Gold is where you find it
“Gold. I’ve found gold.” I discovered gold in almost every river around Aspen. Every time I showed my find to my father I got the same answer, “No, it’s fools gold.”
Fools gold, pyrite, is much prettier than real gold, especially when it glitters through water from the bottom of the river. Prospectors combed every Aspen watercourse hoping to find real gold, dull and unreflective. A small amount produced a big payday. After the Alabama gold rush of 1836, the dream of instant fortune drew thousands of seekers to every stream in the West.
Low-tech panning for gold could be accomplished as a solitary pursuit. If any lucky panner found even a trace of the metal, word spread quickly and fortune hunters would work that stream from top to bottom. Any hint of the El Dorado could prompt the filing of a placer claim. By 1885 claims encircled Aspen, followed by untold man-hours endured turning over every stone and digging into every cranny. By 1889, activity waned as did new discoveries.
Gold is more plentiful than you might imagine, but it rarely exists in sufficient amounts to mine. My father, who assayed mineral samples, asserted that gold was omnipresent. To prove his point, he wagered that if he assayed even a local brick it would contain gold. There was a tiny trace in the chosen brick, just enough to win his bet. The Argonauts of the California gold rush panned every stream decades ago, yet to this day some amateurs pan $50 to $100 of gold in a weekend. Gold concentrations that can sustain the investment of mining are scarce. In the heyday of Aspen’s mineral production, 10 ounces of silver in a ton of ore, a ratio of nearly 2,000-to-1, was profitable. With today’s gold selling at $1,000 an ounce, Nevada mines achieve profitability by milling many tons of rock to get 1 ounce; truckloads of material for a speck of gold.
With all of the mineralization in Aspen you would expect ample gold. Gold is found in Leadville, which like Aspen produced silver. Colorado’s San Juan area produced both elements, as did the Comstock in Nevada. But not Aspen. Not an ounce of gold has been extracted from Aspen’s silver mines.
Prospectors persisted in Aspen because they discovered gold in Independence when they first crossed the divide. Gold was also found in the Gold Hill area around the top of Taylor Pass. Enough was found to justify mines in both areas. That gold was an anomaly. That gold, geologists say, was deposited during continental glaciation, and did not arise from the mineralization process that endowed Aspen with silver.
Nearly every mineral has been discovered in the Conundrum Creek Valley, including gold, but not enough of any for a profitable mine. The traces found, however, kept prospectors searching streams and climbing every ravine.
I would not recommend spending time panning for gold in the Roaring Fork River, but plenty of beautiful pyrite can be found in the iron deposits of Taylor Peak. The sprinkling of glitter boosts the confidence of children who have been bitten by the gold bug. You can personally discover nearly a ton of Colorado’s most beautiful and interesting gold, the most on display anywhere, in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. There you will learn that someone walking along the side of a road found one of the state’s largest nuggets in recent times.
Gold is where you find it. Keep your eyes on the ground.