The Lake City Story (circa 1973)

The Lake City area, and Western Colorado, was the home of the Ute Indians when the first white men made their appearance on the scene. The Utes are a short, hardy, muscular people, so dark-skinned that they were often referred to as the “Black Indians” by the Cheyenne and Arapahoe of the Eastern slope of Colorado.

It was these “Black Indians” who first witnessed the Spaniard, Don Juan Rivera, in the Lake City area. He was sent here by Governor Cachupin of New Mexico in 1765 to explore the unknown lands to the north which were then a part of Spanish territory.

In 1776, after the Declaration of Independence, two Spanish priests, Father Escalante and Dominquez, with twelve companions, set off from Santa Fe to find an inland route to the Spanish missions in California. Traveling northwest, they too entered the San Juans around Lake City, went on to Utah, but were forced by approaching winter to return to Santa Fe.

The flag of Spain flew over Western Colorado until 1819, when Mexico won independence from Spain. By this time, western immigration had brought the hardy mountain men into the Rockies. Men’s fashions played a role in the conquest of this mighty territory: the beaver was trapped far and wide in the high mountain streams, to be used for the stylish top hats of the times. That the country was claimed by Mexico and the Utes both made little difference in this vast mountain setting.

Mexico ceded Western Colorado to the United States in 1849 under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Four years later, Captain John W. Gunnison was sent by the Secretary of War to find the most practical route for a proposed railroad through this country. Indians effectively took care of Gunnison, but the discovery of gold in Colorado in 1858 was to prove too much even for the Utes. Their control of Colorado West diminished little by little, until it was lost in the San Juan range forever in 1873 when Felix R. Brunot, Indian Commissioner, drew up a treaty under which the Utes moved down into the plains of Montrose.

Henry Henson, Albert Mead, Charles Goodwin, and Joel Mullen did not wait for the area to be officially opened to settlement. At the risk of their lives they slipped through the country and prospected. They located in 1871 the Ute-Ulay veins which even today are of recognized lead and silver value. The mine sits patiently four miles up Henson Creek, waiting as countless others wait, for the prices of metals to go up. With Utes still in control of the mountains, Henson and his partners decided it just wasn’t the right time to stake claims and start mining, so they headed back to civilization to await Brunot’s treaty. They returned to be pioneers of the town of Lake City in 1874, and were successful miners of the Ute-Ulay.

Less successful were six other gold-seekers who fought through the heavy winter snows of 1874. In January they were wined and dined by the friendly Ute Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta. He advised Israel Swan, George Noon, Frank Miller, James Humpheries, Wilson Bell and Alferd Packer that this just wasn’t the time for traipsing through the mountains. Packer, who had guided the whites from Utah in a search for gold, thought otherwise. They left Montrose. Chief Ouray was the Pocahontas of the West, and doubtless the men felt they had a safe passage through the Ute territory. They had. From the Utes, anyway.

In the Spring, April to be more exact, Packer showed up at the Los Pinos Indian Agency (located a few miles past Cathedral) – alone. A gaunt man of build, he had a suspiciously healthy look. In Utah he had been bailed our of the road gang by the prospectors for his guiding talents. He arrived at Los Pinos with plenty of money.

A short time afterward prospectors found five bodies at a campsite beside the Lake Fork of the Gunnison, a few miles below Lake San Cristobal. Strips of flesh had been neatly sliced from the bodies, and two and two were correctly added at the Los Pinos Agency. Packer escaped, however, and disappeared.

Nine years later in Wyoming he was recognized and hauled to a town that had mushroomed just a few miles from the campsite where he had dined so lavishly. In the Lake City Courthouse, which stands now as it did when Packer stood before Judge Gerry, he was sentenced to hang for murder and cannibalism. Judge Geery was an eloquent man, and his verdict is a model of common-sense sentiment. A far more interesting version of the verdict, the verdict known during the times, is here included from Mrs. Stella Pavich’s epic poem “Packer the Cannibal”:

Just as the fluent Judge Gerry began to cinch
A classical pronouncement of doom,
Larry let out a loud cheer and fell from a bench.
Rising and bowing, he ran drunkenly to his favorite saloon.
“Well, boys, it’s all over!” he bellowed with glee.
“Packer’s to hang. The judge, God bless him, says he:
Stand up, yah man-eatin’ son of a b-!
And here and now receive your sentence which
Ye truly deserve! Then p’intin’ his finger
At Packer, so ragin’ mad he was, he trembled
And said, “There was seven Dimmycrats in Hinsdale County!
But you, yah voracious, man-eatin’ son of a b_,
Yah et five of them, therefore I sentence ye
T’ be hanged by the neck, until y’re dead, dead, dead!
As a warnin’ against reducing the Dimmycratic population
Of this State and Nation.”
(An interesting note is that Hinsdale has remained a Republican county from its birth.)

