The beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado are steeped in legend and shrouded in mystery. One of the most famous and compelling legends of the Sangre de Cristos concerns a fabulous ledge of gold-bearing quartz said to crop out here and there along the western flank of the range for several miles. Known as the Lost Golden Ledge of the Sangres, the fabulous ore body has lured and captivated prospectors for over a century and a half. And rightly so. Throughout the late 1800's, a succession of prospectors showed up in the local mining camps bearing samples of extraordinarily rich gold-bearing "float". The prospectors had found the "float" just lying on the surface in various places along the western foothills of the Sangres. In addition, a number of accounts of rich lode deposits on the western side of the Sangre de Cristos exist. The Precambrian granites of the Crestone Range are home to several of these, including the Lost Tenderfoot Mine and the Lost Turkey Creek Mine. The Lost Skinner Mine, may also lie somewhere on the western side of the Sangre de Cristos, near the headwaters of North Crestone Creek.
During the late 1870's, rumors of a fabulous ledge of gold running the length of the Sangre de Cristos brought a wave of prospectors into the area. Some of these prospectors found veins of gold-bearing sulfides in the canyons along the western edge of the mountains. A prospector named John Duncan discovered gold-bearing veins near the mouth of Pole Creek while another named Thomas Ryan found rich deposits two miles northeast, near the mouth of Deadman Creek. Rich deposits were also discovered near Cottonwood Creek during this time.
Other prospectors were not so lucky. Some actually stumbled upon rich deposits but were unable to relocate them when they tried to return.
In 1880, H.A. Melton, E.R. Oliver, and S.J. Harkman were prospecting a few miles north of the headwaters of Deadman Creek when they got caught in a snowstorm. The three men were in sore need of shelter. The small mining camp of Sangre de Cristo was too far away, situated as it was on the western edge of the mountains, near the mouth of Deadman Creek. The mining camp of Cottonwood, which would eventually rise up near the mouth of Cottonwood Creek, was still 13 years in the future. So the three prospectors took refuge beneath an overhanging ledge where they discovered a small cave entrance that widened out into a sizeable chamber. In a small side chamber, they discovered several crudely-smelted gold bars! Had the previous miners found and tapped into the Lost Golden Ledge? The three prospectors gathered up the gold bars and eventually sold them in Silver Cliff, Colorado. But when they tried to return to the cave they were unable to find it. They never did.
During that same year, another group of prospectors led by Dan De Foe and M.M. Warner were combing the western foothills of the Sangre de Cristos when they discovered an old prospect pit hidden in the trees. Scattered around the pit were several fragments of heavy, silvery-gray ore. De Foe and Warner were not particularly impressed with the ore but they took some samples anyway. Eventually they returned home and had their ore samples analyzed. To their amazement, the nondescript silvery-gray ore samples contained as much as 45 ounces of gold per ton! Thoughts of the Lost Golden Ledge filled their heads as they headed back to the Sangres but when they got there, each foothill looked the same. Try as they might, they could not find the old prospect pit.
These, and other accounts of lost gold mines in the Sangre de Cristos, have encouraged the belief of many mining men and prospectors that an undiscovered, discontinuous vein of gold-bearing quartz exists somewhere along the western flanks of the range. It still lies hidden to this day.
Like most mountain ranges in the American Southwest, the Sangre de Cristo range of Colorado was first penetrated by Spanish prospectors during the 17th and 18th centuries. These early Spaniards left abundant evidence of their prospecting activities throughout the southern part of Colorado. In the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Spanish artifacts have been found in the La Veta area, in the Crestone Range, in the Culebra Peak area, and around the old mining camp of Liberty.
