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. (continued below)
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
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
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
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.
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)
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
“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
ontinued 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
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
In 1888, the Security Company was re-organized as The Geyser Mining and Milling
Company of Silver Cliff. The Geyser Company 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
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
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.