Prior to the coming of Europeans, the Lake Fork watershed was the domain of Native American tribes. Wild game was relatively abundant, and the valley’s hunting opportunities attracted principally Mountain Utes on a seasonal basis. In the winter months, the Utes returned to lower country. Archaeological sites from the Utes and earlier inhabitants have been documented in the lower Lake Fork valley and the Lake City area.
The Lake Fork watershed was probably penetrated by fur trappers in the early 1800s, but no records of their explorations remain. In 1853, Lieutenant John Williams Gunnison and his Corps of Topographical Engineers crossed the lower Lake Fork in Sapinero Canyon on their ill-fated transcontinental railroad survey. The river was known as the Lake Fork at the time, indicating general knowledge of the whereabouts of Lake San Cristobal among European explorers.
The Mining Boom
The discovery of gold by Charles Baker near present-day Silverton in 1860 brought the first wave of prospectors to Ute land, and small bands entered the upper Lake Fork and Henson Creek drainages as early as 1869. The Ute-Ulay Mine was discovered by Harry Henson in 1871, but the Ute threat prevented much development until the Brunot Treaty of 1873 pushed the Utes out of the San Juan Mountains.
In 1874, a road was constructed to the San Juan mining fields from the town of Saguache in the San Luis valley. Enos Hotchkiss, in charge of building this road, was also a prospector. He located rich ore near the outlet of Lake San Cristobal and established the Golden Fleece Mine. The resultant news of this discovery along with the completion of the road brought scores of prospectors into the region, and the town of Lake City was laid out at the confluence of the Lake Fork and Henson Creeks in 1875.
The population of Lake city and near vicinity reached over 5,000 people by the fall of 1876, with hundreds more in the upper Lake Fork and Henson Creek valleys. Silver and gold mines were claimed and developed at a rapid rate with little regard to their effects on water quality or scenic values. Many hillsides were stripped of trees for building materials and mine timbers.
Capitol City was established in 1877 at the confluence of Henson Creek and North Henson Creek, and at its prime, probably was home to a few hundred people. The smaller mining camps of Whitecross, Argentum, Burrows Park and Sherman in the upper Lake Fork were also established in the late 1870s and early 1880s, all tied together by a growing network of wagon roads.
Meanwhile, ranchers homesteaded the better agricultural land in the lower Lake Fork valley. By the mid-1880s, the best parcels of land had been claimed and were being utilized for cattle ranching and a few cash crops, such as potatoes. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad arrived in Lake City in 1889, making the transportation of goods much more economical.
The decision by the United States government to switch from a bimetallic standard to a gold standard spelled disaster for the mining economy of the Lake Fork watershed, which was largely silver-based. More than half of the mines closed in short order, and the population of Lake City declined precipitously.
By the 1920s, the Lake Fork valley had settled into a forgotten existence, with only the hardiest ranchers, miners and merchants holding on. The Great Depression of the 1930s was a low point in the valley, punctuated by the abandonment of the unprofitable railroad branch in 1937.
The Birth of Tourism
A more prosperous national economy slowly breathed new life into the Lake Fork valley during the 1940s and 1950s, thanks to World War II. Increased disposable income and leisure time drew tourists to the area, particularly from sections of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Small, rustic resorts were established to cater to these tourists, and as in the days of the Utes, the valley’s population boomed during the pleasant summers, and shrank during the winters. During the 1970s and 1980s, much of the valley’s economic growth could be attributed to the construction of second homes in the valley. Mountain cabins began to be constructed in remote areas, and ranch land on the lower Lake Fork began to be purchased for private recreational use.
Recreational use has escalated in the Lake Fork Watershed since the 1980s. The Alpine Loop Scenic Byway was designated in 1989 attracting jeepers annually to the high country roads between Lake City, Silverton and Ouray. Over 100 miles of groomed snowmobile trails see use in the winter, and thousands of hikers annually climb the five “Fourteeners” in the Lake City area.
Until the 1990s, mining was almost extinct in the watershed, but new development in the Golden Wonder Mine and its exceptionally rich gold ore has revitalized at least one sector of the industry on a small scale. An alunite mine proposal that would have been within sight of the town of Lake City raised considerable local opposition, and was dropped.
Today, the watershed retains numerous cultural resources, mostly from the mining era. Lake City is a National Historic District with many well-preserved structures dating to the 1870s. Most of the outlying mining camps have succumbed to the ravages of climate and time, but preservation efforts have kept a number of mining structures intact, mostly along the Alpine Loop.
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