Thanks to the mining boom of the late 1800s, over the course of just a few decades the two towns grew from mere specks on the State of Colorado map to booming giants in the gold and silver industry. As miners began tapping rich veins of precious metals, the two San Juan Mountain valley communities burst with prospectors and related goods and services, along with their neighbors Silverton, Lake City, and other now-vanished mining settlements like Tomboy, Sneffels, and Ironton.
Most of the area’s most famous mines ultimately collapsed alongside these communities’ once-bustling populations when the crash of silver prices, followed by the First World War, drew the Colorado mining boom to a close. Today, remnants of this gilded era are still perceptible, not just in the historic buildings and museum exhibits in the towns of Ouray and Telluride, but also high in the hills, where the mining fortunes that fueled the growth of the two communities were first unearthed.
Remains of the region’s mining history are littered like quartz crystals across the Telluride-Ouray high country, still reachable today via foot or 4x4. The following are a few of the region’s most popular mine sites, as seen through the eyes of area hiking gurus and 4x4 outfitters who know them best.
Engineer Pass and San Juan Chief Mill
The San Juan Chief Mill was built just as the Colorado mining boom was reaching its pinnacle (circa 1891) to service the many mines in the area. Access to the mill, the nearby settlement of Mineral Point, and nearby mines like Des Ouray, Mickey Breene and Galconda, was via the roads jeepers now know as the popular Alpine Loop.
“What’s amazing is that all the tools these miners needed to build these mines, and eventually these towns, were brought up on these old, cliffhanging roads,” says Gregg Pieper, who now drives Engineer Pass and neighboring Cinnamon Pass (which together comprise the popular Alpine Loop) almost daily during the summer as owner and guide of Ouray’s San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours. “Not only did they bring all their tools up here that way, they also hauled tons of dynamite – which in a wooden wagon with metal-rim wheels paints quite a tenuous portrait!”
The arduous nature of travel in the area ultimately marked the demise of the San Juan Chief Mill, since its products still had to be hauled down those roads (at high cost) to either Ouray, Lake City or Silverton for export. The mill closed only a few years after it opened, during the Silver Panic of 1893. Because of the high cost of moving or salvaging the remains of the mill, it was simply abandoned. Today the outside structure is gone, but the fallen stamps, boilers, amalgamation tanks and offices are fairly intact, offering a glimpse into what mining in the San Juans once looked like.
As Colorado’s oldest Jeep tour company (started in 1946,) San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours offers guided adventures into the history-rich high country around Ouray. Engineer Pass, Yankee Boy Basin, Corkscrew Gulch, Imogene Pass, and Black Bear Pass are some of the many 4x4 tours offered daily from their office in downtown Ouray. www.sanjuanjeeptours.com, 970/325-0089
Tomboy Road and Old Tomboy Town Site
The remains of the Tomboy Mine and its adjacent town site are located 3,000 feet above Telluride, along the oft-traveled summer 4x4 road Imogene Pass. At its peak between 1894 and 1897, Tomboy produced prodigious quantities of gold, earning its distinction as one of the richest mines in the state. It was then sold for $2 million – an unprecedented amount, at the time.
The riches wrung from Tomboy and other surrounding mines, most notably the Japan and Smuggler-Union, begat the lively town of Tomboy. During its heyday, Tomboy was actually larger in population than the lower-altitude Telluride, boasting its own bowling alley, tennis courts – as well as the highest YMCA in the nation.
“It was a mighty producer of ore, and the Rothschilds ended up extracting large amounts of money from that mine,” says Dave Rote, owner of the Telluride-based Dave’s Mountain Tours, which provides summer 4x4 tours of Tomboy and Imogene Pass.
Today, nearly a century since its abandonment, traces of what was once one of the most lucrative mining exploits in Colorado can still be seen in the ruins of the mine and town of Tomboy. Many buildings remain at least partly upright, and viewing the town from above, onlookers can actually pick out the old town’s street grid.
Dave’s Mountain Tours offers a wide variety of tours all around the Telluride region, through full-day, half-day and even two-hour sunset drives to some of the most spectacular alpine settings as well as the region’s most famous ghost towns. www.telluridetours.com, 970/728-9749
High above Telluride’s box canyon, beyond the iconic Bridal Veil Falls, sits one of the most intact examples of historic mining sites in the state. The Lewis Mill was a state-of-the-art mill when it was constructed in the Bridal Veil basin above Telluride in 1907, and today it represents a compelling example of preserved history.
A State Historical Fund grant awarded in 2001, along with public and private funding, led to the stabilization of the then-failing structure that is reachable today only by foot, via a 3.5-mile one-way trail.
“It is definitely an historic landmark that people wanted to see preserved,” says Susan Kees, author of the Telluride Hiking Guide.
Kees ranks the hike, which starts at the power plant at the top of Bridal Veil Falls, as difficult, taking 5-6 hours round trip. The site’s remoteness is probably what has helped the mill maintain its original character after nearly 80 years of disuse. The mill still has its Wilfley table, roll crusher, Frue vanner and Swedish polish stones – all original machines and materials used to crush, grind, separate, sift and otherwise process raw ore so that silver and gold could be extracted.
Kees has lived and hiked in the Telluride region since 1972. Firsthand stories about how miners’ experiences in the high country during the mining boom are what inspired her to write the Telluride Hiking Guide, which first came out in 1990. Kees is currently working on the third edition, which is slated to be on local bookshelves by next Christmas.