The mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a drastic shift — both literally and figuratively — in the landscape of the United States. With the addition of millions of acres of pristine wilderness following the Louisiana Purchase and the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, manifest destiny and the allure of wealth and wide-open spaces drew countless individuals west.
An endless number of little towns sprung up all over the new American territories, and Lake County, Colorado, was no exception. Most — Adelaide, Douglas City, Evansville, Everett, Howland, Graham Park, Mitchell’s Grove and Soda Springs, just to name a few — were lost to the annals of history before the turn of the twentieth century.
In this third installment of a series chronicling the histories of some of the boom towns around Lake County and the Arkansas Valley, the Herald will delve into the legacy of Oro City, named for its main export, gold, and its significance in the formation of Leadville.
Gold was first discovered in late 1860 by Abe Lee and a party of prospectors travelling east from California. The party would stop periodically to pan for gold on their way north up the Arkansas Valley, not finding much until they reached the site of present-day Lake County. “By tradition, Lee said, ‘I’ve got California right here in this pan,’ or words to that effect,” writes James E. Fell, Jr. in his introduction to Don and Jean Griswold’s History of Leadville and Lake County, Colorado. “The new mining locale became immediately known as California Gulch.”
After finally striking gold, Lee and company stayed as long as the weather permitted to stake their claims before retreating to more favorable climates to wait out the snowiest months of the year. Word of their discovery quickly got out, and when they returned in the early spring of 1861, Abe Lee and his companions were followed closely by hundreds of fellow miners hoping to make it rich.
J. A. Pace and his father were two such hopefuls. Vice-president and manager of the Mining and Real Estate Bureau in Leadville in 1880, the junior Pace remembers the lightning-fast growth of the collection of tents and ramshackle cabins in California Gulch into the mining camp of Oro City. “In the spring of 1861 … there was about 300 men at work in the gulch; in the following fall there were 10,000. The place was the scene of an immense stampede,” he recalls in an 1880 interview with a New York Times reporter later reprinted in the February 21, 1880 edition of the Leadville Weekly Democrat.
Placer mining, the mining of stream beds for valuable minerals using pans, sluice boxes, open pits and other methods of surface mining, was what drew the masses into Lake County, and it wasn’t long before Oro City became one of the wealthiest mining camps in the young Colorado Territory. And it was this great influx in population which brought many others in to “mine the miners.”
With Oro City’s exponentially expanding population came the need for news from the outside world, entertainment, housing, and an ever-growing list of general supplies.
Like the Paces, Horace and Augusta Tabor arrived with the wave of prospectors hoping to find gold. As their first winter in the camp drew near, Horace sent Augusta back east to spend the coldest months of the year, intending to stay over the winter and work his small plot himself. Upon experiencing the severe cold and snow a Lake County winter can bring, he followed not long after, and both returned the following spring with extra supplies to open the camp’s first general store.
“Flour was valuable stuff in those days,” according to then-County Clerk Joseph H. Wells in an interview conducted “as he leaned back in a sanctum chair and lighted a fresh Havana from the reporter’s case” in the January 31, 1880 Carbonate Chronicle. “There were several winters that we paid seventy-five cent per pound for it, and everything else was proportionately high,” putting the Tabors in a more favorable financial position than they’d been before. It became apparent not long after the shop opened that the best way to distribute mail was from the Tabors’, and Horace became the postmaster of Oro City.
In addition to the general store/post office, the Oro City Hotel, a number of boarding houses and a saloon or two sprang up in the camp to cater to the needs of the miners there. It wasn’t long before all the nearby hills and valleys were denuded of timber to build cabins and supply mines.
“There were cabins all along the gulch for two or three miles above that and all were occupied,” Wells says as he remembers the first winter of 1861-1862 in Oro City. “There were not more than twenty or twenty-five females in the gulch that winter.”
Though the population of the gold mining camp was originally almost entirely men, women began coming in greater numbers as miners brought their wives and children, as Horace Tabor had brought his wife Augusta and young son Maxcy. Other women came by themselves to take advantage of the available business opportunities, both legal and illegal.
As is the case with nearly all mining centers like it, its claim to fame didn’t last long. By about 1866 the gold was running out, and Oro City’s population soon followed suit. The camp dwindled to just a couple hundred, many of which would leave the camp during the harshest winter months each year. Oro City continued this way for the better part of a decade. The population dwindled year after year, and California Gulch and its placer mines might have become little more than another flash-in-the-pan mountain mining camp if not for the carbonate of lead.
