Established in 1874, Hinsdale County is a mountainous, sparsely populated county of 1,123 square miles in southwest Colorado. The county was named for George A. Hinsdale, a prominent politician and newspaperman in nineteenth-century Colorado. The county currently has a population of 786. Lake City, home to 408 residents, is the county seat and only incorporated area. Hinsdale County borders Gunnison County to the north, Saguache and Mineral Counties to the east, Archuleta County to the south, and La Plata, San Juan, and Ouray Counties to the west.
Located in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, Hinsdale County was once the domain of the Nuche, or Ute people, until American prospectors found significant gold and silver deposits during the 1870s. Lake City, in the northern section of the county, was established in 1874 as a supply town for nearby mining camps. The city was platted along Lake Fork, a tributary of the Gunnison River, and today State Highway 149—part of the Silver Thread Scenic Byway—connects Lake City with Creede in Mineral County and Gunnison in Gunnison County. The Rio Grande River flows eastward through the southern part of the county, dammed at the Rio Grande Reservoir.
Hinsdale County boasts several Fourteeners (mountains above 14,000 feet): Uncompahgre Peak (14,321 ft.), Handies Peak (14,058 ft.), Wetterhorn Peak (14,021 ft.), and Sunshine Peak (14,007 ft.). Other natural attractions include Lake San Cristobal south of Lake City and Cannibal Plateau, site of the infamous Alferd Packer incident. Most of Hinsdale County’s land is managed by the US Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management as parts of the San Juan, Rio Grande, and Uncompahgre National Forests.
Archaeological evidence from the Capitol City Moraine Site indicates that Paleo-Indian people frequented the Hinsdale County area as early as 12,000 years ago. The area was too cold and rugged to support permanent settlement. Around 1300 the area became home to the Ute people, nomadic Native Americans who hunted in the high country during the summer and camped in lower valleys and along river bottoms in the winter. The three Ute bands most common in the Hinsdale County area were the Weenuche, Capote, and Tabeguache Utes. Today, the Weenuche are federally recognized as part of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Capote as part of the Southern Ute Tribe. Both tribes still reside in Colorado, but the Tabeguache now reside with other Utes on a Utah reservation as part of the Northern Ute Tribe.
For more than five centuries, the Weenuche, Capote, and Tabeguache Utes used the various high valleys and parks in the Hinsdale County area as summer hunting grounds before descending to their winter camps. Even as the North American frontiers of the Spanish, French, and eventually American empires encroached on what is now southwest Colorado, the sheer ruggedness of the San Juans kept the Hinsdale County area off of most published maps until the late nineteenth century.
After American miners made significant gold and silver discoveries near the site of present-day Silverton in the early 1870s, the United States obtained the Hinsdale County area from the Utes via the Brunot Agreement of 1873. Not all Utes supported the agreement, which ceded more than 3.5 million acres of their land. The Utes still held a large reservation on Colorado’s Western Slope until 1879, when the Meeker Incident at the White River Indian Agency in what is now Rio Blanco County prompted many white Coloradans to call for the Utes’ removal.
A new agreement dissolved the Utes’ Western Slope reservation and confined Colorado’s Ute population to new reservations in Utah and southwest Colorado. Although many Utes continued to range off the reservations to hunt, by 1882 the Hinsdale County area and the rest of the San Juan Mountains lay open for permanent Anglo-American settlement.
Prospectors and County Formation
On August 27, 1871, the prospectors Harry Henson, Joel Mullen, Albert Meade, and Charles Godwin discovered the Ute Ulay vein five miles above the mouth of Henson Creek, a tributary of Lake Fork. Because they were trespassing in Ute territory, the prospectors could not safely develop the vein at that time, but they returned in 1874 and established the first mining claim in what would become Hinsdale County. The Ute Ulay Mine eventually became a rich source of gold, silver, lead, and copper, and was among the largest producers of silver and lead in the state.
Around the same time, Enos Hotchkiss was in the area working on one of Otto Mears’s toll roads, and he located a promising gold vein north of Lake San Cristobal. Hotchkiss built the first structure at the present site of Lake City and soon set up the Hotchkiss Mine (later renamed the Golden Fleece).
