At an elevation of 8,661 feet in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, the historic mining town of Lake City is the only incorporated town in Hinsdale County. Named for nearby Lake San Cristobal, the town was founded in 1874 in a broad valley along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. Between 1875 and 1892, Lake City served as a supply point and shipping hub for surrounding gold and silver mines. Lead and zinc mining became prominent after the crash in silver prices in 1893 and continued until about 1920.
After a brief revival in the 1950s, mining in Hinsdale County all but ceased, and Lake City fully transitioned to an economy based on tourism and outdoor recreation. In 1978 the Lake City Historic District, which included twenty-four buildings, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2005 the district was expanded to include an additional 404 buildings. As of 2010, Lake City has a year-round population of 408 that increases to around 2,500 in the summer.
Before the arrival of white prospectors in the 1870s, Ute people used the Lake City area as summer hunting grounds. The town itself traces its origins to the late nineteenth-century mining boom in the San Juan Mountains. Prospectors had set up mining camps in the region as early as 1860, but the Utes and harsh winters drove them off. They returned in the early 1870s and made more significant discoveries, but large-scale mining could not occur until after 1873, when the local Ute population was removed under the Brunot Agreement.
On August 27, 1871, prospectors Harry Henson, Joel Mullen, Albert Meade, and Charles Goodwin discovered the Ute Ulay vein five miles above the mouth of Henson Creek, a tributary of the Lake Fork. On account 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.
Around the same time, Enos Hotchkiss and J. D. Bartholf were in the area building the Saguache and San Juan Toll Road, a wagon route that would link the San Luis Valley with mining camps near present-day Silverton. The two men located a promising gold vein north of Lake San Cristobal and built two log cabins near the juncture of Henson Creek and Lake Fork, the first two structures at the present site of Lake City. Hotchkiss soon set up the Hotchkiss Mine (later renamed the Golden Fleece), and began laying out the town of Lake City.
On August 16, 1875, Hotchkiss, his boss, Otto Mears, and twenty others formed the Lake City Town Company and began selling lots. The location was ideal for a mining town; not only was it near a toll road and substantial mineral deposits, but the wide valley also had enough room for agriculture to feed the town and a source of water power for smelters, sawmills, and other facilities. Henry Finley, a local businessman who had worked on the toll road and helped Hotchkiss set up Hinsdale County’s first sawmill, served as the first president of the town company. To promote the new town, Mears funded the Silver World, the first newspaper on Colorado’s Western Slope, which began publishing in 1875. The town also received a US post office that year.
With the help of three additional sawmills, a shingles mill, a planing mill, and a door company, the ramshackle collection of huts and log cabins near Lake Fork was transformed into a town, seemingly overnight. Just several months after it incorporated, Lake City already had 400 residents and 67 buildings. Businesses on Silver Street—such as the Miners Boot and Shoe Store (1876), a saloon that later became known as the Weinburg Building (1876), Finley’s H & A Schiffer store (1877), the two-story Miners & Merchants Bank (1877), and the Taylor Law Office (1877)—formed the core of the early commercial district.
Many of Lake City’s first large houses were built in 1876 and 1877 on Gunnison Avenue and on Bluff and Silver Streets. They were home to miners, lawyers, and businessmen and their families, as well as local ranchers who raised cattle and crops in the Lake Fork Valley. The Presbyterian Church, the first church on Colorado’s Western Slope, was completed in 1876 at 431 Gunnison Avenue. It was followed in 1877 by the St. James Episcopal Church at 501 Gunnison and the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church on the south edge of town.
The Hinsdale County Courthouse, Colorado’s oldest continually operating courthouse, was built at 317 Henson Street in 1877. The courthouse received considerable public attention when Susan B. Anthony spoke there in favor of women’s suffrage that September. By 1878 Lake City’s two smelters made it the central supply and processing point for dozens of mines in northern Hinsdale County, and wealth from the mines continued to spur development in town. In 1880 famous Colorado architect Robert Roeschlaub designed a school, and local businessmen built an armory in 1883. In a strange tale of alternate use that could only come from a frontier mining town, the Lake City armory also doubled as the town’s opera house.
While the surrounding mines continued to churn out hundreds of thousands of dollars in silver, copper, and lead, by the mid-1880s Lake City’s isolation—perhaps its only drawback as a mining center—began to affect its development. The town desperately needed a rail connection to lower the cost of shipping ore.
In 1882 the major rail line in the area, William Jackson Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande Railway (D&RG), abandoned construction on a spur that was supposed to reach Lake City. The railroad’s new town of Durango had already eclipsed Lake City and Silverton as the smelting hub of the San Juans. Partly as a result of these disadvantages, Lake City’s population dropped from an all-time high of 865 in 1880 to 607 in 1890.
The D&RG finally reached Lake City in 1889, extending the town’s boom period by at least another decade. Local gold and silver production spiked after the railroad arrived; in 1890 Hinsdale County mines produced just over $3,600 in gold and $60,000 in silver, but the very next year those figures jumped to nearly $20,000 in gold and $185,000 in silver. With the arrival of the railroad, Lake City had overcome its primary weakness of isolation and began processing and shipping gold and silver ore in record quantities.
