By Larry Godwin
Silver Lake, which early settlers called Arrastra Lake, lies in a basin at the head of Arrastra Creek, four miles southeast of Silverton, Colorado, near the center of the Las Animas Mining District, in what was then part of La Plata County.
Early Prospecting and Mining
On June 15, 1871, prospectors created the Las Animas Mining District as a primitive form of frontier government to regulate claim activity throughout the vast Animas River drainage.1 During its first several years, explorers on the floor of Arrastra2 Gulch must have gazed up and south at the imposing headwall and wondered what lay beyond. Snow and ice locked in the precipice for all but a few months each year, discouraging exploration.
In 1875 a handful of independent explorers made the dangerous ascent into the upper reaches of Arrastra Basin. The following year, John Reed became the first documented prospector to scout a route up the headwall. On the other side, he found a hanging valley carved by glaciers, between North Star and other summits to the east and Kendall Peak and Round Mountain to the west. Their flanks, with 1,000 feet of relief, were sheer and rugged, and the mountaintops presented a lacework of veins and dykes. At the valley’s center lay what was at that time a pristine glacial lake, about 40 acres in size, surrounded on most sides by exposed bedrock,3 with its outflow cascading northward until it roared over the valley’s craggy headwall into Arrastra Gulch.4
Examining the flank of Round Mountain on the valley’s west side, Reed quickly found several veins that carried silver, lead, and copper. He staked two claims on Round Mountain, which he named the Whale and the Round Mountain, as well as a third, the Silver Lake, on the northwest side of the lake.5
Also in 1876 an unknown prospector working at the hanging valley’s head identified a huge fault up Arrastra Gulch just south of the lake and traced it southwest, where it disclosed a vein he claimed as the Buckeye. During that summer, both he and Reed excavated shallow workings to prove ore and retain title to their properties, then left for the season. When the men returned the following year, Silver Lake Basin, as the valley came to be known, saw its first production, which the owners shipped by burro to the Greene Smelter just north of Silverton.6 However, the volume of payrock was insignificant considering the arduous and perilous approach, which hindered Reed and the other prospector from packing much out and from importing any beyond the most essential materials, limiting output.7
That year also saw Jonathan Crooke and his brother, Lewis,8 purchase the Royal Tiger claim9 on the southeast side of Silver Lake, which they began working in 1877. In 1878 they sold a controlling interest to McPherson Lemoyne. Meanwhile the original miners labored on the Buckeye for approximately three years and, although they had not exhausted the vein, that holding fell silent around 1879.10
Silver Lake Basin pulsed with activity in 1881. A few other prospectors made the hazardous ascent into the cirque, where they examined the east flank of Kendall Peak a short distance south of Reed’s ground. After climbing rock cornices,11 they found a rich vein directly west across the lake from the Royal Tiger,12 staked it with the Iowa and Stag claims, and blasted a tunnel and shaft to explore the lode at depth. At the end of the season, the party had samples assayed in Silverton. The report found the ore was rich not only with silver and industrial metals but also gold. The next year the group returned and began production. The members persuaded a crew of ten or so miners to make the sheer cliff at the Iowa their home for the working season and carried up all the supplies and lumber necessary to build a basic surface plant.13
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