Prospectors first discovered silver in 1873 and settled where several streams met to form the Animas River, 12 miles northeast of present-day Silverton, in Colorado’s San Juan County. Originally called Three Forks of the Animas, the mining community’s name was changed to Animas Forks by the Post Office in 1875.
Colorado transportation magnate Otto Mears built a wagon road linking the Animas Forks area to other area mining communities in 1875. Within a couple of years, the town included more than 30 cabins, a hotel, newspaper, general store, several saloons, a drug store and a post office. The town’s two-cell jail was built of two-by-six lumber laid flat for strength.
Among the best mines in the area were the Gold Prince, Columbus, Red Cloud, Silver Coin, Early Bird, Little Roy and the Big Giant.
By the mid-1880s, the community’s summer population had grown to 450. At its peak, the population of Animas Forks and the surrounding mines has been estimated as high as 1,500. It once boasted to be the “largest city in the world,” but added in small type, “at this altitude.”
Due to its elevation of 11,200 feet, most of the townspeople moved down to nearby Silverton during the winters, as snowdrifts often piled more than 20 feet deep. In 1884 a blizzard that lasted 23 days buried the town under more than 25 feet of snow. Residents had to dig tunnels to move from building to building.
A fire originating in the kitchen of the Kalamazoo Hotel destroyed 14 buildings in October 1891. The town was rebuilt, but fell on hard times in the wake of the 1893 silver crash, which closed many of the mines in Colorado.
An upsurge in mining just after the turn of the 20th century renewed vigor in Animas Forks. Otto Mears extended his Silverton Northern Railroad to Animas Forks in 1904, and the Gold Prince mill was built the same year. The Gold Prince was the first mill in Colorado to be built of structural steel. With its 100 stamps and 500- ton per day capacity, it was the largest mill in the state. It received ore from the Gold Prince mine by a 12,600-footlong aerial tramway. However, it closed in 1910, and its machinery was moved in 1917 to the Sunnyside mill in Eureka.
The nearby Frisco mill was built in 1912 to process ore from the Bagley Tunnel. Much like modern log homes, it was built offsite at the San Juan Lumber Yard in Durango, disassembled and shipped by railroad, then reassembled.
Falling metal prices in the 1920s drove the few remaining miners away, and the community was abandoned. The Silverton Northern Animas Forks branch tracks were torn up in 1936, and the Columbus mine was last worked in 1939.
Today Animas Forks is a star attraction on the 65-mile Alpine Loop, one of the most scenic four-wheel-drive Backcountry Byways in America. While high clearance is required to travel the full loop to Lake City and back, a carefully driven passenger car can make it from Silverton to Animas Forks in good weather between June and October.
About a dozen structures remain, including the jail, Columbus and Frisco mills, and a famous house with a bay window that is often called the Walsh house after Thomas Walsh, who made millions in gold mining in the Ouray area and whose daughter owned the Hope Diamond. The house was actually built by William Duncan in 1879, and there is no evidence that Walsh ever lived there. Restoration work by the Bureau of Land Management and the San Juan County Historical Society has stabilized this and other remaining buildings.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.