Mines of the Argo
Central City, Colorado

Frontenac Mine

Frontenac Mine

According to some historians, the ghost town of Missouri Flats rivaled other mine towns in the area and even vied for the county seat, though nobody would guess that by driving through it today.

A detail from a 1862 plat map of the area, showing several never-built communities and present-day ghost towns. From Denver Public Library.

Frontenac’s Welcome Mat

The drive into South Willis Gulch from Central City winds on gravel and paved roads and, occasionally, the stream of middle class houses built off the route of the old Gilman Tram is broken by a mine in ruination. On one side of the road is Niagara Tunnel, a barred tunnel right next to the road with water flowing out of it. A new house it built right over it. On the other side of the road—a little way east—is the rusting metal walls of Lizzie Mine, which dates to the 1880s but looks to have been rebuilt when it was restarted in 1903. This is Frontenac’s welcome mat.

Inside this small iron clad mine is a couch and some clothes. It seems that for a short while, someone was living inside of it…

A Lasting Mine

The shaft of Saratoga Mine with several miners about to descend. Saratoga was just north of the Frontenac-Druid-Aduddell group. From Donald Campbell Kemp, Denver Public Library.

Frontenac Mine was one of four related mines that clung to the sides of the mountain gulch and it outlasted almost all the other mines in the district. Frontenac Mine was at the head of the vein, followed closely by the Aduddell, Druid, and Kokomo. Development of the mine was later than those on Quartz and Gunnell hills; a producing shaft existed by 1895, when many mines in the area could be called ‘middle aged’.

News of the 1910 explosion in the Denver Post.

One of the first mentions of the mine in the news was tragedy. In 1910, three men were at the 500 foot level: two miners and an air drill salesman. The salesman was in training and he was there to observe the operation of the drill in order to better sell his company’s mining equipment. Mining then is not so different than now… Holes would be drilled in a pattern round another hole, which would hold the charge—dynamite at the time. When the explosive is activated, the pattern determines where the force of the dynamite is directed, and where rock will land. In the case of these three men, there must have been a premature explosion, “blowing them to pieces”, as the Denver Post put it at the time.

The Frontenac workings, as mapped in 1912 for a company report, sent to London. Special thanks to Mark Baldwin, who posted these on his website.

Boom and Bust

A syndicate of British army officers bought a large share of the mine in 1907 and ordered the shaft be driven deeper and a new shaft house be constructed. This is the building that can be seen today. The upper levels of the mine proved rich in silver, while gold was deeper in the workings. Extracting the gold was challenging, however, as the mine was challenging to dewater below 700 feet, that is, until the Argo tunnel connected to it around 1911. Though the mine was drained successfully through Idaho Springs, ore was hoisted and brought to the company’s own Frontenac Mill, which adjoined the Iron City Mill, not far from the headframe.

Then and Now: Frontenac Shaft House

Between the time it connected with Argo Tunnel and 1936, mining was done by lessees; there were employees of the mine to be sure, but most development was done by companies that leased levels of the mine. This practice ended in 1937 when the mine was consolidated and mined by a the same company, making it far more profitable.

The hiking around Central City is beautiful and full of history. Just get a proper topo map!

Work continued on the mine until the 1980s, when operators were convinced the remaining ore was no longer profitable to remove. Underground operations ceased in 1982, thus outlasting most mines in the district by decades. For context, the Argo Mill had been a tourist attraction for a decade before Frontenac shut down. Some aboveground processing of the tails was done in the 1990s, but this work was short lived. South Willis Gulch has since undergone extensive reclamation work by the state and Environmental Protection Agency.

Gallery: Frontenac Mine