South Park, the famous "Bayou Salado", is one of Colorado's most beautiful high mountain parks. The lush basin is also home to one of America's great historic rivers, the South Platte. The headwaters of the South Platte River spring from the mountains that ring the park on its northwestern edge. These tributaries of the South Platte have been a source of gold for nearly two centuries.
The first mention of gold in the Bayou Salado occurs in the journals of Zebulon Pike, famous contemporary of Lewis and Clark, who explored the southern Colorado Rockies in 1806. In his journals, Pike recorded his encounter with a mountain man named James Purcell, who discovered nuggets of gold in a tributary of the South Platte River prior to his meeting with Pike.
But the beautiful South Park country was a perilous land to enter. The lush park was the abode of the Ute Indians who treasured its pure springs, abundant game, and mild climate. The Utes resented the presence of white prospectors who, in their search for gold, fouled the streams and decimated the game. Very early on, they responded to the white invasion with deadly violence. In both South Park and nearby Taylor Park, the Utes hunted down and massacred parties of prospectors.
In 1859, prospectors from the "Gregory Diggings" poured over Kenosha Pass into the South Park country. Most of them found gold, but a few found tragedy and death. That year, a party of 6 prospectors was caught by the Utes in the Gunnison country near Taylor Park. In a canyon that came to be known as Deadman's Gulch, the miners were annihilated by the besieging Utes. Two years later, the bleached bones of the prospectors and their horses were still lying in the gulch.
That same year of 1859, some of the first prospectors to enter South Park were killed by marauding Ute Indians. Near the headwaters of the South Platte River, a small party
of 3 prospectors was caught by the Utes. The Indians killed Burt Kennedy and Dr. I. L. Shank while William Slaughter managed to escape from the ambush. Another account describes the fate of 7 prospectors who were discovered by the Utes in a canyon located just west of Kenosha Pass. The Utes killed every last one of them. When other prospectors stumbled upon their bleached bones in the canyon, they named the place "Dead Man's Gulch". Now, there were two canyons named for the dead miners found in them.
But it was no accident that prospectors were drawn to Deadman Gulch, as it is known today. Virtually every stream in this part of South Park is gold-bearing. The mining history of the area is rich and varied. But Deadman Gulch also holds a secret. Somewhere along its headwaters, a rich lode of gold lies hidden.
The history of the Lost Mine of Dead Man's Gulch begins in 1863, four years after the initial rush to South Park. During that year, two German prospectors discovered a rich lode of gold somewhere up the gulch. Rumors circulated that the two prospectors took out $7000 worth of gold ore during their first week of digging. But their good luck was not to last. One of the German prospectors died suddenly and the other left South Park forever.
Local prospectors swarmed up Deadman Gulch in search of the abandoned mine. They combed the entire watershed but found nothing. In 1885, a local rancher stumbled upon an exposed mine portal in Deadman Gulch. Unfortunately, the mine contained only low-grade deposits of gold. The rich lode discovered by the Germans back in 1863 still lies hidden to this day.
The first inklings of the great wealth that lay hidden along the northwestern edge of South Park surfaced in the journals of explorer Zebulon Pike. In them, he mentions his encounter with mountain man James Purcell in 1806. Purcell tells Pike of his discovery of gold in a stream flowing into the "Bayou Salado", near the headwaters of the South Platte River. Other mountain men would find gold here in the coming years. In 1849, "Old Bill" Williams discovered nuggets of gold in one of the tributaries of the South Platte River.
But the first big discoveries of gold in South Park would not take place until 10 years later, when the prospectors streaming out from "Gregory Diggings" and the Clear Creek mining camps entered the area. By 1860, a number of famous mining towns were established in South Park as rich deposits of gold were uncovered one after another. Among these early mining towns were the camps known as the Tarryall Diggings, Tarryall City, Fairplay, Hamilton, and Jefferson. All were situated along the northwestern edge of South Park, at the foot of the Mosquito Mountains which form the Continental Divide in this part of the state.
When the first prospecting parties worked their way up Tarryall Creek in 1859, they found placer deposits that yielded "nearly a pound of gold a day for each man!" The prospectors panned out remarkably rich fragments of gold ranging in size from small flakes to nuggets "the size of watermelon seeds". A mining camp known as the Tarryall Diggings sprang up near the confluence of Deadwood Gulch and Tarryall Creek. The Tarryall Diggings quickly gained a bad reputation when the original discoverers of the rich placers claimed up twice their share of the available pay ground. The Diggings became known as "Graball".
The mining camp known as Fairplay was founded by disgruntled latecomers to the Tarryall Diggings. These later prospectors moved southwest along the mountain front until they came to the junction of
Beaver Creek and the South Platte River. Here, near the headwaters of the South Platte, they found rich placer deposits. As a counterpoint to the greedy miners at Tarryall, the new diggings was called Fairplay. Here, prospectors could get a fair share of the placer beds.
1860 would see the rise of several other mining camps along the foot of the Mosquito Mountains. Hamilton and Tarryall City sprang up downstream from the original Tarryall Diggings while Jefferson appeared northeast of the Diggings, on Jefferson Creek. Hamilton was named for Earl Hamilton, one of the original founders of Tarryall. For awhile, the town thrived but by 1890 it had disappeared. Tarryall City was established in 1860 by prospector William Holman. Located downstream from Hamilton, Tarryall City served as the county seat when South Park was first opened up to mining. In 1861, John Parsons established a private mint at Tarryall City. He produced $2.50 and $5.00 gold pieces during the summer of that year. (These coins are now worth tens of thousands of dollars each!) Tarryall City was also the site of South Park's first newspaper, "The Miners Record", but as promising as the town's start had been, it was not to last. By 1890, Tarryall City was as deserted as Hamilton.
Like Fairplay, Jefferson was founded by prospectors frustrated by the situation at "Graball". They did find gold in Jefferson Creek but the deposits were not as rich as those at Fairplay or Tarryall. They were virtually depleted by 1864. But unlike the mining camps at Tarryall and Hamilton, Jefferson survived and still serves as a reminder of the early mining days in South Park.