The surrounding mountains held so much mineral wealth that Hinsdale County and Lake City were relatively insulated from the devastating crash in silver prices that rocked Colorado’s economy in 1893. While hundreds of silver mines and dozens of mining towns folded across the state, Hinsdale County mines turned out a record $243,195 in gold in 1895 and a robust $347,400 in silver in 1896.
Though immensely profitable, this boom period only lasted about a decade. By the turn of the century, the area’s gold and silver deposits were all but tapped out. Hinsdale County mines produced more than $100,000 in silver for the last time in 1902. Lead and zinc production peaked around the same time, and although mining continued for another two decades or so, Lake City’s richest days were behind it.
After the turn of the century, as corporations consolidated ownership of mines, as well as mills, smelters, and other ancillary industries, the age of the individual prospector had come to an end. This meant that, unless one wanted to work for these companies, large boomtowns such as Lake City no longer attracted droves of people. The town’s population dropped from 700 in 1900 to 317, when mining all but ceased in 1923.
From Mining to Tourism
Lake City’s transition from mining town to tourist town began in the 1910s, when summer visitors began replacing businessmen in the hotels and people began buying mining-era houses as summer vacation homes. Texans Richard and Hildegarde Wupperman were the first couple to purchase a vacation home in 1915, and a number of other summer visitors built cabins around Lake San Cristobal and refurbished mining-era cottages.
Road and highway improvements over the next several decades made Lake City more accessible to a growing number of tourists, especially after the D&RG stopped service to Lake City in 1933. People came to fish, hike, camp, climb, or take in the Old West atmosphere emanating from the town’s many historic buildings. In the 1940s, resorts opened on Lake San Cristobal to cater to fishermen and other summer tourists. Author Muriel Sibell Wolle came to Lake City in the 1930s and 1940s to sketch and photograph old mining-era buildings. The town gained a reputation as a kind of quaint yet lawless place, as slot machines greeted visitors in many buildings and bootleg liquor flowed in local watering holes.
Although it still contained plenty of mining-era buildings, the structural character of Lake City transitioned along with its economy. The Spruce Lodge opened in 1950 to provide visitors with fishing licenses, sporting goods, fountain drinks, and liquor. More motels, lodges, and cabins were built in the 1950s, including Crystal Lodge near Lake San Cristobal in 1952, Lee’s Log Cabins in 1952–53, and the Elkhorn Lodge in 1957. Some of these new businesses opened in historic buildings; the Elkhorn Lodge, for instance, opened in the old Miners & Merchants Bank Building on Silver Street. The Lake City Chamber of Commerce began operating in 1953, spearheading efforts to attract a segment of the nation’s large crowd of postwar vacationers. Hotel construction continued into the 1970s, and construction of vacation homes continues through the present.
In 1968 the state began paving Highway 149. By 1990 the entire highway was paved and dedicated as the Silver Thread Scenic Byway.
As heritage tourism became an increasingly vital part of the local economy during the twentieth century, Lake City residents worked to document the town’s history and preserve many of its historic buildings. In 1973 the Hinsdale County Historical Society formed to preserve and present the history of the town and county, and in that same decade, residents completed preservation work on the 1891 First Baptist Church building and the 1883 armory building. The Lake City Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and with support from the State Historical Fund and other backers, preservation work continued over the next several decades.
In 2005 the Lake City Historic District was expanded to include 428 buildings, although only about half are considered to be “contributing” structures—those built or moved into the district from 1875 to 1950. Many of the district’s houses and other structures are valued because they showcase the architectural diversity in the city’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century buildings; builders employed a variety of styles, including Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Rustic, and others.
Today Lake City remains a premier destination for outdoor recreation enthusiasts, serving as a base for visitors to hike, bike, camp, climb, cross-country ski, and explore the surrounding wilderness areas and national forests. The Silver Thread Scenic Byway is considered one of the most scenic drives in Colorado, giving motorists picturesque views of Uncompahgre Peak and other breathtaking landscapes of the San Juans and taking them through several historic mining towns, including Lake City, Creede, and South Fork. Adventure-seekers can also take 4x4 Jeep tours over the Alpine Loop Scenic and Historic Byway, which connects Lake City to Silverton and Ouray via historic mining roads.
While Lake City’s mining history drives heritage tourism and is part of the town’s general allure and charm, its environmental legacy has been problematic. Acid mine drainage, a process by which leftover metals exposed in open mines leach into nearby water sources, affects nearly all former mountain mining districts in Colorado, and Lake City is no exception. However, local citizens and experts from across the state have led joint efforts to clean up mining sites in Hinsdale County. In 1998 the Lake Fork Valley Conservancy was established to help protect and preserve the area’s land and watersheds and has been active in mine cleanup efforts ever since.
In 2011 the Conservancy and a coalition of engineers, artists, landscape architects, and environmental scientists assessed watersheds near the Ute Ulay Mine and other abandoned mines around Lake City for acid mine drainage. Cleanup at the Ute Ulay Mine, whose tailings ponds threaten to leach metals into nearby Henson Creek, began in the summer of 2014. In 2010 the conservancy and its supporting cast of experts also began cleanup at the Golden Fleece Mine, which was leaching metal-laden water into Lake San Cristobal, a popular attraction for anglers and a source of drinking water for Lake City. In 2015 the Conservancy received a $33,000 grant to help it acquire a public access easement along Lake Fork, part of the organization’s plan to help restore the health of the river.