During the early part of the 19th Century, a new breed of adventurers appeared in the northern provinces of New Spain. The Americans came first as hunters and trappers, then as prospectors. Both would find gold in the Sangre de Cristos. It was perhaps inevitable that the mountain men would find gold in the streams of Colorado. Their search for beaver pelts led them to many of the great gold-producing districts of the West. During the 1840's, a mountain man named Norton collected small nuggets of gold from a creek bed somewhere on the western side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
After the mountain men came the prospectors. Between the two, virtually every stream in the American West was either trapped, prospected, or both. In the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the prospectors arrived in force during the early 1870's. As they poured over the mountain range they began to find gold in paying quantities all along its western flank. A number of small mining camps sprang up on the western side of the range. All but one of these was founded on gold-bearing sulfide and quartz veins. From South Rock Creek in the northern part of the chain to Blanca Peak in the south, a total of 9 mining districts grace the western slopes of the range. From north to south these include Raspberry Creek, Orient, Crestone, Spanish, Cottonwood, Sangre de Cristo, Duncan, Liberty, and Camp Commodore.
The small Raspberry Creek District was actually located on South Rock Creek, 6 miles southeast of Poncha Pass. Founded on small gold-bearing sulfide veins, this short-lived district is the most northerly of the Sangre de Cristo mining regions.
The Orient District is located near Valley View Hot Springs, 16 miles southeast of the Raspberry Creek District. The famous Orient Mine was the only commercial producer of limonitic iron ore in Colorado. Unlike all the other mining camps in the Sangre de Cristos, the Orient District was primarily an iron producer rather than a gold producer. It also fared better than most. The Orient Mine was in operation for half a century before it closed down.
The Crestone District is located 16 miles southeast of the Orient Mine, near the mouth of North Crestone Creek. The Crestone area has a rich and venerable history extending back to Pre-Columbian times. When the first American prospectors arrived, they found a profusion of stone tools and arrowheads scattered throughout the area. Obviously a favored campsite of the Indians, the Crestone area served the same purpose for the American miners who flocked to the area.
The mining camp of Crestone supported the rich mines further south until about 1886 when a lag in production signaled the end of the boom. Then, in 1890, new deposits of free-milling gold were discovered in the mountains near Crestone. These new strikes rejuvenated the mining camp.
The mining camp known as Spanish (or Spanish City) was located 3 miles southeast of Crestone, near the mouth of Spanish Creek. Although nothing remains of the camp today, the old town of Spanish lingered for nearly 25 years before it was finally abandoned. Spanish was founded in 1889 when rich gold-bearing quartz veins were discovered in the mountains nearby.
In 1893, the mining town of Cottonwood sprang up near the mouth of Cottonwood Creek. Located only 2 miles southeast of Spanish City, Cottonwood was supported by a number of rich mines, including the Irvin, Independent, and Bonanza. Mining ceased in 1907 when the ore bodies finally gave out.
The mining camp known as Sangre de Cristo was founded somewhere along Deadman Creek, about 3 miles southeast of Cottonwood. Although nothing remains of the mining camp today, the town sported a post office from 1876 to 1884. Sangre de Cristo supported and was sustained by the famous Golden Phantom Mine, one of the first lode deposits discovered in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The mining town of Duncan sprang up 2 miles southeast of the site of Sangre de Cristo, near the mouth of Pole Creek. Some of the earliest discoveries of gold in the Sangre de Cristos occurred in the Duncan area. In 1874, John Duncan located rich deposits of gold on nearby Milwaukee Hill. Eventually a mining camp appeared but in 1900 the residents were evicted by the owners of the Baca Grant. The town disappeared almost overnight.
The mining town of Liberty was located only a mile and a half southeast of Duncan, near the mouth of Short Creek. When the first settlers and prospectors entered the area in the 1870's, they discovered many ancient Spanish tools scattered about. The town of Liberty really got its start in 1900 when the evicted residents of the Baca Grant No. 4 moved there. Unfortunately, only low-grade ore bodies occur along Short Creek. The richest deposits were further north in the Baca Grant. The miners gradually drifted away and the town eventually died.
Camp Commodore is located 20 miles south of Liberty, on the western slopes of Blanca Peak. Founded in 1899, the mining camp sprang up along Holbrook Creek, 3000 feet above the San Luis valley floor. Like most of the other mining districts described above, Camp Commodore was founded on rich gold-bearing quartz veins.