1860 was a pivotal year in the history of the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The first significant discoveries of gold in the San Juans by American prospectors took place during the summer of that year. The famous Colorado mountain man, Charles Baker, led the first group of prospectors into the San Juans, ascending Lake Fork of the Gunnison River to Cinnamon Pass. The Baker party eventually reached the headwaters of the Animas River, near present-day Silverton, where they discovered rich placer deposits of gold.
The following spring, Charles Baker returned to the San Juan diggings leading a large group of prospectors and their families. But this year, the Baker party was not alone. Hundreds of other prospectors poured into the San Juans during the spring of 1861, all of them scouring the streams for placer gold. Unfortunately, the placers were exhausted by July. By the end of 1861, the San Juan diggings were virtually deserted.
In 1872, the San Juans were again inundated by a wave of prospectors and miners. That summer, a member of the original Baker party of 1860 discovered the rich Sunnyside, Washington, and Belle Creole veins near Lake Emma at the head of Eureka Gulch. These discoveries proved to be some of the richest in the history of mining. By 1874, the Silverton area was crawling with prospectors. The bustling mining camp that sprang up near the diggings was named for the massive silver deposits that were found mixed with the gold ore. Nicknamed the "Silver Queen of Colorado", the mining camp became known as Silverton.
In 1882, Silverton was finally linked to the outside world by a narrow-gauge railroad to Durango, Colorado. Gold and silver production soared. Then in 1893 the bottom fell out! The Silver Panic hit the San Juan Mountains with a vengeance as the price of silver dropped from $1.29 an ounce to 50 cents an ounce. Many mining operations were forced to
close. It was during these trying times that Silverton earned its other nickname: "the mining town that never quit". The district picked itself back up and within the next year or two, slowly began to recover. By 1895, the Silverton area had rebounded somewhat. Prospectors began to show up again.
In September of 1895, a prospector named Levi Carson appeared in Silverton with nearly 200 pounds of gold ore. Carson promptly sold his ore at the local assay office. The following year, Carson again appeared in Silverton with a load of gold ore. The ore turned out to be extremely rich, consisting of fine-grained, rusty brown quartz filled with free gold. Carson's second appearance in Silverton did not go unnoticed. Indeed, by then Carson was quite a celebrity. People tried to follow him to his mine. Prospectors and stockmen noticed that he spent a lot of time in the West Needle Mountains, south of Big Molas Lake, but no one ever saw his mine. The only information regarding the location of Carson's mine has come from one of his relatives. Carson told him that the mine was located well above treeline, on the northern slopes of the West Needle Mountains.
Shortly after his last visit to Silverton, Levi Carson died of a heart attack near Big Molas Lake. Prospectors began to search the rugged country between Big Molas Lake and the West Needle Mountains for Carson's mine. Search parties scoured the area near the headwaters of Twilight Creek after one of Carson's campsites was found there. During the 1920's, a prospector from Durango named John Edwards discovered a fragment of rich "float" on Twilight Creek. The float consisted of iron-stained quartz filled with nodules of free gold. During the summer of 1928, another resident of Durango named Mike Powell found float similar to this near the junction of Twilight Creek and Lime Creek. Rich float can still be found on Twilight Creek.
Besides the 10-year cycle of great mineral strikes followed by the inevitable mining rush, another trend developed during the last half of the 19th Century. The object of the prospector's search changed - or rather the emphasis changed. During the 1860's, gold was the magnet that drew prospectors into the mountains. By the 1870's, the emphasis had changed. Silver was now the precious metal sought by prospectors. Then, during the 1880's and 1890's, both silver and gold became the object of the search. Again, this pattern is reflected in the San Juan Mountains.
In 1860, the first significant discoveries of gold in the San Juans occurred in the Silverton area by a member of the Charles Baker party. Since the prospectors were only interested in gold, they either missed the massive silver deposits cropping out in the area or they ignored them. In 1864, the long and storied history of the Rico area began with promising discoveries near the Dolores River. In 1869, the fabulous Pioneer lode was finally located near Rico by Sheldon Shafer and Joe Fearheiler.
During the 1870's, the great silver deposits of the San Juan Mountains began to reveal themselves. In 1872, George Howard and R.J. McNutt discovered the amazing Sunnyside vein near Lake
Emma, at the head of Eureka Gulch. The Sunnyside lode would eventually produce a fortune in gold and silver. Then, in 1878, the Leadville-inspired "Carbonate Craze" hit the San Juan Mountains. The discovery of rich silver-bearing carbonate ore in the Phoenix, Yellow Jacket, and Atlantic Cable prospects near Rico produced a flurry of excitement. The following year, three important silver strikes were made in the Rico area. Rich silver ore was discovered on Newman Hill (site of the famous Enterprise "blanket" deposit), on Telescope Mountain, and on a black-colored, manganese-stained hill known as Nigger Baby Hill. Rico became known as the "New Leadville".
The late 1870's also saw the first serious probes into the rugged, nearly inaccessible Needle Mountains, north of Durango. Prospectors discovered small deposits of gold and silver-bearing ore in Columbine and Chicago Basins but no bonanzas were found. The prospectors did find tantalizing evidence of early Spanish mining activity in the area which led many to believe that a hidden lode lay nearby.
During the last two decades of the 19th Century, some of the richest mineral deposits in the San Juans were discovered. These include the famous Red Mountain pipe or "chimney" deposits discovered in 1881, the fabulous Tomboy vein discovered high in the mountains above Telluride in 1888, the spectacular silver discoveries near Creede in 1889, the Beartown strike of 1893, and the richest of them all, the fabulous Camp Bird lode discovered below Imogene Pass in 1895. The Camp Bird strike was a fitting end to four decades of mining in one of Colorado's richest regions.