The history of Colorado is a kaleidoscope of colorful people and places. The first Europeans to penetrate the area now known as Colorado were Spanish explorers. As a result, Spanish place names permeate the area: Sangre de Cristo (Spanish for "Blood of Christ"), Sierra Mojada (Spanish for "Wet Mountains"), Sierra de las Grullas (Spanish for "Mountains of the Cranes"), and Colorado itself (Spanish for "red").
In 1664, Juan Archuleta led a party of Spanish explorers northward into Colorado. This was the first official Spanish foray into the Rocky Mountain state. Archuleta was followed by Juan Ulibarri in 1706 and then by Don Juan Maria de Rivera in 1765. Eleven years later, the famous Escalante-Dominguez expedition penetrated the southwestern part of the state.
There were other Spanish forays into Colorado during this period of time, but these were of a more furtive and clandestine nature. Groups of Spanish prospectors crept northward from New Mexico, vanishing into the mountains in search of gold and silver. In some places, they left evidence of their passing. Old Spanish mine workings have been reported in many parts of Colorado including the Dolores River valley (near Rico), the Animas River valley (near Silverton), the La Plata Mountains, the Spanish Caves area (near Buckskin Joe), the headwaters of the Piedra River, and the Needle Mountains.
Needless to say, the mountains of southern Colorado are rife with tales of lost Spanish mines. A number of fascinating accounts of lost mines exist, many of them well-documented and supported by the presence of old Spanish artifacts and prospect pits. During the late 1500's, a party of Spanish prospectors led by a priest known as Fray de la Cruz worked a rich deposit of gold somewhere on or near the Spanish Peaks. The La Veta Pass area, just northwest of the Spanish Peaks, is home to another lost Spanish mine. Most accounts place it somewhere near Muneca Rocks.
Spaniards are said to have worked a rich gold mine in Cortez Valley, also known as Hidden Valley, near the Colorado/New Mexico border. The vein had been seized from the local Indians. Spaniards have also been linked with the legendary Caverna del Oro in Custer County. Also known as Spanish Cave, it was rediscovered in 1869 by Captain Elisha P. Horn at an elevation of 11,500 feet in the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Captain Horn discovered a decomposed skeleton in rusted armor and a cache of old Spanish tools below the cave entrance and a 2-foot square Maltese Cross painted near the portal. During the 1750's, Spanish prospectors uncovered an incredibly rich vein of gold ore near the headwaters of Ute Creek, in the heart of the San Juan Mountains. Known as the Mina de la Ventana, the rich deposit was worked for a number of years before the Ute Indians drove the Spaniards out.
A number of lost Spanish mines are said to lie in the rugged mountains along the Colorado/New Mexico border in Costilla and Las Animas Counties. One of the most famous of these is the Lost Spanish Mine of Culebra Peak. During the 1770's, Spanish prospectors located a rich gold deposit in the Culebra Range, not far from the present-day Colorado/New Mexico border. The Spaniards delved deeply into the mountainside, following the rich vein to its source. Consequently, a mine shaft complete with timbers and cross-tunnels was developed on the vein. The Spaniards were eventually forced to leave the area but before departing they concealed the mine entrance and scattered the tailings.
The Spaniards never returned, but rumors of the mine's existence have persisted for over two centuries. During the late 1930's, a Trinidad resident named Manuel Torres discovered a hidden mine portal on the northern slopes of Culebra Peak. In the summer of 1939, Torres found a small vein of low-grade ore inside the mine. The shaft was well-timbered and lengthy, extending nearly 200 feet into the mountainside. At the end of the mine shaft, a partially obstructed cross-tunnel intersected the main vein. Torres was never able to penetrate the cross-tunnel at the end of the shaft. He died in 1956.
The Spanish mine on Culebra Peak still lies hidden somewhere along those rugged slopes.
The rugged mountains of southern Colorado have a rich and vibrant mining history extending back to the days of the early Spaniards. These early explorers and prospectors left evidence of their passing in many parts of southern Colorado. In the San Juan Mountains, old Spanish mine workings have been found in the Dolores River valley, near the headwaters of the Animas River, in the La Plata Mountains, near the headwaters of the Piedra River, and in the Needle Mountains. In the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Marble Peak area, the Spanish Peaks, the La Veta Pass area, and the Culebra Mountains are all said to contain old Spanish mines, tunnels, and prospect pits. But despite the efforts of these early Spanish prospectors, no significant mining districts were ever developed in the area. In the case of the San Juan Mountains, the Spaniards somehow overlooked all of the great ore deposits; in the case of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, there were no great ore bodies to discover. The mountains of southern Colorado reverted back to their natural state as the Spanish tide ebbed. The Spaniards never returned, having missed all of the major gold and silver deposits in that part of the state.
During the 1860's, a new breed of prospector entered the scene. The American prospector would prove to be extremely resilient, resourceful, and tenacious. It would be left to the American prospector to unlock the mineral riches of southern Colorado. In the San Juan Mountains, the first significant discovery took place in the summer of 1860.
As prospectors penetrated into the heart of the San Juans, the great ore deposits hidden in the mountains began to be uncovered. Rich strikes were made in 1864, 1869, 1870, and 1872. By the mid 1870's, the rich mining potential of the San Juans was an established fact. Gold and silver poured from the mining camps.
The mid-1870's also saw rich gold strikes in the mountains east of the San Juans. Small deposits of gold were found in the southern portion of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, near the Spanish Peaks. Indeed, the rugged Spanish Peaks area experienced a minor boom in 1876 as both lode and placer deposits were discovered on the slopes of West Spanish Peak and in the divide between East and West Spanish Peaks. Three small gold-producing districts eventually appeared in the area. The Spanish Peaks District and the Wayatoya Creek District were both placer gold producers while the La Veta District was a source of lode gold. Located on West Spanish Peak, the La Veta District contained many small, gold-bearing sulfide veins. The three districts were never big producers. The placer deposits were quickly worked out and the gold-bearing veins were never rich enough to sustain a big operation. Nevertheless, the lode deposits were reopened in 1900 and continued to be worked until the 1940's.