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McMillan: another little burg of Huerfano

by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — If there were one settlement in Huerfano County more remote and less remembered than Seguro, it would be McMillan. The little burg was at the headwaters of the Huerfano River below the towering summits of Blanca and California peaks.
McMillan was home to hardy and, face it, greedy gold prospectors. The climate and location were less than ideal, since the community was at approximately 11,000 feet. Nevertheless, it had an exciting though short lived existence.
Most of the gold claims around the community had been filed in the 1890s, though a few were earlier and few later. The existence of gold on the Sierra Blanca had been proven time and again, from early Spanish explorers through the centuries. The south face of the Sierra Blanca had several gold communities, as did the west side in the San Luis Valley, so it only seemed natural that the north face should also be blessed with rich ore.
The prospectors of the 1890s gave the valley their respect, probably having learned the hard way of the rigors of winter at that altitude and distance from other settlements, so did their laboring during the summer months. During the snowy season, they retreated to the more temperate community of Seguro at about 9,000 feet, or farther to the east. As the crow flies, Seguro was six miles below McMillan, but as the horse plods, and the terrain permits, the trail was longer and basically followed the river.
In January 1893 a vein of silver so excited some of the miners that work continued in the snow, and it was believed a camp would be established near the mine before spring.
It wasn’t. The big problem with the location was the lack of a road. The area could be reached only by foot or horse. This proved to be an insurmountable problem in hauling provisions and building materials in, and ore out. A petition reached the county commissioners in 1895 to build a road, but it took several years before the grade was completed, and that was only because the mine owners themselves hired building crews. Development of the mines exploded when the road was opened, and huge pieces of equipment were hauled in for the stamp mill, tramway, mines and electric plant. Yes, they had electricity way up there.
As the nearest real town, Gardner experienced a bit of a boom itself. The shortage of wood at the high altitude of the mines meant ties, props and even firewood had to be hauled in. Edibles of every type, except potatoes, were brought in, including sides of beef.
In 1898 one Willet McMillan appeared on the scene and liked the prospects of what was then called the “Sierra Blanco.” He maintained a home in Crestones (Chama) while he purchased and developed a number of small mines that he operated under the name of the Coronado group.
By this time a daily stage had been inaugurated between Walsenburg and Gardner. August Unfug owned it, and the stage carried the mail as well as six passengers. From Gardner, one either had to walk the 27 miles to the mining camp, or hire a horse from the livery. Several months after the stage line was established, another was started from Gardner on up the Huerfano River. It ran three times a week, and also carried the mail up to the Seguro post office.
In 1899 McMillan had found ore assaying in the thousands of dollars, though, being near the top of the Sierra Blanca, was very hard to reach. Though it is now officially set at 14,345 feet, Blanca Peak at the time was thought to be the highest mountain in Colorado. Still, McMillan built a large boardinghouse, the tramway, several cabins and other buildings. A sawmill was built a ways down the valley, in the pines. On July 20, the little camp was “surprised” by a snowstorm. Rumors were flying that summer that the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad would extend its lines either from Westcliffe or Walsenburg to reach the mines.
Just before the New Year of 1900, word reached Walsenburg of two miners arguing over a claim, then shooting and killing each other. The very location and remoteness of these mines would spell their doom, because the area had never been properly surveyed, so exact claims were hard to prove.
County Surveyor A.A. Foote laid out a town site on the old Peter Bucher home ranch in early 1900, and the miners chose the name of Source for it, because it was at the source of the Huerfano. This puts the site at or near what is known as Lily Lake, another of Huerfano’s ghosts that came down in history misspelled. The lake was actually on the property of Cephus Lilly, who owned the Lakeview Mine.
The Coronado mines were employing from 17 to 25 men, and the monthly payroll exceeded $1,500. When a post office was established in September, it was named McMillan, not Source. This post office was said to be the second highest in the state. A store was opened, and plans were made to add a saloon and livery stable.
By the end of 1901, McMillan and company had a payroll of about $3,000 per month. He began construction of a concentrating mill. By the time it was finished the next year, it had cost $100,000. The tramway had come down in a winter storm, and the new one he built was 4,000 feet long. The concentrating plant lightened the ore considerably, meaning it was easier to haul out of the valley. After a six-horse team had fallen off the road earlier, this must have been a relief to man and beast alike.
1902 brought two disasters. A grass fire of 1,000 acres destroyed three cabins, and an early (or late) snowstorm ruined the 4th of July festivities. That winter was harsh, with 20 feet of snow covering the site completely, even the stovepipes of the cabins and boardinghouse. Not even Mr. McMillan could reach his mines. When the snows receded, few miners returned.
1903 saw but a few stalwart miners at work, and in 1904 McMillan left the mines and headed down valley as was his habit, but this time he never returned. He was in litigation with other companies over locations and claims, and now his disgruntled, and unemployed, miners began suing for back wages.
The McMillan post office closed Sept. 15, 1904. Willet McMillan was never seen in Huerfano County again, and it is doubtful any of the lawsuits pending against him were ever successful.