May 19th was to be the celebrated day. Then as now, however, the law had a tough time. The Colorado Supreme Court reversed the charge because Packer was charged under territorial law and tried under a state law. He was tried again in Gunnison in 1886, found guilty of manslaughter only this time, and sent to Canon City to serve time. He died in 1907 and is buried in Littleton, Colorado. The Packer massacre site can be found today at the marker just across the Lake Fork bridge heading up toward Slumgullion Pass.

This is probably as good a time as any to introduce the reader to Slumgullion. As you read this, hopefully you’ll be driving up the pass, heading south above Lake City. Slumgullion, as many grandmothers know, is a free-for-all stew of somewhat thick consistency. This describes to a “T” the yellowish mud found along the mountainside as you drive up the pass. About seven hundred years ago this Slumgullion mud parted company with the mountainside, and oozed its way downward to what is now the outlet of Lake San Cristobal. It is only an outlet now because then the mud effectively blocked off the Lake Fork, and created Lake San Cristobal. Slumgullion mud is still flowing at about a half inch per day, and it is one of the geological wonders of the world. While you’re up there, stop off at the poorly-marked area of Windy Point. From there you can see many of the fourteen thousand plus mountains in Hinsdale county. The most impressive is Uncompahgre Peak, (14,209).

Other prospectors were scouting the area after Packer and his fated companions stopped a the Lake Fork. Enos Hotchkiss did a little prospecting on the side while building a wagon road from Saguache to the San Juan mining country. Under contract to Otto Mears, he still found time to locate a rich vein above Lake San Cristobal, known as the Hotchkiss mine, later renamed the Golden Fleece. The news of his discovery spread and miners and prospectors moved in. In 1875, a camp settlement in the form of tents and a few buildings was incorporated under the name which still stands, Lake City. Mining, and the town with it, flourished.

The Golden Fleece is a good illustration of the business of mining and of the kind of men who were and are part of it. The Fleece changed hands often; when one man made enough, he sold out. Partnerships formed and dissolved as the ore appeared and then the vein was lost. One partner of the Fleece worked diligently until one stick of dynamite and no faith remained, then quit. His partner took over, equally broke. He “let off a pop shot in a bulge in one wall” and found about $1,000 in gold. It took faith, work, luck, and a dream to make a miner, and it still does. Prospectors still appear in the spring to comb the mountains around Lake City. The Courthouse has current tax assessments against such big name companies as Kennecott and Humble Oil.

During the ’70’s and ’80’s the town was a center of activities. People came in from Gunnison and even Montrose to shop, look, admire. In 1876 the first church on the western slope was built.

Traveling circuses, sideshows, magicians, and the usual big-city fare of dry goods stores, saloons, markets, jewelers, and red-light districts made the town an exciting attraction for travelers from all over.

Culled from newspapers of the times, here are some of the entertainment offered to the citizens of Lake City: “The Pringle Comidy (sic) Co., have been playing to a fare audience each night during the week. The company though small gave a first class performance. The comedy ideals, Johnie and Delia Pringle, are exceptionally good in their various specialties, and keep their audience in a roar of laughter from the rise to the fall of the curtain.” “Chatterton’s Players departed Monday morning for Crested Butte where they appear this week. This company is composed of ladies and gentlemen and they made a host of friends while here.” “Good speaking at the Courthouse at 8:30 tonight.” (August 11, 1894) “The Pitkin Guards will give a Grand Ball Thursday Night. The members of the Co. “A” have decided to give a series of dances until further notice. Good music has been secured and no effort will be spared to make these dances successful. The admission price has been placed at $1.00 per ticket – ladies free.”

When winter bore down too severely, the natives applied their ingenuity. During the winter of 1881-1882 telephone concerts were held. This meant that between Lake City and Silverton the inhabitants picked up their phones and filled the party line with vocal solos, duets, and whatever musical instruments they were most adept with. It was a sad day when the private line appeared.

A school was built in 1882 to handle the offspring. It is still in use, but has been remodeled as a one-story structure. A cousin of U.S. Grant, John Simpson Hough, sponsored and financed the Hough Fire Company. Fire was a perpetual hazard and buildings were burned down frequently. The town park and much of the downtown area show the vacant lots which resulted from fires. Despite these minor tragedies, dreams lived on and the town in its heyday had a population averaging about four thousand.

