Between the Sangre de Cristo Range and the Wet Mountains of Colorado there is a mining district filled with geologic wonders and anomalies. It is called Hardscrabble, and is located at the base of the Sierra Mojada (Wet Mountains) of Custer County. It is bordered on the west by towering peaks, on the east by conical hills; drenched in the summer by deluging rains; and, inundated in the winter by deep, high plains snows. The Hardscrabble District, if anything, is the “wilds of the far west,” a beautiful, majestic, entrancing place with a mining history that is a monument to western lore, as well as buried capital. Though there is little documented proof, legend has it that the Spanish once mined in the area of the Sangre de Cristo’s and there is physical proof of their presence around Marble Mountain, just west of Hardscrabble. Many a legend tells of the Spaniards’ own buried treasure in this area now known as Custer County.
The region’s geology was formed by volcanic action: molten rock flows; geyser eruptions; igneous blowouts; fractured gneisses and granites. This tumultuous activity took place generally during the Eocene and Miocene periods. Later, and throughout much of the Pleistocene or Glacial Period, a good portion of the region’s geologic surface structure began to decompose. Mountains, hills, country rock, intrusions, mineral deposits — they were all eroded by dramatic climactic changes. The Blue Mountains, White Hills, Rosita Hills, and Round Mountain were some of the few identifying topographical features not removed by glacial movement or torrential rains.
Zebulon Pike passed through the Sierra Mojada in 1806, on his way to Taos. Pike did not detail much of his journey through this area; however, his expedition did make the area known to potential settlers. In 1863, the first non-Native American prospectors wandered into the Wet Mountain Valley. This group consisted of Si Smith, sheriff of Pueblo County; his brother, Stephen; William Holmes; and, Hugh Melrose. They were in search of a “lost mine,” one located by Jim Doyle, a rancher who had settled in the Lower Huerfano area. He failed to officially locate his mine before his death. Smith and party prospected in Grape and Hardscrabble creeks in June of 1863, and located mining claims in what they called the Smith Mining District, about ten miles east of what would later be known as Rosita. They found ore containing gold and silver in well-defined granitic fissures. Unfortunately, those ores assayed too low to invest much labor or capital.
Low assays, however, did not prevent settlers from coming into the valley. In 1869, Elisha Horn, William Vorhis, and John Taylor established ranches and built their homes. Elisha settled beneath Horn’s Peak; Vorhis near Grape Creek, and what would later be known as Dora; and, Taylor near Taylor Creek, and Ula. Within a year, two colonies arrived: a German one from Chicago, formed for the Colfax Agricultural and Industrial Colonization Company of Fremont County and led by Carl Wulsten; as well as a Mormon one from Utah, wanting to disassociate itself from Salt Lake City, and led by the Smith family (no direct relation to Joseph). That same year, William Beckwith of Philadelphia brought in fifteen hundred head of Texas cattle. All these events signaled the ranching and agricultural rushes into the Sierra Mojada.
By mid-1870, the German colony, totaling 367 people, had disbanded, due, generally, to political reasons. But most of these original settlers remained in the area, and like the Mormon colony, retained a loose-knit community rather than a highly structured one. During the next three years, both cattlemen and farmers lay claim to most of the fertile lands of the valley. Even Dr. James Bell, associate of William Palmer and a director of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, purchased ranch land in the Sierra Mojada, in connection with his partner, fellow Englishman Reginald Neave. By the end of 1873, there were few, if any, acres of ranch or farmland available to the newcomer.
But while farmers and ranchers were settling the valley floor, prospectors took to the hills. In 1870, Daniel Baker picked up pieces of “bright galena” near what would soon be known as Rosita. Richard Irwin, Jasper Brown, Daniel Baker, and the Remine brothers embarked on a trip to Rosita Springs in December of 1870, and within a few weeks located the Senator, G.W., Lucille, Virginia, and Alabama lodes. Assays of twenty-seven ounces of silver to the ton in the G.W. and eleven ounces in the Senator did not inspire Irwin and friends to dig any deeper. So, Irwin went off to the Cottonwood mines of Utah. Brown staked out a ranch; and, the others in the prospecting party returned to their ranches.
