Rising up along the western edge of the San Luis Valley, the rugged La Garita Mountains form the first tier of several nearly insurmountable ranges that has always hindered western travel. The same peaks that defeated Fremont in 1848 are still a formidable obstacle today. The headwaters of several major streams have their origin in the rugged La Garitas. Draining the northern flank of the range, the tributaries of Saguache Creek flow southward into the Saguache Valley. Along the southeastern flank of the La Garitas, the wellsprings of Carnero Creek rise up to form the main drainage system on this side of the range.
Located 20 miles northwest of Del Norte, the La Garita Mountains occupy a prominent place in the early frontier history of southern Colorado. Home to several small mining districts and ranching operations, the La Garitas contain a number of abandoned camps and ghost towns. One of the most interesting of these old mining camps is the obscure and little-known town of Biedell.
Founded in 1881 by the noted prospector and mining man Mark Biedell, the town of Biedell was located near Crystal Hill, just west of present-day La Garita. Although the exact location of Biedell is unknown, the town was probably located somewhere on Carnero Creek. (Some sources place it on nearby Biedell Creek.) Wherever the original town lay, the settlement served and was supported by a number of rich mines located in the area. These included the Buckhorn, Esperanza, Spring Chicken, and Humbolt mines. The respected mining man Mark Biedell certainly left his mark on the rugged face of southern Colorado. As a representative of the mining community, Biedell owned and developed several rich properties in Silverton, Bonanza, and Crystal Hill. In his guise as a town-builder, Biedell founded the short-lived mining camp near Crystal Hill named for himself. The town of Biedell rose up near the rich silver deposits discovered by its founder in 1881.
A few years before his 1881 silver strike, Mark Biedell was homesteading on the Saguache River, along the western edge of the San Luis Valley. During the first half of the 1870's, the Ute Indians still held sway over most of southern Colorado. Pioneers and settlers lived in perpetual fear of attack. Consequently, many settlers surrounded their cabins with a protective fort or stockade. Such was Mark Biedell's homestead.
During the early 1870's, Biedell's stockade was a stopping point for all the exploring and prospecting parties that passed through the area. One day, a surveying team on its way to the La Garitas showed up at the fort. The surveying party rested for awhile and then began to ascend Carnero Creek to its headwaters. After crossing the divide at the top of the range, the party entered the Saguache Creek watershed. It was here that they made the discovery of a lifetime. Near the wellsprings of Saguache Creek, the surveying party discovered "some rich gold streaks" cropping out at the surface!
All thoughts of surveying vanished as the team members gazed down at the rich gold deposits lying at their feet. The men immediately began digging out ore. Unfortunately, all good things eventually come to an end. After a few weeks of mining, the men were attacked by a band of Ute Indians who drove them out of the mountains. The survey team scrambled back down Carnero Creek and made their escape.
It wasn't until 1880 that a member of the original surveying party managed to return to the area to search for the "rich streaks of gold". He ascended Carnero Creek and crossed over the divide into the Saguache Creek watershed, but try as he might, he was unable to locate the workings. He never did find them. They still lie there to this day.
The rugged and broken country that forms the western wall of the upper San Luis Valley has a mining tradition stretching back to the latter part of the 19th Century. The mountains rising up along the western edge of this part of the valley include the towering volcanic peaks of the La Garita Mountains, the equally rugged Cochetopa Hills, and the southernmost spur of the majestic Sawatch Range. Each presents a formidable barrier to western travel.
The mountains that ring the western edge of the upper San Luis valley are home to several rich mining districts. These include the extraordinarily rich Bonanza District, the Embargo Creek District, and the Crystal Hill District. All were founded during the early 1880's by prospectors searching for silver.
The earliest and richest of the mining districts was the famous Bonanza District, located about 30 miles northeast of the La Garita Mountains. Founded on incredibly rich deposits of silver, lead, and copper, the Bonanza District was considered a second "Leadville". Significant mining in the area began in 1880 with the discovery of the famous Bonanza Mine on Kerber Creek, located in the Cochetopa Hills. Soon, other rich lodes were discovered and a number of small mining camps sprang up in the area. Besides the main town of Bonanza, smaller camps such as Kerber City, Sedgwick, and Exchequer appeared. The Bonanza District experienced many ups and downs during its history. Its last mining boom took place during the 1920's when new silver deposits were discovered in the Rawley Mine. The best mines in the district were the Rawley, Empress Josephine, Bonanza, Legal Tender, Rainbow, and Euclid mines.
The Crystal Hill District is located 2 miles west of La Garita, near Carnero Creek. Founded in 1881 by the famous prospector and mining man Mark Biedell, the Crystal Hill District produced native gold and silver for a number of years before mining operations ceased. Two small mining camps sprang up in the area, both of them very short-lived. The first appeared in 1881 and was called Biedell after its founder; the second sprang up in 1886 and was known as El Carnero. The best mines in the district were the Buckhorn, Esperanza, Spring Chicken, and Humbolt mines. Most of these shut down by 1900.
The Embargo Creek District is located 20 miles west of La Garita, on Embargo and Baughman Creeks. Although traces of gold were discovered on Baughman Creek in 1878, it wasn't until 1882 that significant ore bodies were finally uncovered in the area. Soon, the mining camp of Embargo rose up along Embargo Creek. But it didn't last long. Today, the exact location of Embargo is unknown.
Not long after the great Embargo Creek strikes, prospectors continued up the creek in search of mineral deposits. Eventually they reached the headwaters of Embargo Creek, crossed over the crest of the La Garita Mountains, and descended into the drainage basin of Wannamaker Creek. Here they found a pocket of rich ore. A small mining camp known as Sky City quickly sprang up near the mine, and just as quickly disappeared. It turned out that the ore body was only an isolated pocket that was quickly worked out. No other ore deposits were found in the area.