History in Focus: Gold mining in Northwest Colorado
January 11, 2018
It's all around us, and it's 94-percent pure. It blankets an area from Great Divide east all the way into the Elkhead Mountains, and north of Craig; you step on it, you drive on it and just maybe, on a hot, windy, and dusty summer day, you inhale it. Yes, it's the great yellow metal that drives men insane. This huge area of Moffat County is literally blanketed in extremely fine "flour" particles of gold. The tale of early attempts to extract these riches is told in a new exhibit at the Museum of Northwest Colorado
In 1862, Joseph Hahn and two partners ventured into Northwest Colorado and discovered gold at Hahn's Peak. In the winter of 1866-67, Hahn and his partner, William Doyle, attempted to spend winter in the harsh and remote area. By mid April, they were out of supplies and were forced into a desperate hike to save their lives. Hahn died somewhere between the mining camp and modern day Kremmling in an attempt to reach the city of Empire. Doyle never returned to the area.
By 1877, Chicago merchant and investor J. V. Farwell financed a 27-mile ditch from the headwaters of the Elk River for hydraulic mining, carved a road to Laramie to connect to the railroad and dreamed of the great payoff. By 1880, Farwell was losing money and gave up on his investment, and the Hahn's Peak mining district struggled on into the early 1880s.
In 1886, exploration into modern day Moffat County uncovered gold in Lay Creek, a few miles north of the present day hamlet of Lay. However, our cursed arid climate threw a monkey wrench into retrieving the riches. Water, and lots of it, was needed to collect the gold dust from the loose gravels and sand.
Gambling on future riches, the Blevins Mining Company assembled a dredge at Lay Creek. A Feb. 5, 1908, article in the Steamboat Pilot claimed, "water to the amount of 700 gallons per minute was being pumped from Jack Rabbit Springs" The dredge was still operating until 1910, when hope finally faded in the face of small returns.
In 1891, near an area called Fourmile (only 2 miles south of the Wyoming border on modern-day Colo. Highway 13), a man named Hugh Morrison found gold. Soon, a 17-mile ditch was constructed directing water out of the mountains near Willow Creek and into the Fourmile tent town. The hydraulic blasting washed away huge portions of the hillsides in the midst of the parched high desert. By 1900, the Fourmile mining area was a failure, and the tent town disappeared. Today, only the washed away hillsides are still visible.
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In 1897, a young mining engineer named Herbert Hoover (our future 31st president) came to the area and described the difficulties of the dispersed nature of the gold and lack of necessary water. In an article for The Mining and Engineering Journal, he wrote: "The pioneers in the undertaking may lose money; those who come after will profit by their experience." .
More than 100 years later, the gold is still waiting, but Hoover's words may finally prove prophetic. Knowing the history and geology of the region, Ferris-Haggarty Mining is currently sifting through the old tailings of a fourth early attempt at gold along Timberlake Creek, 8 miles south of the old Fourmile tent city. Along with gold, the region contains rare earth metals vital to a variety of modern technologies.
This unsung and somewhat fruitless tale of Moffat County history may yet be revived and bring to life one of the great driving forces of westward expansion in the land where "the west stayed young." Check out how past dreams may yet again become our future at the Museum of Northwest Colorado.