After tiring of the Cottonwood rush, Richard Irwin returned to Custer County, Colorado, and helped organize the Hardscrabble Mining District on November 15, 1872. Irwin bought out his partners on the Senator claim and re-initiated work on it again. In the spring of 1873, at a depth of about twenty feet, Irwin struck ore assaying 145 ounces of silver to the ton. That strike inspired others to pursue their work; and, that same spring, the Lucille (owned by Hoyt, Bangs & Co.), Cymbeline (owned by Richard Irwin and Thomas C. Parrish), Tennessee, Leviathan (Benjamin Mattice and F.A. Raynolds), Chieftain, and Stephens (owned by Paul Goerke and Si Smith) properties were staked out and developed.
In the spring of 1874, Leonard Fredericks discovered the Humboldt Mine. Fredericks quickly sold the property to Paul Goerke, a prominent member of the German community. Then, O’Bannion and company were fortunate enough to hit a rich pay streak in the Pocahontas. This property was soon transferred into the hands of Theodore W., Hiero B., and A.J. Herr, along with H.C. Lehman and A.J. Ballard. With thousand-dollar-per-ton ore rising to the surface, Rosita evolved from mining camp to full-fledge boomtown in a matter of months.
The Town of Rosita was platted in 1873, with a total of 36 lots laid out. In 1874, Rosita had four stores and a public school, for a population of over 600 (1875 Colorado Business Directory). Nearly a hundred quartz-bearing lodes had been located both in and around the town site of Rosita. In the November 1875 Census, over 480 houses were listed; a population of 1,026, plus 288 school children; and, 400 miners were employed. Listed in the 1876 Colorado Business Directory for Rosita were: 3 churches; 3 assayers; 1 bank; a variety of stores; 1 newspaper (the Rosita Index); 5 saloons; 4 hotels; and 7 physicians. Webb & Tomkins (H.H. Tomkins being one of the proprietors, later of Leadville and Aspen Tomkins Hardware fame) had opened a mercantile, selling hardware, stoves, tin ware, agricultural implements, mining tools, powder, fuse, ammunition, paints, oils, and other goods. The Bank of Rosita, capitalized by Colonel Boyd and Walter Stewart, opened its doors. And, Tyndall Street became Rosita’s main thoroughfare.
But, while the mines of the Rosita Hills were producing silver ores, many people were struggling with reduction processes that would make the rich rock productive. One of the first attempts at a reduction works was the James Cupola Furnace, built in Rosita in 1875. It was basically an iron re-melting furnace, and assisted in practically no material extraction of silver from the native lead and quartz ores. But it was a start. The next notable plant was the Mallet Lixiviation Works, built near Rosita in 1876, which used a reduction process similar to that of the Augustine method of leaching silver ores. The owners purchased ores of 50 ounces of silver to the ton or less, which could be had cheaply at the time; and thus, the Mallet Works was able to show a profit from this crude process.
In 1877, The Pennsylvania Reduction Works was constructed at Rosita to process ores from the Virginia and Humboldt mines. Thomas C. Parrish, of the State Senate, R.N. Clark, Henry S. Paul, Benjamin P. Wilson, and Mayland Cuthbert were the main capitalists behind this venture. Thomas Parrish was a director and part-owner of The Virginia Mining Company; R.N. Clark, was a director and part-owner of The Humboldt Silver Mining Company. Since the two mining companies worked different portions of the same vein, and the ores excavated were similar (gray copper and copper pyrites with average assays of between 115 and 125 ounces of silver to the ton), the directors thought it prudent to finance the construction of a reduction works that would benefit both the Virginia and the Humboldt properties. The plant had “a crusher, 5 to 10 stamps, 2 Bruckner cylinders for roasting, and pans and settlers for amalgamation. In the first ten months’ run 1,204 tons, containing 47,418 ounces of silver, were treated, and 31,303 ounces of silver, or 63.44 per cent, were saved, at a cost of treatment per ton of $17.84. This cost was later reduced to $11 by an increase in the stamping capacity. The works were closed in 1878 due to the exodus of miners to Leadville, and were never started up again; they were burned in 1883.” (P. 416, Mines of Custer County, Colorado, by S.F. Emmons, USGS 1896)
Many more reduction plants followed, even though little was known at this time about how to efficiently and profitably treat Colorado silver ores. The St. Joseph’s Smelter was built in Grape Creek, near Silver Cliff, in 1879. After that, the Chambers Smelting Furnace was erected at Gore Station, near Silver Cliff. Then, the Waitz Mill in 1880 was constructed based on an amalgamation design. The Adelia Mill, built in 1880, was also designed with the amalgamation process in mind. After that, the Boulder and Buffalo-Hunter Mill was erected, near the Adelia Mill. And then there was the Silver Cliff Smelter, a 15-ton water-jacket blast furnace in Grape Creek. The Robbins and Dyer Mill and Duryee Furnace were also built in 1880; as well as the Silver Cliff mills for the ores of the Racine Boy and Silver Cliff mines. In 1881, the Plata Verde Mill was built, on Round Mountain, with 40 stamps, a crusher, automatic feed, 16 amalgamating pans, and eight settlers. Then there was the Game Ridge Mill completed by Fraser and Chalmers. And the Star Mine Smelter, built in 1882, a 10-ton water-jacket blast furnace in Oak Creek. And, the Kate Mill, re-constituted from parts of the Adelia Mill. In all, it was estimated, by Samuel F. Emmons, that over $1 million had been spent in the construction of the aforementioned “monuments to buried capital.”
