Colorado is characterized by the most rugged and mountainous terrain of any state in the US, and those mountains were rich in minerals waiting to be discovered by prospectors as far back as 1858.
Development of mines in Colorado was slow at first due to the extremes of terrain and weather, and the remoteness of many of the state’s mountain ranges. However, by the 1880s most areas of the state had been opened, and mining on a large scale had begun.
Colorado’s spectacular scenery and the richness of the state’s mines attracted many of the top photographers working at the time. The result is that today more amazing photography of Colorado’s historic mining industry is available than of any other state.
These are some of the most incredible mining scenes from the state of Colorado.
Gold was not discovered at Cripple Creek until the 1890s, a late date for a major discovery in the West. The mines at Cripple Creek would go on to create the second most wealth of any gold district in the country, with only Deadwood, South Dakota producing more.
Cripple Creek is known as one of the nation’s leading lode mining districts, but like most gold districts the first mines here were placer mines.
This early Cripple Creek gold mine is operated out of a canvas tent. Canvas tents were commonly the first form of shelter setup at a camp or mine.
Like all great mining districts, the early mines were relatively small in scale. In the photo below, a mine crew is shown posing at a mine described as “a big producer”.
The men in the photo above probably did not realize just how big the Cripple Creek mines would become. The photo below gives an overview of the Battle Mountain mines, with the town of Goldfield in the background.
Many settlements were established in the Cripple Creek district. Victor was a city of some significance, only second to Cripple Creek in importance. The following view shows Victor, with the magnificent Gold Coin Mine right in the heart of downtown.
At over 10,600 feet, Independence was a significant mining community built among some of the district’s top mines. The scale of industry seen in this photo gives some sense of how rich the Cripple Creek mines were. Today the Independence town site is has been consumed by an active open-pit mine.
Anaconda was another Cripple Creek district community built among the mines. Today the Anaconda town site is covered by tailings from an open-pit mining operation.
The silver bonanza at Leadville transformed Colorado into the nations top mining state in the early 1880s. The mines of Leadville were so rich that by 1880 they were producing five times the wealth as Central City, the states leading district until that time.
Carbonate Hill was one of Leadville’s bonanza ore producing areas. Many fortunes were taken from these rich mines.
Fryer Hill was initially considered worthless ground, but discoveries there turned it into one of the richest hills in the world. H. A. W. Tabor’s great mining fortune started with the discoveries on this hill.
Leadville was an important smelting center for both the local mines, and for surrounding mining districts. Many smelters operated here over the decades.
Leadville was a major mining and smelting center for many decades. The following image from 1918 illustrates the scale of both the city and the mining industry here.
Like many of the West’s great mining centers, Leadville experienced periods of conflict between laborers and mine owners. In September of 1896, strikers advanced on the Emmett mine at Leadville, attacking it with gunfire, dynamite, and even a home-made cannon. The strikers were driven back and lost one of their numbers to gunfire.
The photo below shows a member of the Colorado National Guard watching over the Emmett Mine at Leadville following the attack.
Gold discoveries at Gregory Gulch were the center of Colorado’s first mining bonanza. Numerous settlements were established here, but “Central” or Central City was the district’s most important city.
Central City was part of what became known as “The Richest Square Mile on Earth”, and was Colorado’s economic center for nearly two decades.
Black Hawk was the milling and smelting center of the Central City district. The following image illustrates how close homes were to the mines of the district.
Colorado was in a depression by the late 1860s as much of the easily-recovered placer gold was played out, and processing the state’s complex ore was proving difficult. Black Hawk became the first smelting center in the state, and the smelters here were instrumental in the transition from placer to lode mining.
Nevadaville was another significant town in the Central City district. Built among rich mines, it was a prominent mining town for decades. Today only a handful of historic buildings remain.
San Juan Mountains
The San Juan Mountain range of southwestern Colorado is the state’s most rugged and inaccessible region. Many of the deposits are at high altitude, in settings so difficult that individual mines became year-round camps where hundreds of miners lived.
The following image depicts the Tomboy Mine, which was situated at 11,500 feet in elevation in the aptly named Savage Basin. Mines like Tomboy became towns of their own, complete with a school, store, stables, and even a tennis court and bowling alley.
New silver discoveries at Red Mountain during the early 1880s created one of Colorado’s most productive silver districts. The center of the district was at Red Mountain Town, and the Yankee Girl mine was one of the top producing mines.
This view of the Yankee Girl is typical of the mines in Colorado’s rugged and magnificent San Juan Mountains.
Mines of the San Juan Mountain region were rarely located in gentle terrain. The following view of the American Nettie mine near Ouray reveals that no location was too challenging for the miners of the late 1800s.
Situated at over 12,000 feet in elevation, the Virginius Mine is located approximately 2,000 feet above the town of Sneffels. The photo below illustrates the kind of terrain that many of Colorado’s top mines were located in.
Sneffels was the milling center for the Virginius Mine ore, and it was the location of the Revenue Tunnel which was built to drain the water from the Virginius Mine. The image below shows the boarding houses where the Revenue Tunnel workers lived.
