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Vignettes of the Spanish Peaks: Part V The Miners

by Nancy Christofferson

 HUERFANO — If legends are true, mining for precious minerals on the slopes of the Spanish Peaks began in the earliest days and continued into the 1900s. Included among the prospectors working there, according to those legends, were Aztecs and other indigenous people of Central America, the native plains Indians, Spanish speakers from as early as the 1500s, and finally eastern Americans, and possibly even French from Canada, beginning in the early 1800s.

Newcomers of the later 1800s were not immune to the promise of wealth contained on the peaks. Possibly because of their mystique as twins and shadow twisters, their apparently sudden rise from the plains with the Rockies as a backdrop, or their relatively easy access from the east, the Spanish Peaks attracted the hopeful in ever increasing numbers.

In La Veta, it was often pointed out that the West Spanish Peak was an obvious choice for prospecting because the mining god, or some magic force, had placed large letters right there on the north face of the mountain. From town, in late afternoons without clouds or snow to obscure them, appear the words IN ME – a clear message to miners of the riches to be discovered within. Many miners heeded the message and made La Veta a supply center for outfitting their expeditions in search of gold or silver or other precious or useable metal. Claims were filed on most parts of the mountain. Mines began shipping ore containing gold, silver, lead and iron, all bound for the many smelters located in Pueblo at the time.

The early 1880s were especially busy with miners’ concerns. While many headed to the northern side, parties from Trinidad explored the southern exposures of both the east and west peaks. Some of the latter made a “rich strike” in July 1881, although what was “struck” was not recorded. There was “brittle silver” nearby. Most miners left empty handed, their glory holes and sluices abandoned.

The towns around the peaks were more fortunate in monetary terms, with shoemakers specializing in crafting miners’ boots (also used in the growing coalfields), engineers, surveyors and assayers moving in and hanging up their shingles, including one U.S. Deputy Mineral Surveyor, general stores adding large and varied stocks of camping and mining equipment and supplies geared toward mountain living, and even livery stables offering rental pack animals, including burros. One La Veta merchant stated he would make some $75,000 in one year.

Prospecting fever struck all around the peaks and soon there were mining districts along the upper Purgatory, Apishapa, Huerfano and Cucharas River valleys, as well as the Trujillo, Wahatoya, Apache, Williams, Pass Creek and other waterways. Several tent cities cropped up in these areas and, though short lived, some housed hundreds of men during their heydays.

When the City of Denver scheduled a National Mining and Industrial Exposition in 1882, Huerfanos clamored for representation to advertise the many minerals to be found. The county commissioners went so far as to appoint a committee made up of oldtimers Col. A.G. Boone, J.L. Patterson, Benton Canon, Fred Walsen, T.W. Fouch and I.G. Roberts to conceive the plan of a county entry. The commissioners dropped the ball on this one and Fred Walsen gave them full credit for failing to send an exhibit or representatives.

The promise of this free advertising so enthused many that one amateur poet was driven to pen these not-too-immortal words, “Old Spanish Peaks, Old Spanish Peaks/How from thy face a volume speaks/And from thy bosom gray and cold/How many search for hidden gold.” Wisely, the unknown author of this ditty simply signed himself as “Singing Swan”.

An assay report in February 1883 concluded one sample of ore from the Spanish Peaks, location not recorded, ran 738 ounces of silver. Another from the Las Animas County side assayed at $400 in silver to the ton, with 13 percent copper also found, thereby setting off another stampede. By May, a camp and mining district had been established there. The district was named the Silver Wave Group and was located near the saddle between the East and West Spanish Peaks.

La Veta with the massive IN ME smiling down on it was especially ore crazy. As early as 1876 when the first newspapers were published in the area, one rich strike of gold by a fellow named Magnus Tait and named the Iantha or Jantha was said to be three feet wide and stretched three miles across the north face of the West Peak. A mining district was formed soon after the announcement and claims proliferated. Placer operations were showing from “15 to 35 colors to the pan”. Other miners were developing shafts and discovering gold bearing quartz. The rush was on, then off within a year.

Two mines proved to be more successful. They were the Whale and the Mountain Monarch, both on the West Peak. The Whale Mine was in West Gulch, reached by way of the Echo Creek drainage. The Mountain Monarch was in East Gulch, reached via Wahatoya Creek. The Whale Consolidated Gold and Silver Mining Company was most notable because of two of its major stockholders. They were Robert Todd Lincoln, then Secretary of War, and his father in law, former U.S. Senator James Harlan of Iowa. Their involvement with the mine was announced in the local paper in June 1881, shortly after an article in the Rocky Mountain Daily News predicted, “The Spanish Peaks bid fair to come prominently to the front as a mining district. Look out for a boom in La Veta.”

George and G.W. Depp had been mining on the West Peak since 1877. In the spring of 1881 they spent two weeks shoveling snow, then completing a trail connecting their Iowa Lode, an extension of the Whale, to the wagon road. Then they sold the Whale to Harlan and his newly formed company that expected to start work in July.

By 1881 a 15-foot tunnel had been completed, and excavation was continuing under Harlan with up to three shifts of men employed. The lodes were said to be “true fissures” containing carbonate and galena that assayed 100 to 200 ounces of silver to the ton. The owners were encouraged enough to keep driving tunnels.

Lincoln and Harlan had a house in La Veta, and turned up for several summers with their families. The local newspaper editor delighted his readers with tales of Sen. Harlan astride his trusty burro plying the trail between town and mine. Harlan truly had gold fever. He was determined his mine would succeed and he would gain wealth beyond belief. He therefore announced he would decline an invitation to seek the office of state senator in 1882 – he had served as U.S. senator in the 1850s and ‘60s, and was a former Secretary of the Interior – so that he could devote his time to mining.

It probably comes as no surprise to local residents to learn the Whale and all its extensions failed to produce and the company folded. Harlan was said to have lost $10,000 and recouped the loss by selling his $10,000 worth of shares, and retiring. The Whale limped along in sporadic production until 1895.