Probably the best way to describe Lake City as it existed then is to gather from old newspapers the authentic news of the day. The Silver World was the first newspaper on the western slope, established in 1875 by Harry M. Woods, but the Lake City Mining Register had an Illustrated holiday edition for New year’s Day, 1881, which is a guide to the visitor of the day. The population at that time was 2,000. “Its social status is far above the average of Western and frontier cities, and no mining camp in the world can boast of a more intelligent, cultured, peaceful citizenship. A street brawl is of the rarest occurrence, and for months the log cabin that serves for a calaboose is tenantless.” The business and professions of the city are divided as follows: Three grocery stores, four dry goods, two hardware, three shoe stores, two jewelers, a drugstore, four feed stores, two furniture stores, one bank, six saloons and seven lawyers, four doctors, one clergyman but two churches, a planing mill and a saw mill, and other miscellaneous businesses. The school house was in the planning stage to be built of brick and Hinsdale county granite, and to cost $15,000!”

“From Lake City the Rocky Mountain Stage and Express Company run coaches daily to Capitol City and Rose’s Cabin, up Henson Creek Canon, and over Engineer Mountain to Mineral Point and Animas Forks…” “There is no fear of Indian troubles in the San Juan county. With the exception of one or two traders no red skins have crossed the reservation lines this year. People in the mountains think and talk less about Indians than people down in the states. Hundreds of people travel daily over the Ute trails unharmed. The writer (M. Lewis, better known as “Moss Agate” is the writer) has traveled all over San Juan (mountains) and was never known to carry any weapon more formidable than a pocket knife.”

The Mining Register also gives some interesting accounts of the towns around Lake City.

“Animas Forks…twenty-one miles southwest of Lake City…is gaining rapidly, having a dozen business houses, hotel, two assay offices, etc. The altitude is 11,200 feet, and while no less than 1,000 miners and citizens spend the summer months in the vicinity, and the principal mines have been worked since 1875, there has never been a death in the camp. There is but one cemetery in the county and it looks very lonesome.” Take a jeep trip over Engineer pass and on the way back via Cinnamon, you’ll pass Animas Forks.

“Nine miles southwest of Lake City, and 9,500 feet above the sea, in an expansive and pretty park at the forks of Henson Creek, is situated the town of Capitol City, with a population of 400, mostly miners and prospectors.  The camp is favorably situated for all purposes, having ample water power, abundance of timber, a good wagon road to Lake City, and surrounded with immense veins of precious metals.  Capitol City contains the finest and best built dwelling in San Juan.  We refer to the two-story brick residence of Geo. S. Lee, at the lower end of town.  The town has a general merchandising store, several hotels, restaurants and saloons.  A mile below town, on Henson Creek, are the Lee smelting works, now idle.  A mile above are the works of the Henson Creek Reduction Co., almost finished.  Within the town is Lee’s saw and planingmill.”  Lee’s home had a ballroom and orchestra pit, which he planned to use more when Capitol City became the capitol of Colorado – one of his dreams.  Mines surround the valley there; upstream past Whitmore falls toward Rose’s Cabin can be seen the remains of systems by which ore was carried off steep hillsides.  Cables conveyed bucket loads as far as three miles off the mountain.

“At the headwaters of Henson Creek, and under the shadow of Engineer Mt., at an altitude of 11,200 feet, lies the important little camp of Rose’s Cabin.  The camp derives its name from Corydon Rose, one of the early pioneers of San Juan, who built the first cabin at this point in 1875.  Until a year and a half ago it was the only place of entertainment this side of the range until Lake City was reached.  Charley Shafer…has the principal depot for the shipment of supplies, and conducts a hotel which is a famous resort.”  The remains of the cabin still rest there, and the setting can be visited by car.

“Romantically situated at the confluence of the Cottonwood and Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, in a beautiful little park, at an altitude of 7,500 feet, is Sherman.”  (Ed.’s note:  this should read 9,600 feet).  Little more is said, except to detail the mining activity in and around Sherman – quite a bit of mining there still goes on.  The Lake City Phonograph of August 11, 1894 reported 40,000 bricks manufactured there for the reduction mill, but the town was daunted by the winter snows and spring flood and was finally washed out.  Gold, silver, copper and lead ores were shipped to Lake City for processing.

Other mining towns blossomed and withered after the 1881 edition of the Mining Register.  Carson is perhaps the loveliest and most intact ghost town on the Western Slope.  At an elevation about 12,000 feet, nature herself is protector.  Prospector Christopher J. Carson discovered traces of gold and silver in the area, and set up camp in 1882.  Parts of the camp are on both sides of the Continental Divide.  As it was remote and isolated, most prospectors and miners left in the fall and returned in the spring.  Shipment of ore was impeded by the lack of good roads.  In 1887 a road was completed up Lost Trail Creek, facilitating shipment of ore and supplies.  By the end of 1902 the camp was practically divided.

Whitecross was a small mining camp northwest of Sherman.  It was named for the white cross shaped outcrop of quartz on the mountainside overlooking the camp.  The Tobasco mill and mine were prominent workings financed by a meat sauce company.

