The Mines and Minerals of Leadville

John M. Shannon and Geraldine C. Shannon
Colorado School of Mines
Geology Museum
Golden, Colorado 80401

This copyrighted material is the property of The Mineralogical Record, and is published here with permission. The article originally appeared in The Mineralogical Record, volume 16, May-June, 1985.

The Colorado Mining Directory of 1883 called Leadville the “natural successor to Australia and California.” In the century since that statement was made, interest has never waned and production has never entirely ceased. Not only valuable ore but also fine mineral specimens have been recovered and preserved from many of the nearly 2000 mines in the Leadville area.


The town of Leadville is located on the western edge of the Leadville mining district, on the western slope of the Mosquito Range, in Lake County, Colorado, about 128 km (80 miles) southwest of Denver. Altitudes range from 3070 to 4000 meters (10,000 to 13,000 feet), and the mountain scenery in that area of Colorado is spectacular. Leadville is one of Colorado's great mining districts, with a long and complex history. Historical material gathered for this article gives preference to those mines of greatest mineralogical interest.

Table of Contents

Discovery - this page
Mining & Geology - page 2
About Some of the Mines - pages 3-4
Minerals - page 5
Acknowledgements & Bibliography - page 6


The rush had begun.
Those who found themselves left out at Mountain City and other Gilpin mines continued to push relentlessly onward. Prospectors, their numbers fed by the thousands who flocked to the West in the aftermath of the terrible financial panic of 1857, pressed forward throughout the summer and fall of 1859. Into areas now known as Georgetown, Boulder, Gold Hill, Tarryall, Fairplay and over the low divide into the Arkansas Valley they drove, always in search of the yellow metal. When winter came they returned to Auraria and Denver to wait for another season to continue the search.

Finally, on February 15, 1860, A. G. (Al) Kelley (sometimes spelled Kelly) led 25 men from Auraria via Colorado City and Ute Pass across South Park, over the Mosquito Range to the west, probably via Trout Creek Pass, to the upper Arkansas River to a spot he had prospected the previous fall. This first group to work the Arkansas River chose a site that was approximately 32 km (20 miles) south of present-day Leadville; they called it “Kelley's Diggings,” “Kelleysburg” or “Kelley's Bar” (Smiley, 1901; Blair, 1980).

Meanwhile, another miner who had also prospected the Arkansas Valley briefly that fall of 1859 told S. S. Slater in Mountain City (near what is now Central City) of a rich placer he had located. Although Smiley (1901) gives Currier as leader of the group organized to search out this placer, Slater seems to be the one who figured most prominently.

In any case, a small party from Mountain City journeyed down Bear Creek, up the South Platte and across South Park to the Mosquito Range. They did not cross Trout Creek Pass, the easiest access to the Arkansas Valley, but apparently entered the area via a pass immediately east of present-day Granite (Smiley, 1901; Griswold, 1951; Blair, 1980). Because their information indicated that they should continue north, this second party did not prospect at Kelley's Bar, but went on.

Illustration of the rush to Leadville in 1879
Main street of Leadville in 1879, as depicted in Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper on April 12 of that year.

At this point there are discrepancies in the accounts of the Slater party and of how California Gulch and lowa Gulch came to be discovered and named. The popular view is that at Cache Creek others threw in with them, and in Hayden Flats this larger Slater group encountered the Jones party. The latter had also heard of good prospects in the mountains and had also come from Mountain City (Blair, 1980).

The Slater party and the Jones party combined and agreed to divide "into three groups: (a) Iowans led by Jones would prospect the first likely gulch, (b) Slater's bunch (later called 'Stevens' group') from Mountain City would prospect the second likely gulch, and (c) a third group, which seems to have been made up of odd lots and led by a stranger named Johnson, would prospect the western side of the valley along the base of Mt. Massive” (Blair, 1980).

Iowa Gulch bears the name the Jones group gave it. Stevens' group prospected a gulch about 2.4 km (1/2 miles) north of Iowa Gulch, and, finally, Abe Lee found "a pan that promised to make rich men of them all” (Blair, 1980). Soon thereafter this gulch was named California Gulch, from which "a number of the largest and most valuable nuggets known to the country were taken out” (Hall, 1889).

The reason for the name is also controversial. “Most old-timers claimed the gulch was so named from Abe Lee's memorial words, ‘By God, I've got California in this here pan. Others protested the gulch derived its name from the fact that the majority of the first prospectors had come from California (mining camps). A third group held that the name grew out of the early-comers' predictions that the diggings' would be as rich as those of California" (Griswold, 1951).

