Located near Calhan, about thirty-five miles northeast of Colorado Springs, the Calhan Paint Mines are an area of clay deposits that have seen extensive prehistoric habitation and historic quarrying of the clay for pottery and bricks. In the 1990s, archaeological fieldwork at the site revealed dozens of prehistoric cultural deposits and led to the listing of the paint mines as an archaeological district on the National Register of Historic Places. The area is now maintained by El Paso County as Paint Mines Interpretive Park.
Geology and History
The paint mines are named for their clay deposits, which contain iron oxides that color the clay red, yellow, and purple and were probably used as pigments by prehistoric peoples. In addition to their colors, the paint mines contain many striking formations. The area’s soft clay erodes easily, leaving behind monoliths known as hoodoos, where Dawson Arkose sandstone caps protect portions of clay from erosion. The area also contains selenite crystals and petrified wood.
Humans have used the paint mines area for at least 10,000 years, as indicated by the many cultural deposits distributed throughout the site. At least two areas in the paint mines contain artifacts from the Paleo-Indian period (9500–5800 BCE), such as square-base Eden-style projectile points. At least three sites represent Middle and Late Archaic period (3000 BCE–150 CE) habitation. The majority of the prehistoric artifacts in the paint mines date to the Ceramic period (150–1540 CE), including small corner-notched points, stemmed-style projectile points, and cord-marked ceramics. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the area was occupied by the ancestral Plains Apache. They were pushed out in the 1700s by the Comanche and Ute, who were in turn supplanted by the Arapaho and Cheyenne in the mid-nineteenth century.
In the late 1800s, white settlers began to displace Native Americans. Starting in the 1880s, portions of the paint mines began to be homesteaded for farming and ranching. Extracting clay from the paint mines for use in bricks and pottery may have been common as early as 1903. Some clays were sent to Garden of the Gods Pottery and perhaps to Van Briggle Pottery in Colorado Springs, as well as to the Standard Fire Brick Company in Pueblo. In 1915 the Calhan Fire Clay Company claimed land in the eastern portion of the paint mines for a quarry. There are a total of three historic clay quarries in the paint mines.
Tourists and recreational visitors have been coming to the paint mines throughout the historic period. Although the land was in private hands for most of the twentieth century, hikers, picnickers, sightseers, and collectors often roamed the area.
Paint Mines Interpretive Park
In the late 1990s, El Paso County worked with the Palmer Land Trust to acquire more than 750 acres of paint mines land for conservation. As part of the acquisition process, the county used a State Historical Fund grant to commission an archaeological inventory of the land’s resources. The area had long been considered an important source of prehistoric artifacts, but no formal archaeological fieldwork had ever been conducted there.
Led by principal investigators Scott Phillips and Lucy Hackett Bambrey, the Powers Elevation archaeological team found sixty new archaeological sites in the paint mines area, with artifacts ranging from the Paleo-Indian period to modern times. Despite the team’s detailed work, it proved impossible to identify a prehistoric site at the paint mines. Clays like those in the paint mines are known to have been used elsewhere as pigments, but the highly erosive nature of the clay near Calhan has removed any direct evidence of prehistoric diggings. Some ceramic shards discovered in the paint mines match raw clays at the site, making it likely but not certain that prehistoric peoples used the clay for pigments.
In 2000, as a result of the Powers Elevation investigation, the area was listed as an archaeological district in the National Register of Historic Places. Paint Mines Interpretive Park was created the next year. The park has been developed for recreation east of Paint Mine Road, with more than four miles of trails and several interpretive signs that allow visitors to see and learn about the area’s history and geology. A 2010 park management plan called for keeping the portion of the park west of Paint Mine Road largely in its natural state to minimize the effects of erosion and vandalism.