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Dredging up the facts

by Nancy Christofferson

LA VETA PASS — Possibly the oldest gold mining area in southern Colorado is around La Veta Pass on the flanks of Blanca Peak, where pioneer prospectors of the 19th century found the remains of old tools, glory holes, arrastras and other evidence of a Spanish presence years before.

The mining district is in Costilla County, but La Vetans seemed to feel it was in their own backyard, and many, if not most, of the miners and merchants toiling there came from that town. Men on foot and horseback regularly traveled between the two little towns. The district itself was large, encompassing valleys and foothills, river beds and mountain tops. History demanded special names for Spanish Bar and Spanish Gulch, where the ancient tools had been found, for Officers Bar where soldiers from Fort Massachusetts were actively involved in the 1850s and ‘60s. Especially rich or plentiful ore earned some spots special designations geographically, like Willow Creek, Stearns Gulch, Grayback Creek, Gulch and Mountain, and Placer. All of these were located in the general area and, to make things difficult, the area was dotted with other names – Cristo or Sangre de Cristo, Big Hill, Russell, Rossville, along with the names above, to denote where the train depot was, or the hotel, or the “eating station” or the post office. Basically, it was just one big spot on the map, composed of little spots with different distinctions.

The district was adjacent to an old trail crossing the Sangres that had been used by the Spanish since at least 1779. In 1876, it was no accident the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built its right-of-way west of the pass down through that particular valley. By the late 1870s, Colorado Coal and Iron was mining the latter ore in the vicinity, and gold prospectors were flooding in as well.

Not only was there a profusion of place names, but also of mining methods. Prospectors were digging vertical glory holes, horizontal ones, too, panning the streams, or working for large companies. Then, in January 1898, one of those companies hit upon the idea of a giant “steam shovel”. The Badger State – yup, they were from Wisconsin – Mining Company placed the shovel to scoop up 800 cubic yards of gravel per day to dump it into a washer to remove any gold. In October Badger State put in a second washer to double the capacity. By this time the giant steam shovel was being called, rightly, a dredge.

By 1900 there were said to be more than 200 men in camp, and some companies paid out more than $300 a day in payroll (in 1900 the mines were paying union wages of $3 per eight-hour day). The camp was in the throes of one of its occasional booms, and many mines that had been shut down for 20 or more years, since the 1870s, were being reopened. Modern methods were being introduced, such as steam hoists. A three-story stamp mill was built in 1904, and at least one company boasted of a 1,000 foot tunnel. A lot of gravel was being moved, and not just by the dredge.

Unfortunately, the dredge became inoperable, and may have sunk, according to legend.

In August 1909 a group incorporated the Colorado Gold Dredging Company. They ordered new equipment. The dredge mentioned cost a whopping $90,000. In April the various bits and pieces arrived in La Veta on five standard gauge cars. La Veta was the end of the standard gauge, so all those pieces were transferred onto nine narrow gauge cars.

The dredge was a modern marvel. The newspaper reported it required 125,000 feet of lumber and 25 men to build it. It had six big engines and 55 buckets weighing 1,070 pounds EACH. Its total weight was 300 tons. Its marine boilers were operated on 100 horsepower produced by its own electric plant. Its capacity was 2,500 yards daily, which would employ 33 men in three –eight-hour shifts of 11 each.

The dredge was dubbed “Mary Blossom” by Mary Blossom Ownbey, daughter of company president Colonel F.M. Ownbey (of, later, Las Animas County’s Wootton estate and coal company fame, with his buddy J.P. Morgan). It was launched on a Friday the 13th, in May 1910.

It had an auspicious beginning. Within months, it was bringing in hundreds of dollars of gold, and a company representative noted, “the machine is doing its work.”

The dredge company owned 240 acres, mostly in the creek beds. The land was sandy and full of gravel which was relatively easy to dredge. Owners announced they would spend at least a million dollars for development. Said owners were reputedly millionaires themselves.

At the same time, a gold prospector reportedly found platinum at a value of $250 per ton. The rush was on.

Placer suddenly had not only a church, but a Sunday school, complete with organ. Mail service became regular and a telephone line was installed. The boardinghouse boasted almost 20 residents. The stores and hotels were reopened. In November, the dredge one day “hoed up a row in the pay sand” to produce $800 worth of gold in just six hours. The following March, a gold brick weighing 110.25 ounces earned the company a check for $2,089.30. Two weeks later another $2,600 rolled in. That May the company superintendent was showing folks a chunk of gold valued at $4,000 representing 10 days work.

Profits continued to roll in until September when the superstructure of the dredge took a tilt and flooded the machinery. It was raised and replaced but all new machinery had to be purchased and shipped in.

While this was being done, crews were put to work building a new road to the top of Grayback Creek to the northeast. Here it connected with a “road” from the upper Huerfano river valley. This new route connected not only the two valleys but the marble and copper mines found along Pass Creek and the Huerfano. It also opened the upper valley to a shorter haul to and from the railroad leading into the San Luis Valley. This pleased the cattlemen who could walk the herds across a short pass rather than up the entire Huerfano valley from Walsenburg.

In April 1912 the dredge sunk again. This was not good news. The community had become something of a tourist destination, and was even considering building a large garage to accommodate travelers’ automobiles. A freeze in late July destroyed gardens and discouraged drivers from entering the canyon.

Apparently the dredge ceased operating, and the post office was discontinued in October 1913, though rumors were rampant that the dredge would be started up again. The rumors continued throughout 1914. The dredge, meanwhile, began to slowly rust and rot.

Russell did not die, however. Instead, it was converted into a lumber camp. Old buildings from Fort Garland were hauled in for offices, storage and residences. A new switch was built so the railroad tracks could get into camp. Tourists and campers continued to visit, and a commissary was built. The post office was re-established in March 1916. Even as the lumberjacks and others made the camp lively, some old die-hard miners continued to pick away at the sands and gravels of the creeks, and to dig their glory holes ever deeper.

A group of La Vetans in 1928 struck a six foot vein of gold along Grayback Creek that assayed at 83 ounces gold and 41 ounces silver. A mini rush ensued. About the same time another vein was found in a 40-foot mine tunnel that contained silver, gold and manganese to the tune of some $3,000. New miners arrived to rework the old mines, and more discoveries were made.

Prospectors kept at it, and in May 1931 some of their best specimens were displayed in the La Veta National Bank. Two years later the town or Placer was again deserted when a local man found yet more gold and silver in an abandoned mine.

All these years later, some La Vetans retain interest in their old claims on the other side of La Veta Pass, and some even work them. While the dredge did nothing for the scenic landscape, it did prove that gold was there – and still is.

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