Even the date of discovery is disputed (Smiley, 1901; Griswold, 1951; Blair, 1980), but “They reported it at the Kelley Diggings - which in the meantime had not ‘panned out as well as had been expected - on the evening of April 25th” (Smiley, 1901). “The official ‘Bylaws of California Mining District, California Gulch, Arkansas River' were adopted on May 12, 1860. They first outlined the extent of the district” (Blair, 1980).

The Johnson party, the third group prospecting, tried their hand in California Gulch, but soon returned to the gulch they had previously worked at the base of Mount Massive. Using a skillet to pan the dirt, they found gold there and named this creek opposite California Gulch, Frying Pan Gulch. (It was later renamed Colorado Gulch [Griswold, 1961].) The Colorado Mining District was formed by the Johnson party (Blair, 1980).

The following two reports are examples of the type of information that caused the rush to Leadville.

“Mr. H. A. Rogers has shown us some of the finest specimens of nugget gold we have seen taken out of the Mountains. . . . He had in his possession about $200 in nugget gold, varying in value from $5 to up to $33.10. It was taken from his claims, No. 2 and No. 4 in California Gulch. He also showed us over four pounds of fine gold taken from the same claims. Mr. R. was on his way to St. Joseph for goods, and will return in a few weeks. He gives a glowing account of the mining prospects in California Gulch” (The Rocky Mountain News, August 29, 1860).

“On Wednesday eve of last week two rough-looking individuals, sunburned and shaggy, entered the office of Pikes Peak Express Co., bearing sacks upon their shoulders which they deposited upon the counter like bags of corn. ... Then causing door to be closed, they opened their pouches and emptied them of $27,000 in gulch gold. ... The shining dust, whose luster had never been dimmed by any retorting process, glittered with peculiar brilliancy and abounded in nuggets, largest of which were twice the size of silver dollars. ... Owners of the treasure are two miners just in from California Gulch. ... Their names were J. M. Rafferty from Ohio and George Stevens from Philadelphia” (The Mountaineer, September 26, 1860)."

“Following this period placer operations were carried on in a small way, the seasons' yields often being no more than about $20,000. It had been noticed, however, that certain heavy stones accumulated in the sluice-boxes to the annoyance of the placer miners. While it is true that many of the men were ignorant of the nature of these stones, it soon become more or less a matter of general knowledge that they were nodules of lead carbonate. Lead minerals, unless excessively rich in silver, were in the late sixties and early seventies of no value, owing to the distance from the few smelters at that time in existence west of the Mississippi. Men busy at placering could not afford to spend any time in saving or looking for deposits of such comparatively worthless minerals” (Warwick, 1905).

Sometime during the first five years of the 1860s, the first and one of the most famous lodes of the Leadville area, the Printer Boy, was discovered in California Gulch. Due to improper management, however, its full potential was not realized until 1868, when large masses of free gold were found.

Once these and other discoveries became known, men flocked in and a "camp” developed. The first unofficial, overall name of the settlement, which was scattered in a most unorderly manner for about 9.6 km (6 miles) up and down the gulch, was Boughtown, a name of “appearance" (Griswold, 1961). According to the Daily Chronicle of April 7, 1879, “Men in those days were in too much of a hurry to even build houses to live in; they contented themselves generally with erecting four posts and covering the tops and sides with green pine boughs."

Miners Pick from Leadville

In this area grew “Oro City, as it was finally dubbed, (and it) became the social and economic hub of the area. It had one long main street that ran the length of California Gulch. . . . Oro City was one of the few communities that really served the needs of its citizens. It never required people to move to town; rather it followed the people. In its early years it was scattered up and down California Gulch; as the population diminished and those remaining clustered in the upper end of the gulch, that became Oro City. Then in 1868 the Printer Boy drew miners up the gulch and Oro City followed. In fact, in amoebic fashion, the town split into Upper and Lower Oro. The official site of Oro City was wherever the Post Office was located, and in 1868 that was Upper Oro, or Oro Number Two as it was occasionally called” (Blair, 1980).

The most productive years of placer mining in California Gulch were from 1860 to 1867; however, by 1871 placering continued there with decreased yield and a stamp mill treated ores from several lode mines. “In 1873 only a few placers were worked. Several rich gold strikes were made on lodes in California Gulch, and the Homestake mine (near Tennessee Pass) was reported to be shipping to Golden, ore that carried 30-60 percent lead and 200-500 ounces of silver. In 1874 there was little placer mining, and most of the old, lower ground was regarded as worked out, but many new ditches were being built to carry water to higher ground. The Homestake mine shipped some argentiferous galena containing nickel, but there was no market near at hand for silver ores” (Henderson, 1926).

