“Little Rome” was a residential area in Henson, a San Juan mining camp a few miles west of Lake City that peaked in the 1890s. Henson is notable for being the site of an 1899 strike carried out at the Ute Ulay and Hidden Treasure mines by Italians affiliated with the Western Federation of Miners. The “Little Rome” site may have gotten its name because it was an Italian enclave, though recent archaeological investigations have not found any conclusive proof about the ethnicity of the residents.
Town of Henson
The Ute and Ulay claims along Henson Creek were the first registered mining claims in Hinsdale County. The Ute Ulay mine began serious production later that decade and spurred the growth of nearby Lake City, which had a population of 1,000 by November 1876.
In 1880 the town of Henson was established on the north side of Henson Creek near the mine, which lay about three and a half miles from Lake City by way of the Lake City and Uncompahgre toll road. Most of the people who lived in Henson worked at the Ute Ulay or Hidden Treasure mines. The town was never incorporated, but it did have its own post office in 1883–84 and again from 1893 to 1913.
Mines around Lake City began to boom after 1889, when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad completed its Lake City extension. Henson flourished in the 1890s, with a population of up to 300. It boasted three saloons, a school, a barbershop, several grocery stores, and a branch of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), a labor union that counted many San Juan miners as members. The area’s population and economy continued to grow even after the demonetization of silver in 1893 because the local mines produced a variety of valuable minerals. The Ute Ulay mine alone produced about $12 million from 1891 to 1903.
Henson was an ethnically diverse town, with English, Irish, Swedish, Norwegian, Russian, German, Welsh, and Italian immigrants as well as native-born American residents. The Italians, many of whom had worked on the railroad and then stayed in the Lake City area after it was completed, were exploited as cheap labor and derided as “Dagos.” In Henson they kept to themselves, published their own newspaper, La Verita, and may have lived in a segregated community known as “Little Rome.” If the Italians did live apart from the rest of town, it is possible that they occupied the section of Henson on the south side of Henson Creek.
1899 Strike and Aftermath
On March 14, 1899, Italian workers at the Ute Ulay and Hidden Treasure mines went on strike, blocking the entrances to both mines. There had been tension at the mines for weeks before the strike, but the immediate cause was a decree by the Auric Mining Company, owner of both mines, that all single men employed at the mines would have to start living in company boardinghouses. For many workers this meant an increased cost of living as well as commuting distance.
The Italians who went on strike were well armed. In the days before the strike, they had quietly bought many firearms. They had also broken into the Lake City Armory and stolen several dozen rifles. Faced with armed miners and an empty armory, the sheriff wired Governor Charles Thomas for help. Thomas quickly dispatched six companies of the state militia. The Italian consul, Joseph Cuneo, accompanied the militia to Lake City, where he hoped to help with negotiations.
Tensions and fears were high on all sides by the time the troops arrived in Lake City. A local Italian businessman, Charles Maio, served as a go-between and was able to convince the strikers that they would not be executed if they peacefully surrendered. As a result, the strike ended on March 17 without any shots being fired. Thirty-three strikers were arrested. A few days later the troops withdrew and work resumed at the mines.
Soon Auric Mining declared that it would not hire any more Italians. In addition, Hinsdale County officials ordered all strikers to leave the county—single men in five days, men with families in sixty days. Many Italians left the area, but others, including some of the arrested strikers, remained.
In the early twentieth century Henson and the Ute Ulay mine began to decline. Henson lost its post office in the 1910s and became a ghost town. A dam built on Henson Creek in the 1920s flooded much of the Henson site and part of the “Little Rome” site. The Washington State–based mining company LKA Gold acquired the Ute Ulay site in the 1980s but never did any mining there.
In 1999 Julia Coleman-Fike, a Bureau of Land Management archaeologist for the Gunnison Resource Area, conducted the first archaeological research at the part of Henson that lay on the south side of the creek. She inventoried the site and suggested that it was the location of the Italian enclave in Henson known as “Little Rome.” As a result of Coleman-Fike’s research and nomination, the “Little Rome” site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In June 2000, anthropologist Donald L. Hardesty brought a group of anthropology graduate students from the University of Nevada–Reno to the site to conduct more extensive fieldwork. The work was funded by the Hinsdale County Historical Society, the State Historical Fund, the Bureau of Land Management, and Save America’s Treasures, a joint program of the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The investigation determined conclusively that the “Little Rome” site on the south side of the creek was a residential community of working-class households. It was occupied between the 1880s and the 1910s, the same as the main settlement of Henson on the other side of the creek.
The surviving evidence provided no clear proof that the site was an Italian enclave. The documentary record contains few references to a separate Italian neighborhood. It is possible that the settlement on the south side of the creek now called “Little Rome” consisted of families trying to distance themselves from the rowdiness of Henson, which was full of single miners.
The Henson and “Little Rome” sites are on the Alpine Loop Scenic and Historic Byway. In 2013 LKA Gold transferred twelve acres around the Ute Ulay site to Hinsdale County, which plans to clean up the site, stabilize and restore the buildings for heritage tourism, and potentially open a mining museum. In 2015 Colorado Preservation named the Ute Ulay Mill and Town Site as one of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places, a designation meant to spur fundraising and other preservation efforts.