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Lost Spanish mine

by Nancy Christofferson
The Nov. 14, 1939 issue of the Walsenburg World-Independent carried the news that Manuel Torres, 65, an employee of the City of Trinidad, may have found a “lost mine” on the north face of Culebra Peak on the Costilla County side.
It was thought to be the Lost Spanish Mine. Torres had discovered the mouth of the mine by accident, about a mile above timberline [Culebra is the southernmost 14,000-footer in the United States]. He spied a piece of rotten timber and decided to dig through the rocks, realizing that, being so high, the wood had to have been carried there. He had not dug for long when water gushed forth, and revealed the mine’s entrance. He figured the shaft went at least 300 feet into the mountain. He then deduced that Spaniards had enslaved natives to dig the shaft, and that to confound thieves, the dirt and debris from the shaft would have been taken away so as not to draw attention to the mine opening. He duly found the rock dump some distance away. Whether it was Torres or a history-minded editor, the article ended with the information that the Spanish were called home by war, and abandoned their diggings. Thus, the mine was lost.
This country is full of lost mine stories, enough so that there must be some grain of truth in the retelling.
Back in 1904, E.A. Strange, a resident of La Veta since the 1870s, wrote, “It makes a definite impression on me what a careless lot those Spaniards were anyhow to lose so many valuable gold mines, just like I used to lose marbles through a hole in my pocket.”
Strange pointed out that most of those mines were abandoned rather than lost. It is possible they contained “slim pickin’s” and weren’t worth the trouble to climb above timberline carrying all the tools necessary, even if they did have slaves to carry them. Spanish arristras, wheelbarrows, bellows and picks were found scattered on mountainsides from the Sierra Blanca east and south to the Spanish Peaks in our neck of the woods, and far afield in other places they explored.
Prospector Taylor Markley told a story about an inscription he found with “indecipherable characters supposedly telling when gold was taken from the Spanish Peaks to help pay for the Spanish Armada”. That’s a lot to translate from indecipherable characters.
Markley had himself, with a man named Jim Colville, stumbled over what they identified as the Lost Mexican Mine back in 1892. They were on Silver Mountain in a snowstorm so decided to take a shortcut. Suddenly they fell through the snow into a hole. Casting about, they found the hole was a cave said to be 30 or 40 feet long and about eight feet wide, and realized it was a man made tunnel. When they backtracked, they found a little nook in the rock wall with a figure about the size of a small child, but weighing some 140 pounds. The duo wrestled the “stone mummy”, as they called it, to the surface and saw it bore a fine gold filigree bracelet and beads around its neck. In their thrashing it about, they broke a toe off of the figure, and took it back to La Veta with them. There it was assayed by Heber Turner who declared it nearly solid gold. The abandoned figure remained dumped on the ground and was never seen again.
Markley and Colville weren’t the only La Vetans to lose their mine. J.B. Andrews had found some traces of gold in the La Veta Pass area around 1870, but when he returned 30 years later, the roads and railroad had so changed the country he could not get his bearings. Around 1890 a prospector obtained a map drawn on deerskin with Spanish writing and came exploring. After his death in 1906 the map was discovered among his things and was said to have been the directions to the Lost Mexican Mine. The map’s whereabouts from there remained unrecorded. Ditto with the mine.
F.W. Jaques, a well known figure of the late 1890s in the copper belt west of La Veta near Ojo, sold “what is known as ’the lost mine’ to two men from Colorado Springs. About six weeks later this was said to be the “Old Spanish Mine.” Not the lost one, just an old one.
E.A. Strange had more to offer on the subject of those lost or abandoned Spanish mines. His theory was that the Spaniards had worked along Sangre de Cristo Creek on the west side of La Veta Pass and had even erected a crude smelter near Grayback Creek. He thought the Spanish believed that gold came through the mountains via the pass, so called it “Paso de Veta” or “The Pass of the Streak.” This almost makes perfectly good sense. Strange went on to say the Spaniards had mined north of Veta Peak, aka Baldy, aka Mount Mestas, and in Silver and Rough mountains, and in the valleys of the Santa Clara, Wahatoya and Apishapa. He claimed there was evidence of their mining on the West Spanish Peak and carrying ore down Echo Creek where it was “roasted” and panned.
Although there are no stories about a Lost English Mine, Rufus Sage, who explored this area of Colorado back in the 1830s and ‘40s, wrote (in his own weird spelling) about encountering an Englishman and an American leading two mules laden with gold and silver. He deduced they had brought this ore out of one of the “lost mines” in the Spanish Peaks and were heading for Bent’s Fort.
Many of the gold miners who headed into the Sierra Blanca country reported seeing ancient remains and tools of earlier people and thought these were of Spanish origin. “Spanish Bar” along Grayback Creek may be a clue. “Uncle Joe Marbut”, another old timer of the ‘90s, teased listeners with his tales of seeing an old smelter, hundreds and hundreds of years old, with broken slag pots and slag by the ton. When asked the location he retorted it was “within 50 miles of La Veta.” Fifty miles from La Veta covers a lot of mountains to explore. Uncle Joe wasn’t giving away any of his secrets, thank you.
Tales like these tantalized the miners of the 1880s and ‘90s. These men located and filed on hundreds of claims, dug on Blanca, the Spanish Peaks, Silver Mountain and elsewhere and while they had little luck, at least they remembered where their mines were.
[to be continued]