“But,” as Emmons went on to write (Page 419, Mines of Custer County, Colorado, 1896), “a very small portion seems to have been even partially successful, and as far as can be judged from the few facts above presented the failures in most every case can fairly be attributed to the neglect of the ordinary precepts of mining, to lack of business prudence, or to the ambition that possesses many men who embark in mining enterprises to prove themselves wiser than the knowledge that has been accumulated by years of scientific investigation and experiment the world over, and which is transmitted in the course his studies to every well-trained mining engineer or metallurgist.”
By 1877, several major factors appeared to be threatening the success of the Hardscrabble Mining District: prudent investment; interest in other proven mining districts, such as Cottonwood, Utah, and a year later, Leadville, Colorado; and, the decreasing grade of silver ores with the depth of the mines. But, just as the boom for Rosita seemed to be imploding, one of the richest mines in the area burst into prominence. It was June, and E.C. Bassick had relocated his claim atop Mt. Tyndall to incorporate a property, the Maine, which had recently been abandoned. Bassick dug the existing 4-foot hole down to 10 feet, picked out several impressive samples, and sent them to Theodore Braun, in Rosita, to be assayed. The results averaged 78 ounces in silver to the ton. Bassick continued digging. At a 20-foot depth, he struck boulders coated with ore in a somewhat defined geologic vent or “chimney.” The ore coating or shell was from one-eighth to 3-inches thick, and ran 200 ounces of silver and 1 ounce of gold to the ton. It consisted of galena, zinc blende, gray copper, as well as tellurides of both gold and silver, chloride silver and free gold. The boulders themselves — below the ore coating — had no mineral value.
At a depth of about 60 feet, the “chimney” seemed to almost pinch out, once again showing that the Custer County mines had no longevity. But Bassick continued to pursue depth in the main shaft, and soon he began excavating mineral-coated boulders again. This time, though, pieces of wood charcoal were found embedded in the boulders of country rock. What’s more the boulders began to increase in diameter; and, with greater depth, the ore’s gold content began to dramatically rise. And, since the mine’s ore appeared to be gaining in richness, it seemed prudent to bore a tunnel into the center of Mt. Tyndall to intersect with the main shaft. Three hundred feet into the hill a large area was excavated and an engine room with hoisting works installed. With this newly installed equipment, ore was lifted from the bottom of the main shaft, and then sent out in ore cars to be concentrated in the Bassick Mill in the recently founded Town of Querida. By this time, though, the Bassick Mine had produced over $750,000 in gold and silver; and, looked as if it would continue to produce increasingly high-grade ore for some time to come.
In July 1878, three men from Rosita – Hafford, Powell, and Edwards – located several claims near Round Mountain, 7 miles northwest of Rosita. The Racine Boy, Horn Silver, Wet Mountain, and Silver Cliff were among these. The Racine Boy, Wet Mountain, and Silver Cliff were quickly sold to a company organized in New York called The Silver Cliff Mining Company. It was capitalized at $10,000,000, in a 100,000 shares, each share with a par value of $100.00. Chlorides and horn-silver were both present in the porphyritic formation of the property. The ore contained manganese and 15 to 20 ounces of silver to the ton. There were few shafts of any considerable depth on the property because there was no well-defined geologic structure. So, the property was worked like a quarry. Due to the initial prosperity of the Silver Cliff Company, the Town of Silver Cliff was founded nearby; and, its population quickly rose over 1000 by 1879.
