The Lost Oak Creek Mine is located somewhere along the eastern flanks of Whitehouse Mountain, overlooking the town of Ouray.
Sometime around 1863, two California prospectors decided to explore the steep eastern slope of Whitehouse Mountain by ascending Oak Creek to its head. They climbed up the creek until they reached a fairly flat area where a small spring emanated from the rocks. Here, they found fragments of gold-bearing float! They traced the float uphill to a small vein of quartz studded with pure gold. The prospectors from California stared in disbelief. It was the richest gold deposit they had ever seen!
The two prospectors worked the vein long enough to extract several sacks of rich ore. Unfortunately, the Ute Indians discovered the pair and chased them off the mountain. It was the last time either of them saw the vein. Prospectors have searched for the Lost Oak Creek Mine for nearly a century and a half but it remains hidden to this day.
The history of mining in Ouray County, Colorado begins with the early Spanish explorers of the 18th Century and culminates over 100 years later in one of the biggest gold strikes in North America. Ouray County was conceived and nurtured by the mining industry. Indeed, mining has sustained and fueled the economy of the county since its founding in 1877.
In 1776, a party of Spanish explorers led by Father Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Father Francisco Atanasio Dominguez penetrated the northwestern portion of the San Juan Mountains on their way to California. The Spaniards mapped and explored much of the Colorado/Utah border region including the headwaters of the San Miguel and Uncompahgre rivers. Along the way, they passed through the Dallas Divide area, just northeast of Placerville.
After the Escalante-Dominguez expedition of 1776, the San Juan Mountains slumbered for nearly a century. This period of inactivity can be attributed to two factors: 1) the extreme ruggedness of the area and 2) the intransigence of the local Ute Indians. Indeed, the Ute Indians effectively hindered any penetration into the Ouray area until the mid-1870's. Consequently, the mineral deposits in this part of the San Juans were discovered late in Colorado's mining history. But then the floodgates opened!
In 1875, two prospectors named Gus Begole and Jack Echols discovered a swarm of rich silver-bearing veins in the mountains near present-day Ouray. The following summer, a horde of prospectors poured into the area. On the floor of the canyon, near the old hot springs, the mining town known as Ouray sprang up. A number of rich mineral strikes soon followed in quick succession.
Initially, significant mineral deposits were discovered in the area immediately surrounding Ouray itself. The richest of these deposits were located just north of Ouray, on the east side of the Uncompahgre valley. A number of mines were developed in the area, including the famous Bachelor and American Nettie mines.
As prospectors fanned out from Ouray, additional discoveries were made near Red Mountain Pass, in the Mount Sneffels area, and along Imogene Creek. The Red Mountain District opened up in 1881 when a prospector named John Robinson stumbled upon rich pipe deposits of silver ore. Several small mining camps appeared in the area, including Red Mountain, Ironton, and Guston. The Sneffels District got its start in the late 1870's when rich ore bodies were discovered in Yankee Boy Basin. Again, a number of mining camps sprang up, including Sneffels, Ruby City, and Thistledown. Named for an Icelandic peak in Jules Verne's "A Journey to the Center of the Earth", the Sneffels District turned out to be one of Colorado's richest mining districts.
The last major gold discovery in Ouray County would turn out to be the biggest. In 1895, the fabulous Camp Bird lode was discovered in Imogene Basin by Andy Richardson and Tom Walsh. Overlooked by prospectors for 20 years, the Camp Bird Mine turned out to be the third largest gold-producing mine in Colorado. Its discovery only two years after the Silver Panic of 1893 rejuvenated the economy of not only Ouray County and the San Juans, but of the entire state.