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Archive for December, 2012

Rio Grande River Valley, on the way to Creede, Colorado.

Rio Grande River Valley, on the way to Creede, Colorado.

Saturday, July 14, 2012 was the sixth day of my trip through Colorado’s mining history. I started in South Fork and travelled through Creede, Lake City, Gunnison, Buena Vista, and finally wound up near Victor. It was a long drive, but I stopped for some interesting tours and explorations along the way.

Campsite at South Fork. There wasn't much privacy.

Campsite at South Fork. There wasn’t much privacy.

My campsite in South Fork was very tiny and right next to the community center and I was trying to cook breakfast and break camp as people literally walked through my camp to set up a bake sell in the common room. Here’s a photo to show it. The tent trailer next to me almost hung over my picnic table. But despite the lack of privacy, I did manage to get packed up and ready to go at a reasonable time.

Main Street in Creede, Colorado.

Main Street in Creede, Colorado.

I drove north on Highway 149 toward Creede, following the Rio Grande River. The valley here is wide and flat, the obvious result of valley glaciers during the last ice age. Going back much further than that, about 60 million years ago, the Farallon tectonic plate was pushing under the North American Plate at a faster rate than normal, wrinkling up the western part of the continent like a rug on a wooden floor. The last great orogeny (mountain building episode) pushed up the Rocky Mountains and was called the Laramide Orogeny. The San Juan Mountains, which I have been exploring all week, were the final uplift and are the youngest mountains in Colorado. Eventually, the North American Plate slowed down and the Farallon Plate finally subducted beneath. As it pealed away, a wave of volcanic activity followed it as the melting plate became magma that rose to the surface.

Volcanic Activity in the San Juan Mountains.

Volcanic Activity in the San Juan Mountains.

In the newly formed San Juans, the rising magma created a system of andesitic volcanoes that exploded and spewed ash and tuft throughout the region. The empty magma chambers collapsed to form calderas, and around their rims veins of ore-bearing igneous rocks were injected into fault lines and cracks. These veins became the great silver and gold mining districts I’ve visited all week.

Creede, Colorado in 1942.

Creede, Colorado in 1942.

In the area of Creede, about five overlapping calderas exploded and collapsed; silver-bearing ore was injected into fractured rock at the edge of the caldera. In 1889, these silver deposits were discovered and began the final great silver mining camp in Colorado. It was the fastest, wildest, and richest of the boomtowns and the population reached 10,000 by 1891.

Creede Main Street looking north into Willow Creek Canyon.

Creede Main Street looking north into Willow Creek Canyon.

Denver went through a wave of gambling and saloon reforms in the early 1890s, and many of the most famous casino owners and con men moved here to set up shop, including Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II. He sold his Tivoli Club in Denver and moved to Creede. He swindled local property owners out of their deeds and took over a large section of Creede’s business district, setting up his gang in various fronts for his confidence schemes. He soon announced himself as camp boss, and controlled all of the gambling and organized crime in the district. He appointed his brother in law as deputy sheriff, and the two of them established some order to the rough and tumble town, throwing out troublemakers. Soapy opened up a gambling hall called the Orleans Club in 1892. He purchased a “petrified man” nicknamed McGinty and had him placed on display.

Cast of Characters in Creede, Colorado.

Cast of Characters in Creede, Colorado.

Later in 1892 he got word that the reforms in Denver were coming to an end, so he returned to Denver. Shortly after, a large part of Main Street burned down in a fire, including the Orleans Club.

Bat Masterson (standing) and Wyatt Earp in 1876, when they were deputies in Dodge City, Kansas.

Bat Masterson (standing) and Wyatt Earp in 1876, when they were deputies in Dodge City, Kansas.

Another well-known figure that came to Creede was Robert Ford, the man that shot Jesse James. He arrived in early 1892 and set up a dance hall, but after a drunken night spent shooting windows out along Main Street, he was about to be driven out of town when the Soapy Smith gang insisted that he stay. Ford’s dance hall was burnt down in the fire on June 5, 1892 and he set up a temporary saloon in a tent until he could rebuild. Three days after the fire, on June 8, Edward O’Kelley walked into the saloon, called Ford by name, then shot him twice in the chest with a shotgun. Ford died instantly.

Bat Masterson

Bat Masterson

Another famous Old West character that found his way to Creede was William Barclay “Bat” Masterson. In his early days, he was a deputy sheriff in Dodge City, Kansas, along with Wyatt Earp. Bat eventually became county sheriff, at the same time that his brother, Ed, was town marshal. When Ed was killed by a cowboy named Jack Wagner, Bat avenged his death and had to leave town. He went to work for Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Arizona running the faro tables at the Oriental Saloon.

