The obscure and nearly forgotten mining camp known as Beartown was located in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, about 10 miles southeast of Silverton. This little-known mining district was situated at the head of Bear Creek, a small tributary of the Rio Grande River. The mines were clustered around Kite Lake, a small glacial pool located just below the Continental Divide. The mining camp that sprang up two miles downstream from the diggings was known variously as Gold Run, Sylvanite, Bear Creek, and Silvertip. Eventually it came to be called Beartown.
Beartown was one of the most remote mining camps in the San Juans. Indeed, prospectors did not enter the area until 1893. When they finally penetrated the Bear Creek country, they discovered incredibly rich ore worth $4000 a ton! A number of mines were developed in the area, including the Sylvanite, Gold Bug, Silver Bug, and Good Hope. Beartown eventually acquired a post office (which only lasted one year), a grocery store and hardware store, a blacksmith shop, a boardinghouse for the local miners, an assay office, and of course a saloon.
Unfortunately, all was not well with the new mining district. Although the ore itself was incredibly rich, the veins were small and tended to pinch out at depth. That, combined with high transportation costs, doomed the Beartown District. Mining continued for a number of years, but by 1938 the area was abandoned.
During its heyday, the Beartown District was plagued by bandits and high-grading miners. The Timber Hill area, just downstream from Beartown, was a favored ambush site for highwaymen preying on the gold shipments. The Beartown area is famous for another reason. It is home to a little-known lost mine consisting of an old tunnel filled with rotting timbers, sacks of ore, and the bones of three decomposing skeletons.
The Lost Mine on Bear Creek was first discovered and worked prior to the 20th Century, but was rediscovered during the early 1900's by an old prospector who was wandering the area. He had stumbled onto the mine portal by accident and had then discovered the caches of ore and the skeletons. He showed up in Durango in 1905 carrying a heavy bag filled with "highly concentrated gold ore". The old prospector sold the ore and then disappeared into the mountains. He was never seen again. Interestingly, a similar incident occurred 13 years later when a Mexican prospector also showed up in Durango carrying a satchel full of rich ore. It was the same old story! He had discovered the ore in an abandoned mine shaft in the heart of the San Juans, near the headwaters of Bear Creek. Unfortunately, before he could return to the mine, he died of pneumonia. Then, in 1938, a sheepherder appeared in Durango with some more of the gold ore and the same story. This time, the sheepherder tried to return to the mine but was unable to find it. It remains hidden to this day.
The San Juan Mountains of Colorado have a long and colorful mining history marked by a succession of spectacular mineral strikes at its close. It was in the year 1765 that a Spanish prospecting expedition led by Don Juan Maria de Rivera journeyed northwest from Santa Fe into the rugged mountains north of Mesa Verde. This was the first recorded incursion into the awesome range of mountains that the Spaniards initially called "Sierra de las Grullas" (Mountains of the Cranes), but later renamed the San Juans. The Spaniards returned eleven years later, but then the tide of exploration receded. Except for occasional prospecting parties, the Spaniards seemed to lose interest in the San Juans.
Nearly a century would pass before the first significant discovery of gold was made in the San Juan Mountains. The discovery was made not by Spaniards, but by an intrepid and hardy new people - the Americans. The era of spectacular mineral strikes began in 1860 with the discovery of rich gold deposits near the headwaters of the Animas River. A party of prospectors led by the famous Colorado mountain man Charles Baker made the discovery during the summer of that year. The following year, the Baker party returned along with hundreds of other gold-hungry prospectors. Unfortunately, the placers were exhausted by July and the prospectors began to leave in droves. By the end of 1861, the San Juan diggings were virtually deserted.
For the next decade, only sporadic prospecting expeditions penetrated the San Juan wilderness. In 1869, the first major lode deposit was discovered in the San Juan Mountains, near present-day Rico. It was a harbinger of things to come. In 1870, rich strikes were made near Summitville, Silver Creek, Baker's Park, and again at Rico. Then came the 1872 discovery of the fabulous Sunnyside vein at the head of Eureka Gulch. Completely overlooked by the Baker party 12 years earlier, the Sunnyside vein turned out to be one of Colorado's richest mineral deposits.
In 1878, the so-called "Carbonate Craze" hit the San Juan Mountains. Prospectors poured over the mountains in search of silver-bearing carbonates similar to those found at Leadville in 1876. And sure enough, they found them. In the mountains near Rico, prospectors discovered Leadville-like silver ore. Rico became known as the "New Leadville".
The 1880's started out slow in the San Juan Mountains, but the last half of the decade saw three of the greatest strikes in mining history. In 1887, the fabulous Enterprise silver deposit was discovered on the slopes of Newman Hill, near Rico. Then in 1888, the famous Tomboy vein was discovered high in the mountains above Telluride. The Tomboy strike was followed in 1889 by the discovery of massive silver deposits on Willow Creek, near present-day Creede. Three spectacular strikes in three years! Surely the San Juan Mountains had no more to offer.
But in 1893, the rich sylvanite deposits at the head of Bear Creek were finally discovered. Located near the Continental Divide in the heart of the San Juans, the Beartown sylvanite deposits had evaded discovery for decades. But the wait was well worth it. Beartown ores assayed as high as $4000 a ton! Unfortunately, the veins were small and extremely localized. The Beartown District quickly declined in importance although mining operations continued on a limited basis until 1938. The richest mines were located at the head of Bear Creek, near Kite Lake. These included the Sylvanite, Gold Bug, Silver Bug, and Good Hope mines.
The Beartown discoveries of 1893 were followed by the fabulous Camp Bird strike in 1895. Located high in the mountains above Ouray, the Camp Bird Mine turned out to be one of Colorado's top three gold producers. But the San Juans were still not done. As late as the 1930's, rich mineral deposits were still being uncovered in the San Juans. The fabulous Red Arrow Mine is a case in point. The Red Arrow Mine was discovered in the La Plata Mountains, on the western flank of Parrott Peak, during the 1930's. It was an amazing ore body. Gold from the Red Arrow Mine did not require milling or refining. It was so rich it was sent directly to the Denver Mint!