The beautiful La Plata Mountains rise up only 15 miles northwest of Durango, Colorado. Averaging nearly 12,000 feet in elevation, the range forms the boundary between La Plata and Montezuma counties south of Indian Trail Ridge for about 10 miles or so. The famous La Plata Canyon separates the La Plata Mountains from the smaller Ohwiler Range to the east. Prospected by Spaniards during the early 1700's and then by Americans in the mid-1800's, the canyon is pocked by many old mines and prospect pits. A number of crude Spanish arrastres have been found carved into the canyon floor. The beautiful La Plata River drains the huge amphitheater formed by the La Plata Mountains to the west and the Ohwiler Range to the east.
In 1874, the mining town called Parrott City was founded near the banks of the La Plata River by prospector John Moss. Parrott City was a booming town throughout the 1870's. It was during this period of time that a man known only as Clubfoot showed up in the area. Clubfoot had a deformed right foot and walked with a pronounced limp, but he was an experienced miner and prospector. Sometime in the late 1870's, while Parrott City was in its heyday, Clubfoot is known to have made a rich gold strike on nearby Parrott Mountain.
Clubfoot was essentially a loner. The only friend and acquaintance of this reclusive prospector was the local blacksmith. In addition to sharpening Clubfoot's steel drills and chisels, the blacksmith occasionally sold his ore for him at the assay office. Clubfoot eventually came to trust the blacksmith implicitly and talked openly of his mine on Parrott Mountain. He told the blacksmith that his mine was located near the head of Root Gulch, just below Sunset Pass. He also indicated that the mine was well hidden and that he kept his tools stashed inside the tunnel.
Clubfoot was fated to enjoy his great strike for only a short period of time. Later that year, Clubfoot's mangled body was found in Sunset Pass, a victim of a bear attack. The old prospector was buried in the Parrott City graveyard.
Although Clubfoot's lost mine has never been found, evidence for its existence is strong. The northern slopes of Parrott Mountain, including Root Gulch, are host to several rich mines. The Comstock, Lucky Moon, and Mountain Lily veins were all discovered in Root Basin. The fabulous Red Arrow Mine was discovered in East Mancos Canyon, on the western flanks of Parrott Mountain. This mine produced some of the richest gold ore in North America.
The mining history of the San Juan Mountains and the outlying La Plata and Rico Mountains extends back to the time of the early Spaniards. The first official foray into the mountains of southwestern Colorado took place in 1765. It was during that year that the famous Riviera expedition penetrated the southern bastions of the San Juans. But it was not the destiny of the Spanish to unlock the mineral riches of Colorado. That would be left to the Americans in the following century.
The famous mountain man James Purcell may have been the first American to find gold in Colorado. It happened in 1805, one year prior to his meeting with Zebulon Pike in a Spanish jail. During two of Fremont's famous expeditions in the 1840's, gold was found in Colorado. In 1848, one of the first discoveries of gold in the San Juans was made by a member of Fremont's fourth expedition. In 1860, the first significant discoveries of gold occurred in the Silverton area. By the following year, prospectors were scouring the streams for placer gold.
In 1864, the Dolores River country was penetrated by a party of prospectors led by Robert Darling. Five years later, the rich Pioneer lode was discovered near present-day Rico. This part of the Rico Mountains, which lies only 15 miles north of the La Platas, would see many fabulous strikes in the coming years. Extremely rich deposits were uncovered in 1870, 1878, and 1887. The last strike occurred on Newman Hill, near the town of Rico. It was there that Dave Swickheimer struck the fabulous Enterprise "blanket"deposit of silver-bearing carbonate.
During the early years of the Dolores River rush, the nearby La Plata Mountains slumbered. Although prospected by early Spaniards, the rich deposits of gold and silver that laced the mountain slopes still lay undiscovered. Rumors of their existence were rife during the early 1870's. Finally in 1873, the first discoveries of rich gold deposits in the La Plata Mountains took place. The early miners found the richest deposits near Parrott Mountain, Madden Peak, and Diorite Peak. Parrott City was one of the earliest mining camps in the La Platas. Founded by a prospector named John Moss, the mining camp was named for a California banker who financed the development of the district. Parrott City boomed during the 1870's, but by the following decade the mines began to falter. In 1883, Parrott City was all but deserted.
As late as the 1930's, rich ore bodies were still being uncovered in the San Juans. The fabulous Red Arrow Mine on Parrott Mountain is a case in point. Huge masses of pure gold were recovered from the incredible Red Arrow vein following its discovery high up on the western flank of Parrott Peak. Located on a mountain that had been prospected by the early Spaniards, the rich vein had eluded discovery for centuries.
The La Plata Mountains have produced over 200,000 ounces of gold and a river of silver since 1873. The best mines in the La Plata District were the Red Arrow, Comstock, and Lucky Moon lodes. Other rich mines include the Isabel, Bulldozer, Cumberland, La Plata, Bessie G, Gold King, Mayday, and Idaho mines.