The San Juan Mountains of Colorado hold many secrets. Occasionally the mountains give up these secrets although their true nature usually remains shrouded in mystery. Sometimes it's an old mine shaft or hidden tunnel, occasionally it's an object like an old gun or a piece of rusted armor or a silver coin. Every now and then, a cache of mining tools is discovered in some nook or cranny. Sometimes crude arrastres are found carved into the bedrock. Occasionally, more macabre discoveries are made. Every once in a while, human skeletal remains are found scattered along a mountainside or in some meadow in the San Juans.
Sometimes the bones are able to talk to us. The discovery of five skeletons in the mountains near Lake City in 1875 led to the arrest of Alfred Packer, Colorado's most famous cannibal. Discovered near the west foot of Slumgullion Pass, the skeletal remains of Israel Swan, Shannon Wilson Bell, Frank Miller, George "California" Noon, and James Humphreys all showed signs of violence. One had been shot while the rest had had their skulls bashed in.
In the 1930's, human bones were found in Starvation Gulch, between Ute Ridge and Indian Ridge, in the heart of the San Juans. The bones turned out to be the remains of two members of Fremont's disastrous fourth expedition of 1848.
Sometimes the bones are more enigmatic and mysterious. They give us only hints and inklings of information. When the bones are associated with a lost mine or hidden treasure, they can awaken the gold-lust in anyone. In 1869, Captain Elisha P. Horn discovered the skeletal remains of a man in Spanish armor near the famous Caverna del Oro, in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Also known as Spanish Cave, the cavern system is said to be home to a fabulous ledge of gold ore. In 1932, a man named Peter Moser found a skeleton chained to the wall in one of the lower levels of the cave. Located near Marble Mountain and Milwaukee Peak, the inscrutable Spanish Cave still excites the imagination.
In 1880, an article appeared in a Leadville newspaper recounting the adventures of two local prospectors named William Ramsey and Charles Ackerman. The men claimed to have discovered a profusion of skeletons in a remote valley in the mountains of Las Animas County. Along with the human remains they found some primitive Spanish tools, some mining equipment, and the crumbling foundations of an old adobe structure.
And then there's the bones found scattered in a meadow, high up on the slopes of Mount Wilson in the San Miguel Mountains, during the early 1880's. At first, the local miners and prospectors were unable to identify the remains or connect them to anyone known to be missing. But then, an older prospector remembered an event 10 years before that suddenly explained the bleached skeletons found on Mount Wilson.
During the early 1870's, two veteran prospectors discovered a deposit of "rich ore" somewhere along the slopes of Mount Wilson. They worked the vein for one season, then made their way out of the mountains loaded down with ore. The two prospectors spent the winter reveling in their new-found wealth. The following spring, the prospectors packed up their gear and headed back to the San Miguel Mountains. It was the last time anyone saw them alive. It would be 10 years before their remains would be found scattered along the slopes of Mount Wilson. Their rich mine remains hidden to this day.
The rugged San Miguel Mountains of Colorado have always been a challenge for miners and prospectors. Throughout most of its history, the San Miguel country has stymied the attempts of prospectors and miners to develop the area. The San Miguel Mountains have always been a vigilant ward of the rich mineral deposits lodged within their depths. They have been a jealous guard, yielding the rich ore bodies only grudgingly. Although the San Miguels were first penetrated by Spanish explorers in 1776, nearly a century would pass before the great mining potential of the area was realized. Consequently, mining in San Miguel County got off to a slow start, but it culminated in one of the biggest strikes in the entire San Juans.
In 1776, an exploring party led by Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez penetrated the western portion of the San Juan Mountains on their way to California. The fathers mapped and explored much of the Colorado/Utah border region including the lofty San Miguel Mountains of Colorado and the Uinta Mountains of Utah.
When the Spaniards left, the San Miguel Mountains slumbered for nearly a century. Then in 1875, American prospectors entered the area for the first time. 1875 was a watershed year for mining in the San Miguel and Uncompahgre country. This rugged northwestern section of the San Juans saw rich strikes near the mouth of the Uncompahgre canyon, along the headwaters of the San Miguel River, and on the slopes of Silver Mountain. All three areas would eventually become famous mining districts (Ouray, Telluride, and Ophir).
The middle to late-1870's saw a number of other rich strikes in the San Miguel country. The placer deposits on the San Miguel River (along the base of Specie Mesa), the lode deposits on Mount Wilson, and the ore bodies near Alta were all discovered at this time. The Mount Wilson District had its heyday during the mid-1870's. Located on the western flanks of Mount Wilson, near the head of Big Bear Creek, the district produced nearly 25,000 ounces of gold during its lifetime. In 1876, placer gold was discovered in the San Miguel River, 13 miles north of the Mount Wilson complex. Located at the base of Specie Mesa, the gold placers were first known as the "Dry Diggings". The mining camp that sprang up nearby was also called Dry Diggings, but the name was quickly changed to Hangtown, and then Placerville.
In 1878, the mining town of Columbia was founded in the glacial valley at the head of the San Miguel River. Surrounded by high alpine peaks laced with gold-bearing veins, the little camp flourished. Its name was changed to Telluride, after the rich tellurium ores found there.
The 1880's would see several more significant mineral discoveries in the San Miguel country. Twelve miles southwest of the Mount Wilson complex, the famous Emma Mine was discovered near the north fork of the Dolores River. A mining camp known as Dunton sprang up just a half mile upstream from the mine. Then in 1888, the fabulous Tomboy vein was discovered high in the mountains above Telluride. The Telluride District proved to be incredibly rich! The steep basins forming the headwaters of the San Miguel River were crisscrossed with rich gold-bearing veins. The Telluride District would eventually produce over 4,000,000 ounces of gold along with a river of silver and tons of base metals.