The first winter at Caribou Camp in Colorado, 1869-70

11025806_10203625609016630_6670427458230761280_n Brian Alers, CPG. Caribou.  The weathered outcroppings of two unimaginably rich silver veins, that would become the Great Caribou Lode, were located on the north side of a hill west of Nederland Colorado, at an elevation of 10,000 feet above sea level, one hundred and forty-six years ago this winter by a couple of seasoned local prospectors. To protect their discovery, they built a cabin in a heavily wooded meadow next to a little creek and spent the winter of 1969-70 as the first residents of Caribou Camp.

During October 1858, five feet of snow fell on the foothills west of Boulder, temporarily halting the Pikes Peak Gold Rush until the next spring.  Word had gotten out, however, and a flood of prospectors arrived in the spring of 1859. They panned their way up the headwaters of all the creeks in the low forested hills towards timberline. Sometime in 1859, western Boulder County became known as the Grand Island mining district.  The first gold mining claims in the Grand Island mining district were not filed until 1861, when Calvin Ward discovered gold below Ward.  The early prospectors were looking for gold, not silver ore.

Sometime in 1864, Samuel Conger, who many years later discovered the Nederland Tungsten District, was hunting for deer near Arapahoe Peak and he wandered across some interesting rocks (years later a myth arose that Conger had been shown the rocks by the ghost of a beautiful Arapaho Indian Princess).

Conger did not recognize that the rocks were rich silver ore, but he did collect some rock samples.

In 1869, Conger noticed that the rocks he had collected on his lonely hunting trip looked very similar to silver ore that he had seen from the famous Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada that had “accidentally” fallen off of a train in Ft. Sanders, Wyoming.  So Samuel Conger decided to show his rock samples to two experienced Gilpin County miners, William Martin, and Hugh McCammon.  William Martin had worked in the silver mines of the Comstock Lode and he recognized immediately that the rocks contained rich silver ore.  Conger then made a grubstake agreement with William Martin, George Lytle, and local ranchers Hugh McCammon, John Pickel, and Samuel and Harvey Mishler.

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William Martin and George Lytle then set out to find the source outcrop (blossom rock) of the samples Conger had shown them.  They followed pieces of silver ore in the creeks and on the ground towards the top of a hill, and on August 31, 1869, they discovered the weathered outcroppings of two silver veins on the north side of this hill at an elevation of 10,505 feet. William Martin named one of the veins, the Carriboo vein, and George Lytle named the other vein, the Poor Man vein.

George Lytle decided to name the new camp Caribou.  He had mined before in British Columbia, but it is unclear if he named it after the famous Caribou mining district in British Columbia, or the North American reindeer, indigenous to British Columbia.  He may have chosen the name because above timberline, Caribou resembles the tundra of the Arctic Circle.

Martin and Lytle built a cabin and spent the winter of 1869-70 in the heavily wooded meadow just below their discovery next to a small creek and a couple of springs.  During the fall of 1869 there was no trail up the mountain, supplies had to be carried mostly by hand over huge snow drifts and downed trees. That fall, they managed to send one shipment of ore, 20 miles to Professor Nathanial Hill’s smelter in Black Hawk to verify the value of the ore before the winter moved in.  They spent the rest of the winter stockpiling what ore rocks they could find on the surface into high- and low-grade piles for later milling.

They tried to keep the discovery secret, and did not file their lode claims in the Boulder County Courthouse until December 23, 1869 for the “Carriboo” claim and March 26, 1870 for the Poor Man claim.  The spelling of the original names of the veins was later changed to Caribou and Poorman after this filing. During the spring of 1870, word of the discovery had gotten out, and a stampede began for the new mining district.  Soon, three to four hundred prospectors were on the ground, half of them camping in tents on the site of the future town in the same meadow as the cabin.  By November 1870, Caribou had about 30 houses and 125 voters, and the wooded meadow was never the same, Caribou became a bustling mining town with a maximum population of 540.

Martin, Lytle and the other partners must have felt that the Caribou vein was the biggest vein in the district, because sometime during that winter, they convinced Samuel Conger to trade his interest in the Caribou vein to them for full interest in the Poor Man vein and $500.  At the time, Conger must have considered the Poor Man to be a better vein than the Caribou.

This assumption proved to be correct, as the Poor Man vein turned out to be the most productive vein in the district.

Adjacent veins such as the No-Name, and Seven Thirty all merge at depth with Poor Man veins to form a single great ore vein, resembling the branches of a tree connecting to the parent trunk.

The Great Caribou Lode, west of Nederland, was not the first silver camp discovered in the Colorado Territory, but for more than a decade, it was the queen of Colorado’s silver camps.  From 1869-1880, the mine produced $1,168,000 worth of silver, lead and gold.

The Caribou mine operated almost continuously from 1870 until it was closed in 1883, and except for some minor production in 1891-3 it never reopened. The silver panic of 1893 squashed all hope of reviving Caribou.  Three fires ravaged Caribou, in 1879, 1899, and 1905.  After the third fire, a local newspaper commented “Fire mercifully ended the prolonged agony of abandonment”.  The ghost town of Caribou hung on until the Caribou Post Office finally closed for good in 1917.

References

Bastin, E.S., and Hill, J.M., 1917, Economic geology of Gilpin County and adjacent parts of Clear Creek and Boulder Counties, Colorado: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 94, 379 p.

Fossett, F., 1876, Colorado, Its Gold and Silver Mines, arms and stock ranges and health and pleasure resorts: 1st ed., Crawford, N.Y.

Smith, Duane A., 1974, Silver Saga, The Story of Caribou, Colorado, Boulder Pruett Press, 269p.