The Empire Chief Mine and Mill site is an abandoned nineteenth-century metal mining complex in Hinsdale County, located several miles west of Lake City on the southern slope of Sheep Mountain (83 Sunny Ave, Empire, CO 80438). The mine was established in 1885 after the discovery of the Bonanza Lode, a deposit of gold, silver, copper, and lead. Plagued by bad owners, bad timing, and just plain bad luck, the mining complex had only a few good years of production between 1901 and 1930, when it closed. It is representative of many mining operations in Colorado that held great promise and repeatedly attracted interest and investment, only to sputter and close time after time.
Because of its contributions to mining history in the San Juan Mountains, the Empire Chief site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. Today remnants of the complex’s 150-ton flotation mill, mine tunnel, and many associated structures still stand on the steep slopes of Sheep Mountain.
The Empire Mine and Mill complex was built during the late nineteenth-century mining boom in the San Juan Mountains. Prospectors had visited and set up mining camps in the region as early as 1860, but Utes and harsh winters drove them away. They returned in the early 1870s and made more significant discoveries, but large-scale mining would not occur until after 1873, when the region’s Ute population was removed under the Brunot Agreement.
On August 27, 1871, prospectors Harry Henson, Joel Mullen, Albert Meade, and Charles Godwin discovered the Ute Ulay vein five miles above the mouth of Henson Creek. Because of the Ute presence, they could not safely develop the vein at the time, but they returned in 1874 and established the first mining claim in what soon became Hinsdale County. Otto Mears had a toll road built through the area, and the town of Lake City was incorporated the following year. For the next decade, metal mining—especially silver—drove a booming Hinsdale County economy.
The Bonanza Lode was discovered in 1885, but the mine disappears from the historical record until 1901, when the Henson Creek Lead Mines Company owned it. By that time, the mine employed four miners (paid $3.50 per eight-hour shift), a tram operator (paid $3.00 per shift), and a supervisor (paid $5.00 per shift). The miners extracted gold, silver, and copper ore valued at $18–20 per ton.
Sometime between 1901 and 1903, a forty-by-eighty-foot mill was built near the mine to crush raw ore and extract metal. Despite the addition of several new mining claims, development was slow. In 1904 the Hinsdale Tunnel and Reduction Company bought the complex but had solvency issues, as it had to pay a large sum of back wages to a night watchman and lost a lawsuit filed by another company in 1905. Later that year a group of Boston investors contributed $40,000 each toward the development of the company’s mine properties and payment of its debts. In 1906 the mine’s payroll expanded to six miners and the drifts—underground tunnels that follow a vein of ore—were extended to 3,725 feet. In addition to gold and silver, the mine began producing zinc ore.
Structures added to the complex during this time included a two-story log boarding house, an office building, a blacksmith shop, and a powerhouse on Henson Creek that used a waterwheel to generate electricity for the mine and its buildings. However, even with new capital and new buildings, the complex was still subject to the ebb and flow of Colorado’s fickle mining industry—production dropped precipitously in 1907, and the mine went dormant.
After failing to keep the mine afloat from 1907–9, the Hinsdale Tunnel and Reduction Company finally had to sell the Empire Chief properties to H. A. Avery in 1910. Avery owned the property until his death in 1925 but did little with it. Upon his death, Avery’s widow, Mary, sold the mine to R.E.L. Townsend, who incorporated the Empire Chief Mining Company, giving the complex its current name.
Empire Chief Era
The Empire Chief Mining Company was in considerably better financial shape than any of the mine’s previous owners, and it immediately set to work repairing the complex and preparing the mine shafts for reopening. Mining processes and technology had changed significantly since the mine last produced anything of note, and the company’s improvements reflected those changes.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the company’s new mill, built in 1928–29. The mill used the new flotation method of mineral extraction, in which loads of poor- or medium-quality ore were crushed and dumped into a solution of water and chemical agents that encouraged the minerals to separate from the waste rock, attach to air bubbles, and rise to the surface in a froth that was then skimmed off. This method, developed in Australia around 1905, allowed for the profitable extraction of lower-quality ores at a time when most of the world’s higher-quality ores had been mined out.
By early 1929, with a new flotation mill, electric lighting and telephone connections in all its tunnels and buildings, new ventilation infrastructure, and a stable supply of capital for support, the Empire Chief Mine and Mill were finally ready to begin producing again.
Alas, the complex’s long-awaited reopening was again delayed, this time by tragedy. In March, a devastating avalanche buried two bunkhouses and the complex’s office building. Six miners were killed in the slide, which remains the deadliest avalanche in Hinsdale County history. Luckily for the Empire Chief, the avalanche spared the new mill, and the mine only had to endure one more setback—a nearby hydroelectric plant was temporarily dormant—until production finally began later in 1929.
Closure and Sale
However—and perhaps predictably—even the revamped Empire Chief Mine did not produce at a sustainable rate. The complex brought in just $3,078 in ore sales in 1929 against the $10,000 the company had spent on improvements over the previous few years. Then came the stock market crash of that year, which plunged the nation into the Great Depression. Amid coal shortages, payroll turmoil, and tumbling investments nationwide, the Empire Chief Mine and Mill were shut down permanently in 1930.
After its closure, the Empire Chief complex passed through a series of owners from the 1930s through the 1970s until Vickers Enterprises eventually acquired it in 1977. The company obtained the property by paying only $484.45 in back taxes.
Today the Empire Chief complex is accessible via a rough gravel road leading west from Lake City along Henson Creek. Remaining structures include the flotation mill building, powerhouse, tram, pipeline, water tank, and other ancillary structures. The mill building, the tallest and most prominent structure at the site, is visibly dilapidated, with holes punched in the walls and roof and timber debris littered around its base.
In 2000 the State Historical Fund awarded the Hinsdale County Historical Society a $105,473 grant to improve various historical structures throughout the county; in 2001 some of that money went toward the stabilization of the Empire Chief’s mill building, as it was near collapse. Since then, no other preservation work has been performed at the site.