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The Homestake Mine: Then and Now

Sidebar by Allen Best

Homestake Mine Tragedy – January 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

The story of how the Homestake Mine was discovered sounds too fanciful to be real. It was 1871, and the brilliant flash of placer gold at California Gulch from 1860 had dulled considerably. Still, prospectors searched.

One party of five prospectors rode to the flanks of Mount Massive, and continued north across Galena, stopping here and there to poke around as they followed the Continental Divide north toward 13,209-foot Homestake Peak.

But what comes next sounds pretty dubious. According to an account 30 years later in the Mining Reporter, the five prospectors stalked a deer to the head of an amphitheater and, after a hard climb, killed it. Almost exactly where the animal fell dead, a vein cropped from the granite, clearly offering strong possibilities. While quaffing drinks, the prospectors noticed sparkling in the bottom of the stream, and realized they had ended their search.

Or as the Mining Reporter put it, “Realizing that they had at last found the bonanza of their wildest dreams they planted their pegs, and joyfully called it Homestake — they had made the stake which mean fortunes for all and a speedy return to home and friends and civilization.”

This account sounds false, but it was probably true, says Stan Dempsey, a long-time geologist and lawyer for Climax who now continues his mining from an office across from Denver’s Union Station. Mineralized deposits and water often adjoined each other in faults on mountain faces, he says.

And this particular fault can be seen from far down the Arkansas, says Bob Elder, a Leadville resident.

The prospectors presented their location certificate of this Homestake lode — there were similarly named lodes in virtually every mining district across the state — at the Lake County courthouse in Granite on Sept. 20, 1871. It was the first silver claim in Lake County, and among the earliest in the state. A Denver newspaper in 1873 reported the mine had yielded 130 tons, with an average yield of $250 per ton in silver, $5 per ton of gold, and 30 percent of it all in lead. The mine was also notable for its nickel content.

With that kind of promise, the five original owners were able to sell their interest to James McFadden for $25,000. McFadden reclaimed his investment by selling a half-interest to Col. James Archer of Denver for $25,000. Good money now (at least for writers), that was a small fortune then.

But even though the mine yielded good ore, transportation expenses were horrendous. The ore was shipped by burro train across Mosquito Pass to Alma, and then to Golden, for partial refining, and to St. Louis for final smelting. Costs altogether were $75 a ton.

In 1874 Emil Lecher of Cincinnati decided that the mine’s principal need was a smelter, and with the aid of other Cincinnati investors, built a $125,000 smelter at Malta, Lake County’s first. Another of his investors was named Swill, and thus Malta was called Swilltown for awhile. Still, the profits were thin, as this was before a railroad had arrived with cheap fuel. The smelter was disbanded before Leadville’s big boom occurred. Once the big boom occurred, successive owners had difficulty in getting laborers to work in that remote area when the money was so much easier in Leadville.

After the horror of 1885, nothing much came out of the mine, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Several times, miners leased the property, and for a time rich ore was shipped.

In 1901, during one of those efforts, press accounts reported that buildings used by the miners in 1885 had largely receded into the tundra. But the effort to make the mine pay in the 20th century, like similar efforts in the 19th, exuded more optimism than profit. The mine’s best years were its earliest.

Today, visitors will find two bores into the mountain, the lower one a substantial affair. Miscellaneous mining machinery rusts steadily next to a mine dump of discarded rock. Rotten timbers, shards of glass, and rusted bedsprings litter the ground.

Nothing about the site announces the optimism of the men who once bustled there, nor is there any more than a sinister suggestion of the horror of that night in 1885 when men held other men for warmth, while another prayed as the darkness and ice imprisoned them. –A.B.