Mineral County is a mountainous, sparsely populated county of 878 square miles in southwest Colorado. Located in the heart of the San Juan Mountains west of the San Luis Valley, the county takes its name from the rich mineral deposits found there in the nineteenth century. In 1892 miners established the county seat of Creede (population 290) along Willow Creek, a tributary of the upper Rio Grande River. The county was carved out of Archuleta, Hinsdale, Saguache, and Rio Grande Counties in 1893. Today, Mineral County is bordered to the north by Hinsdale and Saguache Counties, to the east by Rio Grande County, to the south by Archuleta County, and to the west by Hinsdale County.
With a population of just over 700, Mineral County is the second least-populated county in the state. Today, 95 percent of the county is public land, mostly consisting of the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests, and the county economy relies heavily on tourism. US Route 160 crosses the southeastern portion of the county, linking Pagosa Springs in Archuleta County and South Fork in Rio Grande County. State Route 149 connects South Fork and Creede, and continues into Hinsdale County to the west.
Archaeologists have found evidence that Paleo-Indians camped in the upper Rio Grande River valley, but the Mineral County area was too cold and rugged to support permanent settlement. Around 1300 the area was 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 two Ute bands most common in the Mineral County area were the Weeminuche and Capote Utes. Today, the Weeminuche 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.
For more than five centuries, the Weeminuche and Capote Utes used the various high valleys and parks in the Mineral County area as summer hunting grounds before descending to their winter camps. They frequently visited the hot springs along Goose Creek in Wagon Wheel Gap, southeast of present-day Creede, for physical and spiritual rejuvenation. 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 Mineral 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 Mineral County area from the Utes via the Brunot Agreement of 1873. Not all Utes supported the agreement, which was brokered by the Tabeguache Ute Chief Ouray and ceded more than 3.5 million acres. The Utes still held a large reservation on Colorado’s Western Slope until 1879–80, when the Meeker Incident at the White River Indian Agency in what is now Rio Blanco County prompted many Coloradans to call for the Utes’ removal. A new agreement dissolved the Utes’ Western Slope reservation, split the multitude of Ute bands into northern and southern groups, removed the northern Utes to a reservation in northeastern Utah, and confined the southern Utes—including the Capote and Weeminuche—to a small strip of land along the New Mexico border. Although many Utes continued to range off the reservation to hunt, by 1882 the Mineral County area and the rest of the San Juan Mountains lay open for permanent Anglo-American settlement.
Mining and County Development
In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, ranchers and railroads preceded the great silver boom in the upper Rio Grande valley. Ranchers came to the area of Wagon Wheel Gap by the 1840s, and Martin Van Buren Wason established Wason Ranch in 1871. The area even had a hotel as early as 1877, and in 1883 the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) set up a depot at Wagon Wheel Gap to take tourists into the heart of the scenic San Juans. A bath house was built near the hot springs along Goose Creek, where Anglo-American visitors came to relax and “take the waters,” as the activity was known then.
A small mining settlement called Sunnyside was established along Sunnyside Creek, west of present-day Creede, in 1884. But the area remained little more than a remote outpost of the D&RG until 1889, when Nicholas Creede discovered a high-quality silver vein northwest of Wagon Wheel Gap on Willow Creek. Miners soon poured in by the thousands. Several tent colonies sprung up along Willow Creek, including Jimtown, Creede, and Stringtown. Wason, whose ranch lay between the silver camps and Wagon Wheel Gap, seized the opportunity to impose an outrageous toll on travelers. Frustrated miners branded Wason a pirate, and the state eventually bought the right-of-way through Wason’s ranch.
In 1891 the D&RG extended its line from Wagon Wheel Gap to Willow Creek, and by the next year the railroad had shipped more than $1 million in silver down the Rio Grande valley. Jimtown was organized into the town of Creede in 1892, and the original Creede—located in East Willow Canyon to the north of Jimtown—was renamed Upper Creede. With its rambunctious saloons, high-stakes card games, and bustling brothels, Creede quickly came to epitomize the “Wild West.” Of the town’s unending activity during the silver boom, the poet Cy Warman wrote that “there is no night in Creede.”
But Creede was not the only silver town in the area. To the south, along Lime Creek at the foot of Seven Parks Peak, Spar City began in 1892 as a mining camp called Fisher City. The town had 300 residents by July, with most of the silver coming from the Big Spar, Fairview, and Headlight mines, all of which lay above the tree line. The silver booms in Creede and Spar City prompted the state legislature to carve Mineral County from its neighbors in 1893.
The year 1893 proved to be the high-water mark for silver mining in Mineral County. Plummeting silver prices after the repeal of the Silver Purchase Act that year dimmed the fortunes of Creede, Spar City, and every other silver town in the state. The high quality of the ore in the Willow Creek deposits, however, sustained Creede’s silver mines through the crash, and the town even organized efforts to help struggling residents of Spar City. Silver mining near Creede continued until 1985, when another drop in silver prices forced the closure of the Bulldog, the area’s last mine.
The Spar City area was rejuvenated in the early twentieth century, when a group of 150 Kansans remodeled the town’s old cabins for use as vacation homes. Today the area remains unincorporated and the site of vacation homes occupied only during the summer.
Though its mining days are over, Mineral County takes pride in inviting visitors to experience its silver-lined past. For instance, the D&RG depot in Creede now houses the Creede Museum, operated by the Creede Historical Society. Summer is the busiest time of year for the tourist industry; the historical society offers once-a-week historic walking tours, and the Creede Repertory Theatre hosts a film festival that lasts for most of the season. Tourists can also wind their way through Mineral County’s beautiful mountain scenery and take advantage of hiking and fishing opportunities on the Silver Thread Scenic & Historic Byway, a road that links the San Juan communities of Creede, Lake City, and South Fork with the town of Gunnison.