Two miners, Alvinus B. Wood and William “Uncle Billy” Stevens, crossed the mountains from Park County into California Gulch about 1874 in search of the “black cement” which the Griswolds’ History of Leadville states clogged gold pans and sluice boxes and was cursed by miners up and down the gulch since Abe Lee and his company first arrived. Up to that point “the damned blue stuff” had been largely discarded as valueless by the early-day gold miners. While some were experienced enough to recognize it as silver-bearing carbonate of lead, they also knew it wasn’t worth the time it would take to harvest the stuff and send it on the long journey out of the mountains for refining. When Stevens and Wood arrived and began to work old placer claims using hydraulic processes, removing the black sand became much more economical. They soon began buying up neighboring claims and formed the Iron Silver Mining Company, one of the most noteworthy producers in Colorado’s history.
Just as Stevens and Wood were building their company and looking for a buyer for their ore, mining engineer August Meyer, under the employ of the St. Louis Smelting and Refining Company, arrived in South Park looking for carbonate of lead and silver. Wood and Stevens brought Meyer to see their operation in California Gulch and supplied him with a silver-lead mineral sample to send back to St. Louis. Wood and Stevens’ mine could produce enough of the mineral to turn a profit for the first time, and to maximize their returns, Edwin Harrison, president of the St. Louis Smelting and Refining Company, authorized the construction of the Harrison Reduction Works near the mouth of California Gulch. The smelter was the first successful one constructed in Lake County, and greatly reduced the cost of processing the carbonate of lead.
Unlike Abe Lee and their other predecessors, Wood and Stevens kept their information close to the vest, but it was only a matter of time before word of the carbonate boom in Lake County spread. Around the same time as Oro City was enjoying its second boom in 1876, Malta was getting its start at the head of the Arkansas Valley.
It grew up around the Malta Smelter much as Oro City had grown surrounded by placer mines. Upon its establishment, the burgeoning settlement became known briefly as Galena, and then as Swilltown, originally in honor of a prominent investor in the smelter named Swill. It soon came to refer mainly to the supposed most popular pastime of Swilltown’s residents, however — drinking. Upon learning of this, Mr. Swill requested that the name of the little camp be changed to Malta after the smelter. Boosted by the mineral wealth of California Gulch’s mines, Malta acquired its own saloons, hotels, boarding houses, and a Tabor general store, and would go on to become the transportation hub of Lake County. Stages soon began arriving in Malta day and night, bringing people from as close as Twin Lakes and as far away as the other side of the globe, all hoping to find their fortune.
The population of Lake County began to boom once again as the mines spread in all directions from California Gulch, and it quickly became obvious that Lake County’s mineral wealth was not as ephemeral as so many other mining towns. Eighteen of the most prominent businessmen in the carbonate camp were called to a meeting on January 14, 1878 to discuss sending a petition for incorporation of the as-yet unnamed city to the governor of Colorado.
The Herald Democrat describes the meeting in “When Leadville was Given a Name,” published June 17, 1900. “Charles Mater suggested ‘Carbonateville;’ August Meyer, the pioneer ore buyer and sampler, urged ‘Harrison,’ in honor of the Hon. Edwin Harrison ... W. H. Bradt, Gilbert and others favored ‘Agassiz;’ but finally J. C. Cramer, after consultation with all present, proposed the name of ‘Leadville’ as more appropriate to designate and perpetuate the significance of the massive lead deposits which characterized the camp.” At the time of its naming, the city of “Leadville then boasted about seventy houses, shanties and tents, and a scattered population not exceeding 3,000,” a number soon to be exceeded by a factor of at least ten.
As the cliche goes, the rest is history. Horace Tabor, who made his fortune grubstaking miners coming to California Gulch hoping to make it big, went on to earn millions and become an important political figure in Colorado’s history. In addition to the Tabor fortune, Leadville would go on to launch the fortunes of Margaret and J.J. Brown, the Guggenheims, James V. Dexter, George Robinson, John and Nellie Campion, Father Dyer, Chicken Bill, August Meyer and his wife Emma, and innumerable others, and served as the birthplace of the May Department Store Company. Oro City may have only lasted a brief two decades, but from its ashes rose one of the most important mining camps in Colorado history.
In the next installment in its series on boom towns near Lake County and the Arkansas Valley, the Herald will take a closer look at Independence and the famous pass which now bears its name.