Map of mines in the Creede Mining District.

Map of mines in the Creede Mining District.

When Bat’s other brother, Jim, was threatened by men in Dodge City, Bat returned and engaged in a shootout in the town plaza where one man was wounded. Bat was fined $8 and asked to leave town again. He moved to Denver where he dealt faro at a gambling house and became friends with Soapy Smith. He moved with Soapy to Creede in 1892 and managed the Denver Exchange Club until it, too, burned down in the fire. Bat was known for being a dapper man who enjoyed wearing a bowler hat. He was also known as an irrepressible practical joker.

Map of the Bachelor Loop scenic trail north of Creede.

Map of the Bachelor Loop scenic trail north of Creede.

Other characters that stopped by Creede during its boom years were “Poker” Alice Tubbs and Martha “Calamity Jane” Burke.

Woodcarving lessons in the Creede Community Center.

Woodcarving lessons in the Creede Community Center.

As if the 1892 fire wasn’t bad enough, in 1893 the Sherman Act was repealed by congress and the Silver Panic began, with prices for silver dropping from $1.29 to about $.50 per ounce. Almost as soon as it began, the boom was over and Creede began to die. Most mines closed, but a few kept working and others consolidated until 1930, when all mining ceased. Some additional mining occurred in the late 1930s by the Emperius Mining Company, and the Bulldog Mountain vein system was discovered in the 1960s, with mining along the vein conducted by the Homestake Mining Company until 1985. Overall, nearly 5 million tons of ore have produced over 84 million ounces of silver and substantial amounts of lead, zinc, copper, and gold (the big five).

Creede Underground Mining Museum map. The mine tour and community center were blasted out of the side of Willow Creek Canyon.

Creede Underground Mining Museum map. The mine tour and community center were blasted out of the side of Willow Creek Canyon.

Some of the leading mines were the Bachelor Mine high up in a notch in West Willow Creek Canyon, the Commodore Mine lower down the same vein, the Amethyst Mine further up the canyon, the Last Chance high on the hill above the Amethyst, and the Bulldog complex to the west of Willow Creek. A large mill, called the Humphreys Mill, was located at the junction of East and West Willow Creek Canyons. The mill’s foundations can still be seen. The earliest mines in the district were discovered west of town around the Sunnyside area, such as the Solomon and Holy Moses mines. The town cemetery is located there now.

Model of the Bulldog Mine.

Model of the Bulldog Mine.

After looking around Main Street, I drove further up the canyon to where the Creede Undergound Mining Museum and community center are located. I was surprised to see a lot of cars filling up the parking lot, and was lucky to find a place to park. A large woodcarver’s convention was being held in the community center, and I enjoyed watching the vendors teaching classes. I think I have a hobby decided on for when I retire, if ever; I’d like to do a combination of wood burning and painting, perhaps of some of the mining towns and scenery I’ve seen on this trip.

Native copper in the Creede Underground Mining Museum.

Native copper in the Creede Underground Mining Museum.

I joined a tour of the Underground Mining Museum, which was built partially from an old tunnel that has been enlarged into a loop tour, with the community center blasted out in the middle. It had a good display of minerals and posters of mining terms, with some illustrations. After videotaping the tour itself, I backtracked around the loop with my camera and took photos, so this tour is better documented than some of the others I took where I couldn’t take still photos very well while running my video camera.

Mucker machine as it was found in the Big Six Mine.

Mucker machine as it was found in the Big Six Mine.

Some of the unusual aspects of this tour (which was a very thorough overview of hard rock mining) included a slusher, which is a type of dragline used to pull blasted rock fragments away from the face, a description of how fuses were measured (the person cutting fuses would wind them around wooden pegs set one foot apart), a honey car (an outhouse on wheels), an accurate recreation of a stope, a good assayer’s office, a hoist and skip station, and a description of the local geology.

Open stope in the Big Six Mine.

Open stope in the Big Six Mine.

After the tour I drove further up East Willow Creek Canyon and saw the remains of the Humphreys Mill, then drove up West Willow Creek. High on the hill was the Bachelor Mine, and lower down the Commodore, with its large ore house. The slope is so steep that extensive cribbing is needed. I drove a little further up, but the gravel road became too steep and too rough for my minivan. Perhaps some other time I can come this way with a 4-wheel drive. Further up the canyon are the Amethyst and Last Chance, and I’ve found some photos of them taken by the Mining History Association.

Measuring fuses. The fuses would be wound around the peg to get precise lengths.

Measuring fuses. The fuses would be wound around the peg to get precise lengths.