The Camp Bird Mine, located above Ouray, was one of the state’s richest and longest-operating mines. The mine was a vast operation, by the end of 1900 the mine consisted of 103 mining claims on 941 acres, and had twelve mills in operation. The boarding house seen in the photo below was described in an 1899 newspaper article:
A boarding house capable of accommodating 400 men has been built and equipped with modern conveniences as well as the average hotel – electric light, steam heat, hot and cold water, porcelain bath tubs, commodes, sewer connection, fire apparatus, library, reading room, stationary porcelain basins, and all the other etceteras that contribute to the comforts of a home.
A mine would be nothing without the skilled men that built them. Miners would often live and work at the remote mines, and it was common to photograph the mine crew in front of surface buildings. The following photo shows the crew of the Golden Fleece Mine near Lake City.
The following photo of an unidentified San Juan Mountains region mine illustrates the difficult terrain and remote locations that men lived in worked in while employed at the mines.
Many mines of the rugged San Juan Mountains were only accessible by foot or by mule. Pack trains supplied all the necessary equipment and supplies to keep the mines running. Miners usually walked into and out of the mines, often at great distances and through harsh weather.
The following image of the North Star Mine of San Juan County depicts the men and mules that opened the mines in impossible terrain.
Yule Marble Quarry
Not all riches taken from Colorado mines were gold and silver. At the aptly named town of Marble, a world-class marble deposit was developed at the Yule Quarry.
Yule Marble has been used in many famous buildings and monuments in the United States and around the world, including the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Hearst Castle, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and numerous capital buildings, banks, and hotels.
The enormous slabs of marble had to be hauled down the mountain to the mill where they were processed. The following image illustrates an early method of transporting the blocks – by steam tractor.
The next image shows slabs being loaded onto an electric railway, certainly an improvement over the steam tractor shown above.
The Yule Quarry is the site of a world-class marble deposit, but it is also in a very difficult location, high on the side of a mountain. The following image illustrates the elaborate methods used to transport supplies and equipment to the quarry, and to move marble blocks to the railway.
Colorado Ore Reduction Mills
Just a few years after the discovery of gold in Colorado in 1858, the state found itself in an economic depression. The placer gold was largely mined out, and the ore from the early hard-rock mines was difficult to process with available equipment and technology.
By the late 1860s, new technology and increased investment in ore reduction mills lifted Colorado out of its depression and kicked off an era of mining that would make Colorado the leading mining state for decades to come.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many new ore reduction techniques were implemented at Colorado mills in attempts to improve efficiency and profitability. Enormous sums were spent on some mills that did not live up to expectations, and they only operated for a short time. One such mill was the enormous chlorination mill of the Wallstreet Gold Extraction Company, at Wallstreet, Colorado.
The following image of the Emma Mill near Dunton, Colorado has many interesting details. The building in the foreground in the boarding house for mill workers, complete with chef standing out front. The Emma mill in the background consists of the original mill on the right, with a large expansion on the left.
Stamp mills were extremely loud and often operated round the clock. Despite the deafening noise, these mills were often located within town limits, often right next to homes or businesses. The following image shows the Black Wonder mill in the town of Sherman towering over a commercial storefront.
The Gold Prince Mill was an enormous facility located at the town of Animas Forks. The mill foundation is still a prominent feature at Animas Forks ghost town, a popular tourist destination.
The Revenue Mill at Sneffels was an enormous operation that processed ores from the Virginius and other mines in the area. The Revenue complex employed around 600 men at its peak.
The Gold King Mill at Gladstone processed ores from the Gold King mine, one of the state’s leading gold producers. The following image of the mill and company housing is from around 1900.
Colorado mines were often in spectacular locations, as the mill of the Humphreys Mine at Creede, pictured below, illustrates.
The Old Hundred Mine is famous today for the impossibly positioned boarding house building that still survives today. The photo below shows the mill complex of the Old Hundred as it was around 1910. The settlement at the mill was known as Niegoldstown.
The Holden Lixiavation Works, an enormous ore reduction mill built at Aspen in 1891, is pictured below. In the early 1890s Aspen was experiencing an enormous silver boom, and had become one of the state’s premier mining centers.
More Colorado Mining Scenes
Colorado has hundreds of historic mining districts, some that were extremely rich and lasted for decades, and others that never amounted to much. The following images depict some of the best photos taken at various mining centers.
Coal was another commodity that built prominent mining towns in the state of Colorado. Colorado coal mines were uniquely positioned to supply the fuel needed for the state’s enormous mining industry.
Although Crested Butte was initially founded as a gold and silver town, it was the coal mines that would be the town’s economic foundation for many decades. The following image details the Colorado Fuel and Iron Coke Ovens ca. 1910.
Silver Cliff was founded in the late 1870s as a silver and gold mining town. The following image from the Silver Cliff area show an unusual scene at the Racine Boy Mine. Many miners are loading ore cars from what must have been a rich deposit of ore right at the surface.
Breckenridge was one of the first settlements in the entire state. While most gold placer mines were exhausted within a couple years of discovery, Breckenridge manged to thrive for many decades by successfully adopting hydraulic mining methods, and later dredging.
Gold dredging got its start in Montana just prior to 1900. By 1910 gold dredging had become big business in many western gold districts. The following image shows the Colorado Reliance dredge near Breckenridge ca. 1910.
Often the best is saved for last, and the following photo certainly fits the bill. This stunning 1893 photo illustrates an underground hoist and operator at the Della S Mine at Aspen. The year this photo was taken marks both the year that Aspen took the crown as largest silver producer in the United States.
Related: A Tour of Colorado Mining Towns
Related: The Colorado Gold Rush