SOUTHWEST SUMMER

Rock&Gem Magazine|June 2020

SOUTHWEST SUMMER
EXPLORING THE SAN JUAN MOUNTAIN MINING HISTORY
BOB JONES

Would you ride to and from Silverton’s rich gold mines in these aerial tram buckets?

Of all the places a rockhound can vacation in summer, the most scenic, exciting, historical and enjoyable area is the San Juan Mountains, Southwest Colorado. Some of the most beautiful scenery in America is present in this area. Nothing compares with the Red Mountains, which are spectacularly stained bright red and orange because of massive mineralization.

Old gold and silver mines are found everywhere, some of them historically famous for their mineral specimens. These old silver and gold mines have produced fine collector specimens like rhodochrosite, huebnerite, sphalerite calcite, quartz, and fluorite, among others.

For family enjoyment, there is the spectacular 45-mile narrow gauge railroad that follows the Animas River from Durango to Silverton through Cascade Canyon. This railroad was built before 1900 to service the gold and silver mines surrounding Silverton, now a quaint tourist town.

Once in Silverton, you can enjoy tourist and rock shops and visit the classic old Mayflower Gold Mill where millions in gold were once processed, and where my son Bill learned his gold assaying skills. One of the many exciting aspects of this location is the aerial tram lines that brought rich ore from the high mountain mines to the mill. During shift changes, miners avoided the arduous climb to work by taking the tram to and from the mine in the swinging ore buckets. Miners could also spend their nights in the big boarding house near the mine entrances clinging to the high mountainside.

To see that old boarding house and enjoy the best underground mine tour in the state, drive from the Mayflower Mill to Cunningham Gulch to reach the Old Hundred Mine Tour.

If interested, look up the 1957 movie “Night Passage” featuring the Mayflower Mill, tram lines, and mines starring Jimmy Stewart and Audi Murphy. An exceptional time to visit Silverton is the second weekend in August when the community celebrates Hardrocker’s Holiday. Miners from the region compete in rock drilling, hauling, shoveling, and other physical contests all in good fun.

Silverton’s Mayflower Mill, now a museum, processed all the gold ore from Silverton’s mines. BILL JONES

Silverton began as a gold camp, just one of three now-famous San Juan gold camps, including Telluride and Ouray. Connecting Silverton to Ouray is the Million Dollar Highway over Red Mountain Pass so named because the roadbed consists of discarded gold mine dump material. The path started as a toll road built by Otto Mears, who made his fortune building toll roads and railroads in San Juan. Connecting these old gold camps are rugged trails over the mountains that require using a four-wheel vehicle you can rent or hire with a guide.

With sharp switchbacks clinging to mountainsides, you can look straight down a thousand feet to see Telluride and the best of Colorado scenery. My favorite trail drive runs from Ouray past the famous Camp Bird gold mine toward Telluride. Just before topping out at the summit, you can turn off the trail to a parking area, park, and enjoy a picnic lunch while viewing the entire spectacular trio of Red Mountain Peaks.

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June 2020