About 40 miles north of the Colorado/New Mexico border, the mighty Sangre de Cristo chain dwindles to slightly more than 9000 feet of elevation before rising up again to form the towering heights of Blanca Peak and the Crestone Range further north. This 10-mile breach in the Sangre de Cristo chain and the adjoining country directly east of the range is known as the La Veta area. Spanish for "The Vein", the name "La Veta" permeates this part of Colorado. A town, a creek, and several passes in the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains all bear some form of the name "La Veta".
In this section of the Sangre de Cristo range, the mountain chain is breached by five passes, three of which bear the name of "Veta" or "La Veta". All five passes lie within a 10-mile stretch of the Sangre de Cristos. Pass Creek Pass is the most northerly of the five gates while Veta Pass forms the southernmost gate. The old Sangre de Cristo Pass is located less than 2 miles east-southeast of Pass Creek Pass, near the head of Sangre de Cristo Creek. Only a half mile southeast, North La Veta Pass cuts through the mountains. Highway 160 crosses the Sangre de Cristo range at North La Veta Pass. Less than two miles south of North La Veta Pass is the original La Veta Pass, site of the old railroad grade connecting Walsenburg with the San Luis valley. About 8 miles south of La Veta Pass is Veta Pass. Veta Pass now serves as the gate over the Sangres for the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad.
La Veta was apparently well-named by the Spaniards. The area known as "The Vein" has more than its share of lost mines and hidden veins. One of the most famous of southern Colorado's lost lodes, the White Cement Mine, may be located as far north as the La Veta Pass area. Another of southern Colorado's legendary mines, the Lost Simpson Mine, is said to be located in the La Veta Pass area, probably near Silver Mountain. Silver Mountain is also home to another rich ledge discovered by a prospector named Alex Cobsky. The mountain slopes near Sangre de Cristo Pass are said to harbor a lost mine once worked by a Civil War veteran. And then there's the fabulous gold-bearing quartz vein discovered near the head of North Veta Creek during the 1860's.
Denver in the 1860's was a tumultuous and exciting place, filled with miners, prospectors, and various speculators and the people who served them. One of the periodic visitors to Denver during the 1860's was an old "squaw man" from the La Veta country, down in the southern part of the state. On each of his visits the old man brought in a small fortune in gold-bearing quartz.
The old man had come west prior to the Civil War and had eventually found his way to the beautiful La Veta country in south-central Colorado. Here, he took up with the local Indians and became a trusted member of the tribe. Then, his life changed abruptly. While hunting along the headwaters of North Veta Creek, the squaw man stumbled upon a vein of rich, gold-bearing quartz.
The old man worked the vein for several years, each year delving more deeply into the mountainside. Periodically, he would journey north to Denver with a load of ore to sell. This went on for a number of years until the old man's health finally gave out. He eventually passed away in his beloved La Veta country.
Prior to his death, the old squaw man had decided to will his mine to his sister, a woman named Mrs. Clark, then living in Kansas. The will contained directions to the mine and indicated that several bags of ore were hidden inside the mine portal. The mine was said to be "near an old fort close by an Indian trail".
In 1884, Mrs. Clark's husband came out to Colorado to search for the hidden mine on North Veta Creek. He never found it. It still lies there to this day.
The first prospecting forays into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of south-central Colorado were almost certainly carried out by early Spanish explorers. In the La Veta Pass area, Spanish activity was especially intense. As a result, Spanish place names permeate the area. Examples include Sangre de Cristo (which means "Blood of Christ"), Culebra (which means "Snake"), La Veta (which translate into "The Vein"), Huerfano (which means "Orphan"), and Mosca (which commemorates the name of the legendary Spanish explorer, Moscosca Alvarado).
The first official Spanish thrust into the mountains of south-central Colorado was the Rivera expedition of 1765. Rivera's hardy Spaniards penetrated the southern portion of the Sangre de Cristo chain and the rugged San Juan Mountains to the west. In the years following Rivera's expedition, other groups of Spaniards journeyed northward into the mountains of Colorado. These early Spaniards left abundant evidence of their passing in many parts of south-central Colorado including the Spanish Peaks area, the La Veta Pass area, the Culebra Mountains, and the Marble Mountain area, near Crestone Peak. But despite their best efforts, the early Spaniards missed all of the major gold and silver deposits in southern Colorado.
During the 1830's, the American Southwest was penetrated by a new breed of explorer and adventurer: the mountain men. Virtually every stream in the West was probed by these intrepid fur-trappers. Sometimes they found more than just beaver pelts in the streams. Sometimes they found gold!
Perhaps it was inevitable that the mountain men and fur-trappers would find gold in the streams of the American West. After all, they managed to penetrate virtually every corner of the West and they spent a lot of time in the streams! During the 1840's, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains revealed some of their hidden wealth to an obscure mountain man name Norton. While wading a stream in the Sangres, the old mountain man discovered several small nuggets of gold.
Persistent rumors of gold in the mountains of south-central Colorado were confirmed in the mid-1870's when several moderately-rich strikes took place in the Spanish Peaks area. In 1876, a small boom occurred as both lode and placer deposits of gold 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 La Veta District, the Wayatoya Creek District, and the Spanish Peaks District. The first was founded on lode deposits while the last two were based on placer deposits. 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.
The mid 1870's also saw rich strikes on Grayback Mountain, just west of La Veta Pass. Like the Spanish Peaks area, both lode and placer deposits were discovered in the Grayback District. The district was rich enough to sustain its own mining camp which sprang up south of the peak, near the confluence of Placer Creek and Sangre de Cristo Creek. Known as Russell, the town was officially platted in 1880.
Like most mining communities, the town of Russell was utterly dependent upon the miners working their claims in the surrounding mountains. Fortunately for Russell, when the ore bodies began to give out, the railroad came in. From 1877 to 1899, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad brought life to the small town. But in 1899, everything changed. The railroad company selected Veta Pass as their new route over the mountains. The old narrow gauge route through La Veta Pass was abandoned.