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The hunt for gold in the San Juans

We’ve been writing about the various European visitations to Pagosa Country, specifically the general vicinity of the Great Pagosa Hot Springs, before the town of Pagosa Springs sprang up.

We counted off visits by Juan Maria Rivera in 1765, the Fathers Dominguez and Escalante in 1776, the Taos trappers starting in the early 1820s, New Mexicans trading between Santa Fe and Southern California starting in the 1820s, and an official government expedition headed by a Capt. Macomb in 1859.

When Macomb’s expedition returned to New Mexico, they brought back the idea that there might be a lot of gold in the San Juan Mountains. That knowledge brought a rush of gold hunters through Pagosa Country, the first led by a Charles Baker in 1860.

Baker and the party of prospectors he led came north from Santa Fe up the Chama River Valley pretty much following the path of Macomb’s expedition, including a visit to the Pagosa Hot Springs. Sure enough, when they reached the vicinity of today’s Silverton, the Baker party found gold and provided the name for the strike area, Baker’s Park.

An enterprising young man, Baker returned to New Mexico and incorporated a toll road between Abiquiu and Baker’s Park. He also erected a number of makeshift bridges to make travel easier, including a bridge across the San Juan River about a mile south of the Pagosa Hot Spring. Baker’s road became the main route for the earliest prospectors entering this part of the San Juans. Also, since settlement of the upper Chama River Valley had begun circa 1860, Baker’s route served those who sought a profit by carrying supplies from Tierra Amarilla to the new gold camps.

And, so, an uncounted number of traders passed near the Pagosa Hot Springs, maybe took a warm bath, then continued on to Baker’s Park by way of the Animas River.

Other travel routes to the mining camps moved north through Largo Cañon, which mouths on the San Juan River at the community of Blanco east of Bloomfield in New Mexico, and a third route from Tierra Amarilla across what is now the Jicarilla Apache Reservation and crossing the San Juan River at Caracas before continuing in a northwesterly direction to the Animas River.

In the meantime, by 1861, the gold seekers who started digging gold in the Rockies in the Denver/Central City area had worked their way south to the Leadville area. It is supposed that some of these fortune hunters entered the San Juans from the north, founding such camps as Ouray, Lake City and a bunch of camps that do not survive today.

Then, just as western civilization was trying to come to grips with the rugged San Juan Mountains, history took another turn. The Civil War broke out.

Baker, it is presumed, returned east to fight for the South. A large number of the able bodied men in the Colorado and New Mexico Rockies did the same thing, as did most of the regular army troops. The gold rush to the San Juans and across Pagosa Country was put on hold until the pressing issues of the war were dealt with.

Apology: In last week’s article I wrote that Capt. Macomb’s expedition crossed the Navajo River near Rosa. That was a mistake. They crossed the Navajo River near today’s Edith.