Pat Cullen, Frank Dimik and Thomas Knott discovered the Alta vein in Gold King Basin in 1877, and Jack Mann hit the Gold King the next year. The mines yielded gold, silver, copper and lead— seasonally at first due to heavy snow at their 12,000-foot elevation. Initially, the ore was rich enough for miners to dig it from the surface, bag it and ship it to Silverton on mules.
By 1890 loggers had denuded the surrounding woodlands, and the cost of coal was so high that the Gold King faced closure. The mine manager, a forward thinker named Lucien Lucius Nunn, contracted with George Westinghouse to build the world’s first commercial alternating-current power plant, at Ames, three miles away in the San Miguel River valley. The hydroelectric plant went into operation in June 1891 and reduced the Gold King’s power cost from $2,500 per month to just $500. Nunn later helped design the hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, Ontario.
In 1898 miners drove the Black Hawk tunnel 9,000 feet into Silver Mountain to intersect the Alta, St. Louis and Bessie veins, providing access directly to a new 20-stamp mill that also took the name Bessie. Output soared, and the company town of Alta grew around the new mill. Although Alta lacked a post office or a church, it did boast offices, a general store, a school, a boardinghouse, a recreation hall and several cabins.
In the 1890s, engineers carved out the highest of today’s Alta Lakes and installed a mile-long pipeline to supply water to the Gold King mill. In 1902 a flash flood damaged the Gold King mill, and the Alta mine became the mining district’s major producer.
In 1909 workers constructed a two-mile aerial tramway that dropped more than 1,800 feet to deliver concentrate directly from the Bessie mill to the Rio Grande Southern Railroad station at Ophir Loop.
The Belmont-Wagner mill replaced the Bessie in 1918, but its “improved” flotation design worked so poorly that production dropped to almost nothing. That mill burned down in 1929. The town’s last mill, known as the Alta, was built in 1937 and produced more than $2 million in ore over the next decade. Unlike most mining camps, Alta remained in operation through World War II.
Built in 1939, Alta’s two-story boardinghouse comprises materials salvaged from the St. Louis mine’s boardinghouse. It stands as one of Colorado’s last extant major mining camp boardinghouses.
In 1948 a fire began in a snow shed between the Black Hawk tunnel and the mill, soon engulfing the entire mine complex. Three miners trapped by a collapsed tunnel made their way to safety through an abandoned portal. But Alta’s mining days were over. In all, the mines produced more than $5 million in ore.
Today about 20 historic structures remain. To reach Alta from Telluride, take Colorado 145 about 8 miles south to unpaved Forest Road 632 and turn east. The route is accessible via passenger car with care in summer.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.