The Gold Prince Dies Below Treasure Mountain (Part II)
Part II: THE GOLD PRINCE DIES BELOW TREASURE MOUNTAIN
By the 1880s, there were many mines on the peaks and in the gulches near Animas Forks.
One of the biggest finds was on the side of Treasure Mountain, just above the town, called the Pacific Lode. In 1881, the Treasure Mountain Mining & Milling Company was founded by a group of Chicago investors to mine and manage the Lode. That same year, the city of Durango was founded to the south, a city that would serve, and still serves, as the lifeline to the rougher and more remote mountain towns above it.
Miners streamed north from Durango, first by foot, then by train, starting in 1882 when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad connected to Silverton. A smelter in Durango was quickly constructed to concentrate and purify the gold and silver ore from Animas Forks and nearby claims. At the time, Animas Forks boasted a population of about 160, with twice that number camped in the hills surrounding it.
The mountain towns were next to lawless. For example, in 1887 an arsonist who burned his Indianapolis business for an insurance payout was found hiding near the mines on Treasure Mountain. The policeman in pursuit collected him from the high altitude hideout and escorted him to Silverton. From there, they were supposed to take a train to Denver where the arsonist would be tried. However, that night when the prisoner asked to have a cigarette in the smoking car of the train and the officer assented, the prisoner sprinted through the smoking car, hopped over the side of the speeding train and rolled into the ditch to his escape! A $50 reward is, presumably, still valid for the man’s arrest.
The 1890s were a hard decade for Animas Forks. First, a fire raged through the town in 1891, virtually erasing the business district. Rather than rebuild, many of the residents moved a few miles south to the town of Eureka. Because of the population loss, Animas Forks lost its post office.
Two years later, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which guaranteed a high silver price, was repealed by President Grover Cleveland’s administration, cutting the price of silver by almost 40% and devastating San Juan mining operations. Thousands of miners in the West were left unemployed. Only small mines with little or no debt could afford to operate on Treasure Mountain.
The Gold Prince Mill
Animas Forks would receive a breath of life in 1904 when it was announced that a major gold mill would be installed there. Anticipating the boom, the Silverton Northern Railroad (founded 1895) extended their trackage from Eureka north to the Forks, where construction of the Gold Prince Mill began the next year. It would be a modern structure with a steel frame, concrete floors, forced air heat, and electric power supplied by the Animas Power and Water Company.
Gold Prince Mill opened in 1907 at only one-third of its 500-tons-per-day capacity. Metal prices were simply too low to justify extensive mining in the area. The Animas Forks mill was revolutionary in that it used hundreds of small electric motors to operate its equipment, rather than a central drive with connected belts, as every other gold mill used at that time.
The ore was supplied by an ingenious aerial cable tramway that connected the mines to the mill along the base of Treasure Mountain. Baskets of raw ore would bounce along the cables over trees and rough terrain down to the loading doors of the mill. Buckets could then be detached by crane, dumped, and sent back up the cable to be refilled with more ore. An example of this system can still be seen at the nearby Mayflower Mill.
The Treasure Mountain Mine
One of the most active mines in the area was the Treasure Mountain Mine, which was about 400 feet deep at that time, with ample expansion planned. In fact, the mine outpaced the mill, which closed the following year just as Treasure Mountain Mine was beginning a horizontal tunnel to intersect the abandoned Golden Fleece and Scotia mines, two of the biggest mines of their day near Animas Forks. The next season brought the tunnel right beneath the Golden Fleece mine, about 1,600 feet from the opening in Picayune Gulch.
The Gold Prince mill shut down that year, having never reached capacity.
To offset falling silver and gold prices, mills began to recover zinc, a metal not very sought-after before that time. Northwest of Animas Forks, the Frisco-Bagley mine and mill kept the town alive, as well as the Vermillion mine one mile west of the Frisco. Today, the Frisco-Bagley mill still stands, while Vermillion’s aboveground workings are in ruins.
Animas Forks burned again in 1913, driving most of its residents southward, but mining continued.
An avalanche in 1915 struck on both sides of Treasure Mountain, suggesting it was triggered by underground explosions, sending whoever was on the surface tumbling down the mountain. On the Animas Forks side of the mountain, a laborer at the Silver Coin Mine was carried over some rocks with the weight of the snow on top of him. He was ground into pieces and only some parts of him were ever found. On the Picayune Gulch side, a man of the Treasure Mountain Mine was carried by the snow for several hundred feet. His comrades rushed from the tunnel to rescue him and he lived.
Later that year, the first World War erupted…