In early 1870, so the story goes, southern Colorado rancher John Esmond and a companion went searching for a pair of runaway girls. When they found the runaways, they also found a rock ledge laced with gold. Esmond collected 50 pounds of ore and fled four claims but did no assessment work, rendering his claims invalid. That summer a group of prospectors led by James L. Wightman visited the area and staked claims along what would be called Wightman’s Fork.
Other prospectors sifted through the following year. Most became discouraged and left, but Wightman, P.J. Peterson and J.P. Johnson persevered. More men came in 1872, and by 1873 the district counted 2,500 claims; only about a dozen would prove successful. When Esmond returned in 1873 he found hundreds of diggers, and others had taken over his original claims. Esmond filed more claims, including the productive Aztec and Major mines. Other rich mines included the Bonanza and Little Ida. Peterson and F.H. Brandt discovered the Little Annie, Del Norte and Margaretta mines, which were so rich the partners sold them for $410,000 and controlling interest in the mines just three weeks after fling their claims.
Construction of an amalgamation mill in 1875 prompted expansion of the camp and brought a post office, established in 1876 as Summit (later renamed Summitville). Despite average annual snowfall of 40 feet at the camp’s 11,500-foot elevation, growth continued steadily. By 1883 the camp was the state’s biggest gold producer. Nine mills operated 155 stamps, and the town boasted its own newspaper, 14 saloons and about 600 people.
As the mines deepened, the sulfide content of the ore increased, and by 1887 amalgamation mills were no longer able to process the ore efficiently. Production dropped off, as did the population, and by 1889 only 25 people remained in Summitville.
Several ventures sought to reopen the mines, but none was successful until 1926, when Jack Pickens and Judge Jesse Wiley gained control of the property. Pickens had discovered a rich outcrop 18 years earlier but was unable to secure a lease until partnering with Wiley. The ledge was so rich that a 50-gallon barrel of high-grade ore brought $60,000.
Major operations resumed at Summitville in 1935, driven by an increase in the price of gold from $20 to $35 per troy ounce. Summitville Consolidated Mines built a company town that included bunkhouses, a bathhouse, a schoolhouse, mess halls and an amusement hall. Until the outbreak of World War II the mine was the second largest in the state.
During the war the government halted production of gold, so Summitville switched to produce copper for weapons development. Gold production resumed after the war, but the low price and difficult chemistry made economic operation impossible, and residents departed.
Exploration continued, however, and on October 3, 1975, bulldozer operator Bob Ellithorpe happened across a 141- pound gold-rich boulder lying just to the side of the road. The land was leased to ASARCO at the time, and the company paid Ellithorpe a $21,000 finder’s fee and donated the specimen to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science [www .dmns.org], where it remains on display as the Summitville gold boulder. Its current value is about a half-million dollars.
By the 1980s the price of gold had been allowed to float, and the much higher price, combined with modern recovery methods, prompted a Canadian company to build a huge open-pit mine using sodium cyanide heap leaching to process low-grade ore. Design flaws and substandard construction of the leach facility caused leakage of the cyanide solution. The company declared bankruptcy in 1992, leaving cleanup of the site to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program. During its productive life Summitville produced more than 550,000 troy ounces of gold, about 750,000 ounces of silver and 1 million pounds of copper.
The town ruins, comprising about 30 weathered structures, lie outside the Superfund reclamation area and are accessible to the public. Winters remain harsh, but visitors can access the site by passenger car in summer months.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.