The Lost Mine of the Sierra Madres


During the early pioneer days of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a large, wooded gravel bar or "island" existed in the nearby Yampa River. Known as Dream Island or simply "The Island," the area has since attached itself to the "mainland" after the north channel of the Yampa River was diverted and filled in. The Island holds somewhere within its bosom two of Routt County's earliest pioneers. One of them was a mountain man and trapper, the other a prospector and gold-seeker. Both are buried somewhere near the Yampa River, on what was once the Island.

The first to be interred on the Island was the famous pioneer and fur trapper Johnny Tow. A long time resident of Routt County, Tow trapped and hunted nearly every stream in north-central Colorado. This local legend passed away during the late 1870's and was laid to rest in a shady spot on the Island overlooking the Yampa River.

In 1884, another of Routt County's legendary pioneers passed away and was buried on the Island next to the old trapper. "Pony" Whitmore was a prospector by nature and inclination. It was Whitmore and partner W. H. Dever who discovered the Gilpin Mine along the headwaters of the Elk River in 1879. Located near Gilpin Lake, the Whitmore/Dever strike generated a small rush that eventually gave birth to the Slavonia mining districts.

"Pony" Whitmore's gold strike in 1879 was the result of years of search in the rugged mountains of north-central Colorado for one of the most famous lost mines in the state. Indeed, he would spend the five remaining years of his life looking for the hidden mine.

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Known as the Lost Mine of the Sierra Madres, the fabulous gold deposit was discovered by four prospectors somewhere near the Continental Divide, about 10 miles east of Hahns Peak, in 1866. Some accounts place the discovery on the headwaters of Elk Creek, which flows westward to the Yampa River. Other accounts place the discovery on the other side of the Continental Divide, along the headwaters of Bear Creek, which flows eastward to the North Platte River. In either case, Ute Indians led by chief Colorow eventually showed up and forced the miners out of the mountains.

Only one of the original four prospectors was ever able to return to the Sierra Madres to search for the mine. His search party, which included "Pony" Whitmore, scoured the mountains east of Hahns Peak but was never able to find the fabulous lode. Whitmore himself searched for the mine until his death in 1884 but the lost lode eluded him. It remains hidden to this day.

Interestingly, in 1997, an elk hunter found a large number of pea-sized gold nuggets in the surface gravels of a small stream somewhere in this very area. The elk hunter, who lives in Greeley, Colorado, was unable to relocate the gold-bearing stream gravels ("placer") when he attempted to return to the spot.


The history of mining in Colorado's Sierra Madre Range centers around two areas located on opposite sides of the Continental Divide. These include the Hahns Peak/Slavonia Districts on the western side of the Divide and the Pearl/Zirkel Districts on the eastern side.

In 1862, a German prospector named Joseph Hahn and two companions discovered indications of gold near the peak that now bears his name. Hahn returned to the area with William A. Doyle and Captain George Way and the three men began to comb the slopes of the peak and the surrounding streams for color. In 1866, Doyle finally discovered a rich pocket of placer gold and the first mining district was officially organized at Hahns Peak. By the early 1870's, the mines were working to capacity. In 1874, the Hahns Peak mining boom peaked but by the late 1870's, gold production plummeted as the richest deposits began to play out. In 1879, the Gilpin Lode was discovered near the headwaters of the Elk River, only 14 miles east of Hahns Peak, by two prospectors. Although fairly rich at the surface, the deposit gradually gave out at depth, yielding only marginal values of gold. The nearby Slavonia District was eventually established in the area. The lower Slavonia camp was located near the junction of Gold Creek and Gilpin Creek,the upper camp was situated a short distance upstream, within the boundaries of the present-day Mount Zirkel Wilderness. Both camps

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were short-lived. Indeed, by 1880, mining on the western side of the Sierra Madres was almost finished. Only sporadic mining occurred during the 1890's and early part of the 20th Century. Mining finally ceased during the late 1920's.

The Pearl and nearby Zirkel Mining Districts are located on the eastern side of the range, along the South Fork of Big Creek. The Pearl camp was located downstream from the two biggest mining operations in the area, the Zirkel and Wolverine Mines. The Zirkel Mine turned out to be the premier silver-producer in northern Colorado.

The first prospectors and settlers arrived in the area during the early 1880's. By the early 1890's, gold, silver, and copper had been discovered on the flanks of the Sierra Madres. The camp that sprang up downstream from the mines appears to have been named for Pearl Burnett, sister of the more famous Lulu Burnett. (Lulu City and Lulu Pass were both named for this lovely little pioneer girl.) In any case, the town of Pearl managed to survive by serving the local miners, ranchers, and loggers but by the early part of the 20th Century, mining had ceased to be a factor in the local economy.