Treasure Mountain Mine and Animas Forks
Colorado

Opening the San Juans (Part I)

Part I: THE OPENING OF THE SAN JUANS

The story of Treasure Mountain begins with the Great California Gold Rush of the early 1850s, which brought hundreds of thousands of men from The East to The West in the search for gold wealth.

On the way, many of those prospective prospectors crossed the Rockies. Some adventurers saw gold flecks in the mountain streams they were passing, but the allure of The Golden State kept them moving along. It was not until most of the claims in California were already “pinching out” that the easterners decided to backtrack into what later became Colorado. What they found near present-day Breckenridge sparked the Colorado Gold Rush.

By the time Virginian Charles Baker caught the gold bug and traveled to Lake City to work in S.B. Kellogg & Company’s mine, the known veins of gold in the Rockies were about done surrendering their riches. He had missed two Rushes and there was no indication where the next big find might be. This was a time when scientific observation of mineral ores was in its infancy, but the idea that minerals were deposited underground in certain patterns—the Mineral Belt theory—was beginning to take hold. Baker was familiar with this concept, and while he worked the Lake City mine, he began to connect the dots between the mineral-rich gulches to try to predict where more gold may be found.

Near Howardsville, Colorado, the Animas River gets quite wide. This is near the Little Nation Mill, which is worth a stop if you're traveling north from SIlverton. It's also near the former Gold King Mine, which "blew" in 2015 and flooded the Animas River with toxic mine water.
Near Howardsville, Colorado, the Animas River gets quite wide. This is near the Little Nation Mill, which is worth a stop if you’re traveling north from SIlverton. It’s also near the former Gold King Mine, which “blew” in 2015 and flooded the Animas River with toxic mine water.

Early Exploration for Gold in the San Juans

In 1859, as Lake City was pinching out, Baker convinced S.B. Kellogg that the gold deposits likely extended into the mostly unexplored San Juan range, about 140 miles southwest of their operation. The men approached the range by tracing the Animas River northward and found enough traces of gold to convince them to return in force. Baker’s prediction seemed to have ‘panned out.’

I've been in a lot of different mines. Some on tours, some not. If you pass through Howardsville, Colorado without going on the Old Hundred Mine Tour, you're missing out. This is what Santiago Tunnel looked like in the 1940s when it was near the end of its life.
Inside the Old Hundred gold mine near Howardsville, Colorado. [Click for their website.]
The next spring, as thawing gulches flooded the valleys, Baker and Kellogg led about 150 men up the river to stake and explore the area. Some even had time to break ground before the October storms forced them southward to Animas City, now part of Durango, to shelter the winter. Through the winter, with little else to talk about in Animas City, word of the new claims spread quickly. Unsurprisingly, 1861 brought more than 500 men to the gulches above the Animas River, but their progress was soon halted by something more dangerous than a San Juan avalanche: Civil War.

When war broke out between the Union and Confederacy, Charles Baker immediately returned to Virginia to fight for the South, leaving his gold claims behind. Although he did not find fortune yet, he was convinced those mountains were full of riches for him, should fate allow him to return. Indeed, despite the many stakes, mines, and men that flooded the valleys, few had found productive claims to work. By the end of the war in 1868, most miners had given up on the idea of San Juan gold. Nevertheless, some men resumed mining after the war in the east.

Gen. W.T. Sherman, signatory of Hunter Treaty. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Gen. W.T. Sherman, signatory of Hunter Treaty. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Soldiers returning to their claims in the mountains would feel little relief, however, as attacks by the local tribes on the western mines and settlements increased in frequency and intensity. In response, the Hunter Treaty was signed in 1868, promising the Utes and Navajo that whites would not settle or prospect in the mountains, and in exchange they would be able to pass through unharmed. Contrary to the agreement, settlement continued unabated, and within a few years, clashes between illegal white settlers and local tribes ratcheted up again.

The First Modern Mines in the San Juans

In 1870, a group of miners struck a rich gold deposit about 8 miles southwest of Treasure Mountain. The Little Giant Mine opened the next year, kicking off a mini-rush. White settlers streamed into the area once more and began to settle more permanently in the area. They reasonably assumed that there must be more precious metals beneath their feet, and so stores, banks, and industry began to take root down river, anticipating a flood of wealth.

It was clear that the Hunter Treaty of 1868 had to be reconsidered, now that all parties saw the settlement of the San Juans as inevitable. The resulting document was the Brunot Treaty of 1873, which deeded the San Juans to the United States with the understanding that the higher areas would be reserved for the First Nations people. A short time later, the first cabin was built where two forking tributaries formed the Animas River, a place that would grow into the hardrock mining town of Animas Forks.

For the first time, it was possible to explore, prospect, stake a claim, and open a mine along the Animas River without the threat of attack.

William Duncan built this house for his family in 1879. It has become one of the most popular structures in the ghost town of Animas Forks.
William Duncan built this house for his family in 1879. It has become one of the most popular structures in the ghost town of Animas Forks.

Charles Baker, who survived the Civil War on the losing side, set out for the Animas Forks in 1875. He literally pioneered that area 15 years earlier with S.B. Kellogg, and the success of the Little Giant Mine confirmed his belief that a mass of gold lay under the mountains along the Animas River. Now he could return with his reputation restored to unearth the gold he always thought was waiting for him. Sadly, he would never reach Animas Forks, which was awarded a post office that year; he was killed by a tribe of Utes on his way. The circumstances of his death are not clear, but it is possible he strayed too high into the mountains and onto tribal land guaranteed by the Brunot Treaty.

Colorado became a state the next year, as even more men flooded into Silverton (established 1874) and up the Animas to find gold and silver. Southwest of Animas Forks was one hotspot of activity, a place called Treasure Mountain…