Henson was a small mining camp at the Ute Ulay mine four miles up the creek from Lake City.  Some 200 to 300 men were employed in the area, mostly Italian immigrants.  The Phonograph for March 3, 1894 relates some news characterizing the times:  “J.C. Spargo was transferred to the Ulay mine…Mr. Spargo’s ability to work men to an advantage speaks of itself.  It has been rumered (sic) that in the near future the force on these properties will be composed of white men only.”  The mine was going to pay off “even though the product there from is at a most disgusting figure.”  March 17th The Phonograph reports, “Company A  Awaiting Orders at the Armory.”  “Capt. W.S. Whinnery, Lake City, Colorado.  Assemble your company and await orders from the Govenor (sic). Answer. H.B. McCoy, Col. Com. 2nd Regt.”  No reason is given in the paper for the call to arms.  Troubles at the Ute-Ulay came to a head in March of 1899, however, when eight Italian miners struck, refusing to obey a company order that all single men board at the company store.  The “Governor” of Colorado sent four companies of infantry and two cavalry troops in by train from Denver.  The Italian consul, a Dr. Cuneo, hurried in to town to try to avoid bloodshed.  Cuneo pulled it off, addressing the striking miners in full evening dress, complete with medals and paraphernalia.  He urged them to put aside their guns, and turn themselves in.  They did, were promptly fired by the company, and single men ordered out of the county in three days.”

1882 brought an event that kept people talking a while.  George Betts and James Browning were the proprietors of the San Juan Central, a dance hall in town.  Sheriff E.N. Campbell suspected the two men of robbing an unoccupied but furnished residence so he and his deputy, Claire Smith, lay in hiding one night in the hope of catching the thieves.  They staked out the same house, hoping the culprits would come for more.  They did.  In the confusion and gunfire which followed in the dark the sheriff was fatally shot by one of the intruders.  The deputy identified the men as Betts and Browning although he had only seen them briefly by the light of a match.  A posse was formed and the two men were captured, arrested, and put in jail.  They were guarded by an armed squad of the Pitkin Guard.  During the next day, the citizens stirred about.  One of the topics of discussion was Packer, and how the law had cheated justice and saved Packer from the rope.  A moon that night kept a quickly formed vigilante committee from acting too early, but once it dipped over the mountain they moved.  The jail was taken over, the lock broken with a sledge hammer, the prisoners marched to the bridge north of town.  The bodies of Betts and Browning dangled all night and into the next morning.  School was dismissed and they marched over to learn what happened to thieves and murderers.  The two examples rest peaceably in the cemetery at the top of the hill north of town.

Most histories tend to record the past with the sensational events, and this one has been no exception.  The truth of the matter is that Lake City over the years is best described as it was in the Lake City Mining Register already quoted:  “Its social status is far above the average of Western and frontier cities… A Street brawl is of the rarest occurrence, and for months the log cabin that serves for a calaboose is tenantless.”

From the beginning, Lake City and its surroundings have been relished for their natural beauty, solitude, hunting and fishing.

An 1881 newspaper reads, “We have reached this beautiful sheet of water, four miles from Lake City and 9,000 feet above the sea.  (The reporter is referring to Lake San Cristobal).  We leave the falls where the stream pitches over a ledge of rocks into a bowl 175 feet below, and canter up the west side of the lake,

Where high rocks throw,
Through deeps below
A duplicated silvery glow.

This is a charming spot, which in a few years Major Crummy will have converted into a summer resort where tourist, traveler, merchant, lawyer…and even lovers will find sweet repose from the cares and perplexities of business life.”  The words may be less flowery today, but they describe the aura of Lake City still.

1894:  “J.E. Kamm, of Highland, Ills. is at the Pueblo House.  Mr. Kamm is spending a few days here fishing.”  “Jas A. Briggs, New York City, was a Lake City visitor this week.  Mr. Briggs will remain some time and try his luck after the speckled beauties in Lake San Cristobal.”  ” A party composed of Mr. And Mrs. H.A. Sheppard, Mr. and Mrs. J.H. Purdy, Miss Clara and F.M. and Mr. Luther Burns, of Wichita, Kansas, arrived in Lake City Wednesday evening on a fishing and sightseeing tour.”  The lists continue through the twenties.  Mining and the attraction of the natural beauty of the Lake City area were the mainstays of life.

The Depression and the economic factors affecting mining that followed slowed the economic growth of the town somewhat, but tourists rediscovered the town after World War II, and fisherman, hunter, sightseer, painter, writer, and ghost town enthusiast have had their appetites filled here in God’s Country.  The Hinsdale County Chamber of Commerce welcomes you.

Appreciation is extended to Mrs. Stella Pavich, Mrs. Valerie Burnell, and the many fine old timers of Lake City who have contributed their time and knowledge to this brief history.

(Original author of this piece is unknown.)

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