I drove out of town around noon and headed west and north on Highway 149. I came over a small pass with displays and beautiful views of the Weminuche Wilderness and the headwaters of the Rio Grande River. It was a nice chance to see both ends of the river. I have been down near the mouth of the Rio Grande in Laredo, Texas and now I’ve seen the other end.

Assayer's office, with balance, crushers, and bone crucibles. To the left is the furnace for fire assaying.

Assayer’s office, with balance, crushers, and bone crucibles. To the left is the furnace for fire assaying.

Honey car in the Creede Underground Mining Museum. OK, I'll say it: whoever had to clean this out each day had a really crappy job. . .

Honey car in the Creede Underground Mining Museum. OK, I’ll say it: whoever had to clean this out each day had a really crappy job. . .

Humphreys Mill in East Willow Creek Canyon.

Humphreys Mill in East Willow Creek Canyon.

Site of Humphreys Mill today.

Site of Humphreys Mill today.

Ruins of mines in West Willow Creek Canyon. The Bachelor Mine is high up on the hillside and the Commodore Mine at the bottom.

Ruins of mines in West Willow Creek Canyon. The Bachelor Mine is high up on the hillside and the Commodore Mine at the bottom.

The Bachelor Mine.

The Bachelor Mine.

The Commodore Mine #5 Level adit.

The Commodore Mine #5 Level adit.

Commodore Mine ore house and chutes. Ore was hauled from the adit across a bridge to the top of the tipple.

Commodore Mine ore house and chutes. Ore was hauled from the adit across a bridge to the top of the tipple.

Amethyst Mine

Amethyst Mine

Last Chance Mine (photo by the Mining History Association).

Last Chance Mine (photo by the Mining History Association).

Weminuche Wilderness sign and road map.

Weminuche Wilderness sign and road map.

Headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Colorado.

Headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Colorado.

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Mine near Silverton, Coloado

Mine near Silverton, Coloado

My exploration of the Mayflower Mill took quite a bit of time, but it was worth detouring back to Silverton just to see it. I was quite hungry by the time I finished, but I stopped at some interpretive signs along the road back to town, including a road map of the area showing the roads over Cinnamon and Engineer Passes to Lake City. I would like to explore these routes, but knew my minivan was no match for those passes. I’ll take the long way round.

History of mining around Silverton, Colorado.

History of mining around Silverton, Colorado.

Closer to Silverton was a display on the tailings from the Mayflower Mill and a description of the Silver Lake Mill across the valley, as well as the mansion called Waldheim that was built by Edward and Lena Stoiber, who also built the mill. It was eventually sold to the Guggenheims and demolished for salvage in the 1940s.

Mayflower Mill and tailings pile. The Silver Lake Mill was across the Animas River from the Mayflower.

Mayflower Mill and tailings pile. The Silver Lake Mill was across the Animas River from the Mayflower.

Back in Silverton, I found a promising place to eat and had a tasty lunch of buffalo chicken wings at Handlebar’s Restaurant and Saloon. Certainly much better than the place I ate at on Tuesday. The train crowd was leaving by the time I finished and the town was more relaxed.

Main Street in Silverton, Colorado.

Main Street in Silverton, Colorado.

I had one more attraction to see on my Silverton Heritage Pass, and that was the San Juan County Historical Society Mining Heritage Center housed in the old Silverton jail. Downstairs was an excellent exhibit of local minerals, and the jail itself was interesting. From the jail, you pass through a tunnel and connect with another building to see the Heritage Museum. It had good displays of mining equipment and how it was used, including engineer’s transits, safety equipment, and general artifacts from the town itself.

Gold ore from the San Juan Mountains on display in the Silverton museum.

Gold ore from the San Juan Mountains on display in the San Juan County Historical Society Mining Heritage Center in Silverton.

More gold ore in the Silverton museum.

More gold ore in the Silverton museum.

Silverton got its start after the Brunot Treaty of 1873 opened the area to settlement and pushed the Ute Indians out. Almost immediately mining began in the area and continued until 1991 when the last mine shut down. At its height in the 1880s, Silverton’s population reached 3000, with many coming from European countries. The mines advertized in foreign newspapers and promised land and wealth. Usually the younger male members of families came first, hoping to save enough money to send for the rest of their families.

Silver ore from the San Juan Mtns., on display in the Silverton museum.

Silver ore from the San Juan Mtns., on display in the Silverton museum.

Silverton was a rough town, with gambling, saloons, and other forms of recreation that led to the need for a good jail. Built in 1902, the jail was rarely empty. The jailer’s family lived on the main floor and the cells were on the top floors, with storage in the basement. Eventually, as mining dwindled and the population decreased, the jail was shut down and used to store artifacts for a proposed museum, which finally opened in 1965. Now, a large addition has become the Mining Heritage Center.

