Established in 1875 and occupied until the 1920s, Animas Forks is a ghost town northeast of Silverton in the San Juan Mountains. It sits at an elevation of about 11,200 feet. It survived primarily on the strength of speculative investment rather than productive mining, though several nearby mining ventures—including the Sunnyside Extension—proved successful. Major fires in 1891 and 1913 destroyed many of the town’s buildings, but nine remain standing to attract tourists on the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway.
The San Juan Mountains remained Ute territory until 1873, when the Brunot Agreement opened the region to white settlement and mining. Soon the mountains were crawling with prospectors. As early as 1873, some groups began to explore the upper Animas River. By August 1874 several miners and a few cabins occupied the spot where the West Fork of the Animas River joins the North Fork. The settlement began to get a solid hold on life during the next year. It gained a post office in February 1875; the US Post Office Department condensed competing names like Three Forks and Forks of the Animas to Animas Forks, as the town was known from then on.
In the spring of 1876, after residents returned from their annual winter exodus, Animas Forks began to take on the character of a real community. That year the Dakota and San Juan Mining Company built a large mill in town. Like most of the mines and mills established in Animas Forks, the Dakota and San Juan mill never produced much and operated intermittently at best over the years. Though unprofitable, the activity gave the impression of success and encouraged outside investment in the area. Soon the town boasted three general stores, a butcher, a short-order restaurant, an unlicensed saloon, and two boardinghouses—including one run by Esther Ekkard, who had arrived in 1875, the camp’s first woman.
Animas Forks grew into a lively community in the late 1870s and early 1880s. One reason was the development of the Mineral Point Tunnel (also known as the Bonanza Tunnel), a 6,000-foot tunnel meant to allow access to ores between Animas Forks and the higher mining camp Mineral Point. The tunnel, which Franklin Josiah Pratt began in 1877, was one of the main employers in Animas Forks in the nineteenth century.
Animas Forks gradually shifted from a log-cabin mining camp to a more substantial town. Before the railroad arrived in Silverton in 1882, it was a regional center for commerce and mail. The formal town site was laid out in 1877, the same year the first legal saloon opened. The next year Edwin Brown, Levi Woodbury, and Harrison Garrison built a dam on the Animas River and established a water-powered sawmill near town. It was churning out 4,000 board feet of lumber per day in August 1878, allowing residents to cover log buildings with boards and construct new wood-frame houses and shops. In 1879 William Duncan built a two-story wood-frame house that still stands, and the Brown brothers (Edwin and Squire) established the Kalamazoo House, easily the grandest hotel in town, which boasted a piano and the only telephone in Animas Forks. By this point more people were staying in town through the winter, and some shops were remaining open year-round.
In 1880 Animas Forks had a population of 114. It reportedly grew as large as 400 over the next few years, as the town acquired several major civic institutions. In 1881 Animas Forks incorporated, becoming the second municipality in San Juan County. The town built a jail in 1882. That year the Animas Forks Pioneer began publication with the highest-altitude newspaper printing plant in US history. Animas Forks started a school district in 1882 and held classes for a few years in rented buildings.
Animas Forks began a fairly swift decline in the mid-1880s, as speculative mining activity in the area slowed to a halt. Work on the Mineral Point (or Bonanza) Tunnel stopped in 1884. Businesses closed and people moved away; the last blacksmith left in 1884, the butcher shop closed in 1885, and the newspaper shut down in 1886. The post office closed in February 1889 but reopened again in October after Rasmus Hanson’s Sunnyside Extension mine started to ship ore, generating employment and renewed optimism about the town’s future.
The town’s new life came to a sudden end, however, when a huge fire destroyed most of the business district on October 22, 1891. The fire started in the kitchen of the Kalamazoo House, destroyed the hotel, and eventually burned fourteen buildings, causing $20,000 in damage. The post office closed within a month, and almost everyone moved away. A few gold mines in the area, including the Sunnyside Extension, continued to operate throughout the 1890s, but the town of Animas Forks was nearly extinct.
In 1903 the Gold Prince Mines Company bought the Sunnyside Extension claims near Animas Forks and planned to build a large mill in the area. That year work on the Bonanza Tunnel also started up again. Animas Forks began to see new activity. In 1904 the Silverton Northern Railroad extended tracks to Animas Forks along what is now County Road 2. The town’s post office reopened in July, and T. J. McKelvey, who served as the postmaster and railroad depot agent, opened a merchandise store.
A large workforce arrived in 1905 to build the Gold Prince Mill. Saloons followed; four were in business by August. Workers also repaired some of the town’s old buildings and built new houses. Rasmus Hanson and Harry Little acquired legal title to the town’s land and made lots available for purchase. They named the town’s two main streets after themselves.
The Gold Prince Mill operated steadily for about two years. After the mill’s owners fell into bankruptcy in 1907, the mill operated intermittently until it closed in 1910. Even in that year the town still had ninety residents living on Hanson and Little Streets, including forty-nine miners, six families, and immigrants from Italy, Austria, Sweden, and Finland.
Animas Forks limped along for a few years after the final closure of the Gold Prince Mill, largely on the strength of the Bonanza Tunnel and the Frisco Mill, which was built near the tunnel in 1912. On September 3, 1913, however, another big fire ripped through town, destroying four of the largest buildings, including a few saloons and a boardinghouse. After the Frisco Mill closed in 1914, the ruined town had little reason to exist. The Animas Forks post office closed for the final time in November 1915. The last major activity in town was the dismantling of the Gold Prince Mill in 1917, which was also probably the last time the railroad was used.
It is possible that Harry Little continued to live in Animas Forks until the early 1920s, but since then it has basically been a ghost town. Some mines in the area were worked periodically in the twentieth century. As a result, some miners may have lived there intermittently in the 1930s, and one residence was probably occupied from the 1940s to the 1960s.
Today, nine buildings remain standing, including the two-story Duncan House and the stacked-board jail, as well as the foundations of about thirty other structures. In 1997–98 the San Juan Historical Society and the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stabilized seven of the remaining buildings with the help of a State Historical Fund grant.
More extensive stabilization and restoration work began after a 2011 land swap between the BLM and Sunnyside Gold Corporation that gave the BLM full ownership of the Animas Forks site. Working with Alpine Archaeological Consultants, in 2012 the BLM got the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The BLM also established an assistance agreement with the Mountain Studies Institute to help administer preservation grants from the State Historical Fund totaling nearly $330,000, with the BLM contributing 25 percent of the funding. David Singer of Silverton Restoration Consulting prepared a comprehensive assessment of the nine standing buildings at the site, and during the summers of 2013 and 2014 he worked with local builder Loren Lew to complete the stabilization and restoration work. Seven buildings were stabilized. They received replacement windows and doors, new cedar roof shingles, and drainage improvements. The other two buildings, the Duncan House and the 1882 jail, received more comprehensive restorations as well as new interpretive signs developed by the BLM.
The ghost town continues to be important to Silverton’s identity, and it annually attracts about 250,000 visitors who see it along the four-wheel-drive Alpine Loop Scenic Byway.