The Racine Boy-Silver Cliff group encouraged the discovery of other claims in and around the White Hills, Round Mountain, and Blue Mountains. Two of these were the Johnny Bull and Domingo claims, located 3 miles north of Silver Cliff, on the south slope of Blue Ridge. From the start, the Bull and Domingo claims inspired intriguing history. Each claim was staked out and worked by different consortiums, which caused serious conflict, especially since the Johnny Bull and Domingo overlapped. Both consortiums claimed the common ground and attempted to mine it. For a short period, the differing groups tolerated the other’s activities. But the unhappy truce soon became contentious.
In 1878, with a force of over 100 men, the Johnny Bull group took control of the Domingo. At the time, there were about 20 men guarding the Domingo. The guards were forced to take cover in the shafts and tunnel of the Domingo. But the Bull crowd had been prepared for this, and rapidly covered all the Domingo openings with wood and dirt. The attackers then threw in burning chemicals, like sulphur, forcing the guards to either face suffocation or surrender. The guards decided it best to capitulate. Only after this incident did litigation begin between the owners of the Johnny Bull and Domingo.
A legal compromise came in 1879, and The Bull-Domingo Consolidated Mining Company was formed, with a $10,000,000 capitalization and shares of $50 par value each. On the surface, the ore had been more of a galena in nature. At a depth of about 45 feet, the lode became a mineral conglomerate consisting of brittle and cone silver chlorides, gray copper, and antimonial, with a yield of 1 to 500 ounces of silver per ton. Twenty thousand tons of ore were quickly extracted, averaging a profit of about $35 to the ton. In 1881, the owners of the Bull-Domingo Consolidated sold out to another New York syndicate for $300,000, and The Bull Domingo Mining Company was organized with a capital stock of $200,000.
The geology of the Bull Domingo shared some similarities with that of the Bassick Mine, being that the main paying ore body was found in a circular “chimney.” The boulders in the Bull-Domingo “chimney” had a shell-coating which contained most of the mine’s paying mineral; however, the mineral composite was not the same as that of the Bassick. Deeper down in the Bull-Domingo, the “chimney” ran into a fissure vein with well-defined granite walls, varying from 50 to 150 in width. At this point, the ore composition changed again, becoming a galena in a quartz gangue.
In 1885, the Bull-Domingo Mine was the scene of a fatal mining disaster. Apparently, the fire in the shaft house boiler became too intense, overheated the sheet-iron stack, and set ablaze the wooden roof. The intense heat also ignited dynamite that had been left by the boiler. The resulting explosion wrecked the machinery in the shaft house, immediately shutting down everything, including the vital work of the air compressor. With no fresh oxygen being forced down to them, ten miners working at the bottom of the 550-foot Bull-Domingo shaft suffocated. After this devastating accident, the Bull-Domingo was worked only intermittently. Total production of the mine, up to 1896, had been estimated to be between $500,000 and $1,000.000.
From 1878 to 1888, the Racine Boy-Silver Cliff group of claims underwent several corporate reorganizations, each of which had different mine management plans. No definable ore body had been discovered near the surface of these claims, so in its initial stages it was worked like a quarry. “A 40-stamp dry-crushing amalgamating mill was first erected (1880), and when the grade of ore had begun to fall off a wet-crushing mill, with the same number of stamps but double the capacity, was planned and erected in the following year. In 1883, when this work was inaugurated, the mills were closed down for want of a sufficient supply of pay ore to keep them running, but a certain amount of ore was being gathered from the open cut on the Racine Boy ground which was hand sorted and shipped away, carrying, as was claimed, an average of 50 to 60 ounces of silver per ton.” (Page 449, Mines of Custer County, Colorado, by S.F. Emmons, USGS 1896)
Chlorides and horn-silver, both in free-state and combined with porphyry, were spread throughout the surface of the Silver Cliff Mining Company claims. Even though the ore only yielded an average of about 15 to 20 ounces of silver per ton, the Company estimated its output before 1881 as $375,000.00. After 1883, the Racine Boy and Silver Cliff quarry was only worked now and then; after that, in 1884, The Security Mining and Milling Company of Rosita was formed to take over and work the property. The Security Company endeavored to find a defined ore body by sinking a shaft and boring a tunnel. About a hundred feet below the surface, the Security Company followed a “system of joints or fissures” 300 feet into the “Cliff.” Much of the Company’s working capital was exhausted by 1887, and few profits had been realized.