News of Henson’s and Hotchkiss’s discoveries brought hundreds more miners to the area, and the mining boom in the greater San Juan region prompted the organization of Hinsdale, La Plata, and Rio Grande Counties in 1874. Hinsdale County was named in honor of George A. Hinsdale, a former lieutenant governor of Colorado and one of the founding editors of the Pueblo Chieftain, who died that year.
Though it is often romanticized, nineteenth-century prospecting in the San Juans was extremely dangerous, as illustrated by the story of Alferd Packer. In February 1874, Packer and five other prospectors became lost in what is now northern Hinsdale County and ran out of provisions. Several days later one of the men, Shannon Bell, became crazed with starvation and killed three of the party as they slept. Packer allegedly killed Bell in self-defense after Bell attacked him with a hatchet. Unable to leave on account of the deep snow, Packer survived for six weeks by eating the flesh of his dead companions. A sketch artist for Harper’s magazine stumbled across the bodies of Packer’s companions on August 20, 1874, five miles from present-day Lake City at a place now called Deadman’s Gulch. Packer was eventually found guilty of murdering his comrades and sentenced to seventeen years in prison.
Lake City was incorporated on August 16, 1875. Henry Finley, a local businessman who had worked on the toll road the year before and worked with Hotchkiss to set up Hinsdale County’s first sawmill, served as the first president of the Lake City Town Company. The Silver World, the first newspaper on Colorado’s Western Slope, also began publishing in Lake City in 1875, and the town received a US post office. By 1878 Lake City had two smelters, making it the central supply and processing point for dozens of mines and mining camps in northern Hinsdale County. The county courthouse went up in 1877 and remains Colorado’s oldest continually operating courthouse. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad arrived in Lake City in 1889, allowing mines to more efficiently ship ore to market.
Gold and silver production spiked in Hinsdale County after the arrival of the railroad. For instance, the Ute Ulay Mine produced some $12 million in gold, silver, lead, and copper between 1891 and 1903. Silver production across the county reached 400,000 ounces by 1892 before falling off during the crash in silver prices the next year. By the turn of the century, when lead and zinc production peaked, there were nearly seventy mines operating in the Lake City District.
Hinsdale County’s most productive mining operations tapered off by 1920, and the county did not experience a mining revival until the early 1950s, when modest amounts of zinc, lead, and copper were produced.
While mining companies profited handsomely from their work, miners toiled for a pittance in horrible and dangerous conditions, working between twelve and fourteen hours per day. By the 1890s strikes were common across all of Colorado’s mining districts, and Lake City was no exception. In 1899 some 200 miners, mostly Italians, struck at the Ute Ulay and Hidden Treasure Mines. Armed with dynamite and rifles stolen from the Lake City armory, the strikers occupied the mine properties and forced the sheriff to call for help from the state capital. It took the arrival of more than 350 state militiamen to break the strike, and all of the participating miners were fired in March 1899. Thereafter, some local mines refused to hire Italians.
Though its mining glory days have long since passed, Hinsdale County residents have preserved the town’s mining history, and that history is now one of the area’s main tourist attractions. The Hinsdale County Historical Society was established in 1973, and in 1975 it opened the Hinsdale County Museum in Lake City’s historic Finley Block building. In 1978 the town’s historic district was added to the National Register of Historic Places. With more than 200 nineteenth-century buildings—including homes, barns, and churches—the historic district is one of the most robust in Colorado.
Efforts are also under way to preserve a set of buildings associated with the Ute Ulay Mine, which was named one of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places in 2015. The Silver Thread Scenic Byway—which links the towns of Gunnison, Lake City, Creede, and South Fork—offers motorists access to some of the San Juans’ most remote historic mining areas as well as spectacular mountain scenery.
Although Hinsdale County has an active historic preservation community, visitors come for much more than heritage tourism. Thousands of travelers head to the county each year to climb Fourteeners, camp under starlit skies, and fish at Lake San Cristobal or one of the county’s many trout-filled streams. Aware of the remote town’s appeal to city dwellers, Lake City’s official website even boasts that the area has no stoplights, very few stop signs, and no light pollution. Local conservation organizations, such as the Lake Fork Valley Conservancy and the Lake San Cristobal Project (part of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District), are focused on protecting and enhancing the county’s natural areas so visitors may continue to enjoy them into the future.