The last of Colorado’s great silver strikes, the town of Creede boomed after its namesake, Nicholas Creede, discovered silver along Willow Creek in 1889. An estimated 10,000 people poured into the narrow valley before the Panic of 1893 sent the town into a tailspin. Once crawling with miners and a dozen towns, the area is now sparsely populated, with Rio Grande National Forest and the Big Blue, La Garita, Weminuche, and Wheeler Wilderness Areas covering 90 percent of Mineral County. With a 2020 Census of 257 residents, Creede (at 8,799 feet) is the county’s only incorporated town. Today tourism, logging, hunting, and fishing are the town’s economic mainstays.
Indigenous people settled along the upper Rio Grande and its tributaries. Archaeological evidence shows that people camped in the area for more than 15,000 years. Beginning around the sixteenth century, the Nuche (Ute) people dominated the area and much of the rest of central and western Colorado. White Americans arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century during the Colorado Gold Rush, and a treaty in 1868 reserved the western third of what is now Colorado for the Nuche. White prospectors ignored treaty provisions to stay out of the San Juan Mountains. Their continued incursions eventually led the US government to take the San Juans from the Nuche via the Brunot Agreement of 1873. Over the next decade, many of Colorado’s Nuche bands were forced to go to Utah, with the remaining bands forced onto two small reservations in the southwest corner of the state—the Southern Ute Reservation centered on Ignacio and the Ute Mountain Utes around Towaoc.
After the Utes were forced out, white prospectors continued searching for minerals in the San Juans. They found it in Silverton, Telluride, and Ouray, which became boom towns during the 1870s and 1880s. In 1889 veteran prospector Nicholas C. Creede was searching with others on Willow Creek, three miles above its junction with the Rio Grande. “Holy Moses!” shouted Creede, finding a quartz ore loaded with silver. That strike gave birth to the town named for him. The boom town soon replaced Wason as the Mineral County seat. Nicholas Creede also struck pay dirt with the Amethyst Mine, which produced $2 million in its first year. He sold his Holy Moses Mine to David H. Moffat, president of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, and his partner Eben Smith for $70,000. In 1891 Moffat built a spur line to Creede from Wagon Wheel Gap, which he claimed paid for itself within the first four months of operation.
Creede’s principal mines lay on Campbell Mountain and Bachelor Hill, north of town, where head frames and mill ruins still cling to steep canyon walls. Large milling and mining structures also top the seven-story-high timber cribbing at the upper end of Main Street, which braced the Amethyst, Last Chance, and Commodore Mines. These bonanzas made Creede briefly a rival of Leadville and Aspen in silver production.
Seven mining camps once thrived in the extremely narrow gorge of Willow Creek: Amethyst, Bachelor, Creede, Jimtown, North Creede, Stringtown, and Weaver. Born in a silver rush, Creede was a wild child. Saloons, dance halls, and brothels opened in tents to capitalize on the rush. As journalist Richard Harding Davis observed in The West from a Car Window (1892), Creede had “hundreds of little pine boxes of houses and log-cabins, and the simple quadrangles of four planks which mark a building site. . . . There is not a brick, a painted front, nor an awning in the whole town. It is like a city of fresh card-board.”
This “card-board” town squeezed between towering basaltic spires was scorched by fierce fires and drowned by several major floods. But nothing could stop the constant hubbub of mining and ore processing, gambling, and carousing in some thirty saloons strung out along Willow Creek. Creede attracted a rogue’s gallery of western characters, including Poker Alice Tubbs, Bob Ford, Calamity Jane, Bat Masterson (who briefly served as Creede’s marshal), and con man Soapy Smith. Many brides of the mining masses showed up, too, including Killarney Kate, Lillis Lovell, Marie Contassot, Slanting Annie, and Timberline Rose Vastine, a six-foot-tall woman who towered over most of her customers.
Rocky Mountain News veteran Cy Warman launched The Creede Candle newspaper in 1892. He published his poem “Creede,” an homage to the bustling village beneath “solid silver cliffs.” The poem captured the feverish boom-town attitude with the line “there is no night in Creede,” which is now etched into local lore.
The optimism beaming from Warman’s poem soon faded, however, as fame and fortune proved especially fleeting for this silver city. The 1893 repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and subsequent silver crash, along with fires and floods, devastated the town. Creede never became a ghost town, although the boom was over and its population declined. After 1900 Creede stayed alive by relying increasingly on lead and zinc in its ores. Evidence that Creede limped along as a more sober and mature settlement survives in its Queen Anne–style Congregational Church (1905) and its Gothic vernacular Episcopal Church (1907). Mining activity ticked up during World War I but declined again in the early 1920s. Some mines hung on, such as the Bulldog, which operated as late as 1985.
Thanks to a superb summer theater, a unique underground museum, an artist colony, and fabulous scenery and recreational opportunities, the town rebounded after the 1960s as a summer resort. The Creede Repertory Theatre, established in 1966, is one of the oldest and most highly rated in the state and has inspired many Colorado mountain towns to start their own. Thanks to landscape artist and longtime Creede celebrity Stephen Quiller and his art schools, Creede has become a haven for painters. The Creede Historical Museum opened in 1962 in the old Denver & Rio Grande Railroad depot.
Creede remains the only town in Mineral County. Its remote location, far from beaten paths and major highways, has made it a tourist target, at least in summer. The Rio Grande and its tributaries provide excellent opportunities for fly fishing, and its headwaters in the Weminuche Wilderness is a favorite area for hikers. The spectacular scenery has attracted Hollywood for films such as The Shootist (1976) with John Wayne, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) with Brad Pitt, and The Lone Ranger (2013) with Johnny Depp.
Mining’s legacy remains in Creede. In 2008 the EPA established a Superfund site at Nelson Tunnel/Commodore Waste Rock Pile about one mile north of Creede, where the tunnel discharges acid mine drainage into West Willow Creek. The EPA has begun rehabilitation work to prevent a blowout like the one that occurred at the Gold King Mine near Silverton in 2015. It has also stabilized the Commodore Waste Rock Pile to reduce the chance of washouts and contamination. At the same time, in 2011, Hecla Mining acquired the Bulldog Mine and started drilling to evaluate prospective veins for future mining.