In 1888, the Security Company was re-organized as The Geyser Mining and Milling Company of Silver Cliff. The Geyser pursued the excavation of the shaft started by the Security Company. By 1895, the shaft was 2,100 feet in depth; and, with the machinery acquired by the Company in 1894, another 2,400 feet in depth was possible. This was the only shaft, other than the Bassick, in the entire Sierra Mojada that had been sunk to any great depth. The 3-compartment shaft had pierced a number of different geologic layers on its way down, including rhyolite, spherulite, pitch, stratified tuff and breccia, rhyolitic tuff, and granite. Exploration levels were run at 500-, 750-, 1450-, 1850-, 2000-, and 2100-feet. No defined ore bodies were located until levels were excavated at 1,850 feet; these were “thin films or stains of metallic sulphides.” (Page 456, Emmons, USGS 1896) About 200 feet northwest of the Geyser shaft a seam of galena was discovered. On the 2100-foot level, a similar vein was found.
Work continued on the Geyer property into the 1890s; however, many of Custer County’s other mines had been idle since the late 1880s. Some of the more productive properties, such as the Bassick and Bull-Domingo were leased and worked intermittently. But there was no question that the Hardscrabble District was in serious, and possibly irreversible, decline. And there were other indications that difficult times were coming for the district and communities of Custer County. After being washed on several occasions, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad deemed it no longer cost-effective to run trains up to Grape Creek, where it had established a line in 1881. In 1888, the D&RG closed its terminus at West Cliff and took up its tracks, which meant that many mining companies had to cart their extracted ores by wagon to Salida, Canon City, or Pueblo. This drove up expenses even further, making it nearly impractical to mine low-grade ores.
Still, the persistent persevered. Carl Wulsten, the first president of the German colony that had come to the Sierra Mojada in 1870, continued on in the mining business, despite the declining fortunes of the Hardscrabble Mining District. In 1900, Wulsten was manager and owner of the Mount Rosita Mine, Anaconda Mine, Ditto, Arizona, Bertha, Callahan, Cerargyrite, Elizabeth, Index, Naturalist, New York, Perseverance, Ophir, Success and Times. John H. Norton saw potential profit in the recently discovered Hermit Lake Mining District (1900), and was president of the profitable Hermit Lake Copper Company. The Valley Mining Company worked the Camel Mine, near Silver Cliff, employing 26 men, and excavating 320 feet in shafts, a 350 feet tunnel, and 300 feet in drifts.
In 1918, The Rosita Mining and Milling Company purchased and began working the old Senator Mine – the first discovery in the Rosita area. After relocation work, the Senator had been renamed the Maverick; and, showed signs of possible profitability.
As for the Bassick Mine, after many years of litigation, it once again began to produce. In 1898, the son of E.C. Bassick helped organize The Bassick Gold Mine Company to work the property. It continued in business until 1915. In 1918, The Querida Gold Mines Company contracted for a 20-year lease on the Bassick property. At the time, there was an 1850-foot shaft on the property and about 8000 feet of underground workings. Since 1877, the Bassick had produced over 3,500,000 tons of paying ore. In 1921, it was estimated that 350,000 tons of $11.60 ore was in sight (Pages 658 – 659, The Mines Handbook, 1922, Volume XV). The Bassick Extension Mining Corporation had property adjoining the Bassick Mine, on Mount Tyndall; it also operated the Skeek City Mine near West Cliff. This Company operated for several years, shipping the extracted lead to Joplin, Missouri.
Today, there is little or no mining activity in Custer County. The boomtowns of Rosita, Querida, Silver Cliff, Galena, Dora, and Ula, like many Colorado silver towns, have all but receded into the pages of Colorado mining history, “monuments to buried capital,” legends of the “Old West.” Still, the Sierra Mojada is a wondrous place, with majestic views, entrancing geology, and charismatic – though no longer living – characters walking through plats of vanished mining towns.