Copper ore on display in the Silverton, Co. museum.

Copper ore on display in the Silverton museum.

After completing my tour, I drove out of town on Highway 550 and crossed over Molas Pass again, returning to Durango for the third time in five days. I did stop at the train station one last time, but they still had not seen my hat. Oh well! I drove on out of town on Highway 160 toward Pagosa Springs.

Typical mine blacksmith shop, recreated in the Silverton Heritage Museum.

Typical mine blacksmith shop, recreated in the Silverton museum.

It was a pleasant drive, threatening rain but never more than a light drizzle. It’s about 60 miles from Durango around to Pagosa Springs, which surprised me for being such a large town. I didn’t stop to explore, as I was already behind schedule to get to my camp for the night. It must have a fairly large airport judging from the midsized jet I saw taking off.

Progression of miner's hats and lamps.

Progression of miner’s hats and lamps.

Highway 160 continued on to Wolf Creek Pass. I stopped at a scenic pullout along the switchbacks leading up to the pass and could see a long way down a glacial valley to the west. This is the site of one of the old songs by C. W. McCall, called “Wolf Creek Pass.” The song follows the misadventures of truck driver Earl and his companion, whose 1948 Peterbilt 18-wheeler goes out of control driving down Wolf Creek Pass, until they crash into a feed store in Pagosa Springs, losing most of their cargo of chickens along the way.

Miner's carbide lamp and cross-section diagram.

Miner’s carbide lamp and cross-section diagram.

I looked at Earl and his eyes was wide

His lip was curled, and his leg was fried.

And his hand was froze to the wheel like a tongue to a sled in the middle of a blizzard.

I says, “Earl, I’m not the type to complain

But the time has come for me to explain

That if you don’t apply some brake real soon, they’re gonna have to pick us up with a stick and a spoon…”

(“Wolf Creek Pass” written by Bill Fries and Chip Davis, sung by C.W. McCall)

Drill steals, including single and double jacks and Leyner drill bits.

Drill steals, including single and double jacks and Leyner drill bits.

Interestingly enough, another song by C. W. McCall is entitled “Black Bear Road” and talks of the legendary jeep route between Telluride and Ouray. Since I started out in Ouray this morning, I’ve definitely been in C. W. McCall country.

Jail cell in the old Silverton, Colorado jail.

Jail cell in the old Silverton, Colorado jail.

But the funny thing is, C. W. McCall never existed. It was a pseudonym of songwriter Bill Fries who, along with Chip Davis, worked for an advertising company in Omaha. They were hired to do a marketing campaign for the Metz Baking Company, which made Old Home Bread. They came up with a trucker named C. W. McCall who delivered Old Home Bread to the Old Home Filler-Up and Keep On a Truckin’ Café, where he meets with waitress Mavis Davis. The commercials were a big hit and won the Clio Award. Bill and Chip decided to take the C. W. McCall persona on the road, and released several “outlaw country” albums. In 1976 they ignited the citizen band radio craze with the song “Convoy,” which earned them a gold record.

Mine engineer's surveying transit.

Mine engineer’s surveying transit.

While on the road, Chip began experimenting with a fusion of medieval music with modern instruments and synthesizers and created the group called Mannheim Steamroller. The first album was rejected by all the major record labels, so Chip set up his own record label called American Gramaphone. Their Fresh Aire albums, especially the Christmas albums, are still among my favorite.

1930s photo of Silverton, Colorado with a large mill complex in the background.

1930s photo of Silverton, Colorado with a large mill complex in the background.

Bill Fries eventually moved to Ouray, Colorado and was elected mayor there in 1986.

View from Wolf Creek Pass toward Pagosa Springs.

View from Wolf Creek Pass toward Pagosa Springs.

It was raining a bit more heavily as I crossed over Wolf Creek Pass but lightened up as I headed down into South Fork. I had a reservation at a large RV park a short distance up Highway 149. I had set up the reservation long before I had the trouble with my tire and had to modify my itinerary; originally, I was going to come in from the north on Highway 149. Fortunately, even though I was late, the manager was still in the office making bread for a bake sale in the commons room. My camping spot was right next to this room and the spot was so narrow my tent was literally wedged between the building and my neighbor’s pop-up tent. I covered my tent with a tarp in case of rain and to keep out the bright light on the side of the building. I ate supper, got my electronics charged up, uploaded my photos, and slept well despite the light.

Sign near the Silverton Museum detailing the history of the area.

Sign near the Silverto museum detailing the history of the area.

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