A third period in the history of the area, the carbonate period, began around 1874, when William H. Stevens and Alvinus B. Wood formed a partnership in order to construct a 19-km (12-mile) ditch to transport water (from the Arkansas River) to California Gulch to assist with sluicing operations, in hopes of discovering new placers and veins. “The original plans contemplated applying the hydraulic process to the new ground now covered by the southwestern half of the city of Leadville" (Hall, 1889; Blair, 1980). The ditch “was an immediate success after its completion in 1875, except that Wood and Stevens were plagued with that same heavy black sand that had confounded placer operations in the gulch since those halcyon days of 1860.” They collected samples from the gulch; an Alma assayer showed the ore "ran twenty-seven percent lead and fifteen ounces of silver to the ton” (Blair, 1980).

Keeping this new secret, “Wood and Stevens quietly prospected the upper slopes of the gulch until they located an outcropping in the area that Stevens had surveyed in 1865” (Blair, 1980). When samples showed it contained a high percentage of lead and 20 to 40 ounces of silver, they "did not make their discovery known until they were in a fair way to secure government titles to nine claims. These were taken up lengthways along what they considered the crest or apex of the lodes” and crossed the gulch, extending high up on the hills (Fossett, 1880). “By the fall of 1875 they controlled a considerable portion of California Gulch” (Blair, 1980).

The names of the principal locations commencing at the south were the Dome, Rock, Stone, Lime, Bull's Eye and Iron claims. The ore was first found in place on the Rock claim, where it was over 10 feet thick. It was rich in lead, but carried only a small amount of silver (Fossett, 1880). Stevens was a promoter knowledgeable in mining matters, but Wood on the other hand was a mining engineer and trained metallurgist (Blair, 1980).

While they are given credit for the discovery of the Leadville carbonates that led directly to the silver boom in the late seventies, there is ample evidence that the presence of silver in the general area had been known for years, as previously mentioned. One source claimed that as early as 1871 it was not only known that lead existed on the site of Stevens's Rock mine, but also that the ore was put to a practical use – that of making bullets (Blair, 1980). That the miners were also well aware of the presence of silver is evidenced by this quote from the Rocky Mountain News of November 14, 1860: “We have been shown some beautiful specimens of pure silver ore, from the Washoe, Chicago and Paul's leads, which are situated about fifteen miles from California Gulch. Portions of the ore have been smelted, and globules of pure silver are attached to the fragments.”

Hydraulic mining at Leadville
Hydraulic mining at Leadville, W. Prosser collection, now in the collection of the authors.

“Rather than discovery, (Wood and Stevens) were responsible for locating the first paying silver lode in California Gulch and having the financial resources and technical knowhow to develop their find” (Blair, 1980).

The successful establishment of lead smelters to treat Georgetown silver-lead ores, and the erection of smelters near Alma and at near-by Malta soon induced numerous other miners to look for the source of the lead minerals known from earlier years (Warwick, 1905).

"In 1877–78 the greatest rush to any camp in the history of the state occurred, resulting in the building of a new town, called Leadville, seven miles below the old town of Oro” (Henderson, 1926).

The name was derived from that decided upon when requesting a new post office for the area in 1877. “Naming the post office did not necessarily name the town, but by the fall of 1877 the name was in general use throughout Colorado. When the city framers met in January of 1878, they had either to approve 'Leadville' or come up with an acceptable substitute." Eventually “Leadville" was accepted unanimously and Governor Routt was petitioned "to allow them to establish a recognized city." This was accomplished by the spring (Blair, 1980).

It was also during this period that many of the mines which then and later produced superb mineral specimens were first staked: 1876, the Wolftone mine; 1877, the Moyer mine; 1878, the Matchless mine; 1879, the Little Jonny mine; 1880, the Resurrection mine; and 1881, the Tucson mine. (See section following entitled "About Some of the Mines.")

“North of the established mines of Iron, Breece and Carbonate hills lay an area that the experts claimed was barren. To this barren ground came George H. Fryer (in 1878)” (Blair, 1980), “who sunk a hole on a hill north of Stray Horse Gulch and found a deposit of carbonate ore that proved to be one of the most remarkable ore bodies ever discovered" (Henderson, 1926). "The mine was called the New Discovery to spite the experts” (Blair, 1980). Eventually this mine was sold to Jerome B. Chaffee.

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