`Lost gold camp’ finallyfound on Mount Sopris | AspenTimes.com
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`Lost gold camp’ finallyfound on Mount Sopris

Miner Robert Congdon searched for years for a rumored lost gold camp on the backside of Mount Sopris. He finally struck an historic bonanza this summer.

After nearly 20 years of scrambling up steep slopes, ducking through thick timber and nearly losing hope, he stumbled on the site by chance.

“I was blown away because it’s not typical,” said Congdon, who estimated he has visited between 40 and 50 abandoned mining camps, mostly in the Crystal River Valley and its drainages.

“Usually there are a few indications here and there, but an actual mining camp that hasn’t been ravaged, destroyed and everything hauled away is a pretty neat find.”

Congdon, who mines alabaster near Avalanche Creek and operates a stone mill on Catherine Road, discovered historic rather than mineral treasures at the site. That suits him just fine.

The camp is dominated by a large, partially intact cabin and a dump. Both contain numerous artifacts that he intends to give to the Carbondale Historical Society.

He’s not interested in trying to take possession of the mining claim, which is located in national forest.

Congdon, who came to the valley in 1978 to mine coal in Thompson Creek, heard stories from old-timers for years about the lost gold camp on Sopris. Like every good mining myth, the Sopris camp was claimed to include bags of gold supposedly buried near the site.

He made educated guesses at the location of the camp based on mining remnants closer to the valley floor. For example, there’s an easily accessible cabin that served as a boarding house for workers at a nearby mill and gold mine.

Those structures and mines are frequently visited. A faint road climbs from that area through the forest to another mine and a large dump of waste rock. Protruding from that mine are rusted light-gauge rails used by ore cars. The miners sent the minerals out on the cars down to a sorting area. Ore was loaded onto wagons and sent down to a mill that concentrated the gold and copper.

Congdon figured the lost gold camp had to be higher on the mountain, so he began years of methodical explorations. But the terrain is so steep, thickly wooded and vast that he was never able to find anything but a few prospect holes.

Wealth of artifacts

Finally this summer, while exploring with a friend, he came across a promising clue. Nailed to a tree was a tin tobacco can. Congdon was enough of a student of mining history to know that was probably a mining claim marker.

Inside the can he found a counter check from the First National Bank of Glenwood Springs. On the back of that check, a man’s handwriting notes the coordinates of the “Master Key” mineral claim. It’s signed by a man named Joe whose last name is unreadable. It’s dated May 31, 1933.

The side of the can nailed to the tree still holds the red paint and the eagle insignia of Union Leader Tobacco.

Sensing that he had finally found the camp, Congdon searched the area and finally came across a faint path. He followed it to the cabin built alongside a mine.

He had only 45 minutes to explore the area before having to return to the friend, who pooped out before climbing to the area. But before leaving Congdon found another treasure dating from Carbondale’s early days.

A sturdy wooden crate still carried the emblem of one of the first merchants in Carbondale. Clearly readable on one side is, “Wm Dinkle Merc Co. Carbondale, Colo.”

Congdon made a second visit to the site Wednesday with a reporter and photographer from The Aspen Times on the condition that the exact location of the camp not be disclosed.

The large cabin pops out when a hiker is almost on top of it. It is in an area that is so heavily forested that finding it is a lark, although other people had obviously been there in fairly modern times.

Congdon figures elk hunters have stumbled onto the site and maybe even used it for shelter. Some frayed black plastic was placed over the partially collapsed roof many moons ago. An old aluminum can of Dr. Pepper is on a nearby path. A plastic bag for nylon rope is snagged in a tree.

Still, the modern signs of civilization can’t ruin the awesome feel of the place.

The power of gold

The partially intact cabin dominates the camp. It is about 30 feet long by 15 feet wide. Half of the sod-covered roof remains and appears stable. The two ends plus the rear side remain erect, although the heavy force of countless winters’ snows is causing them to bow.

Off to one side is the collapsed opening of a mine – the one thing that could lure men to live and work in such a secluded and, in the winter, brutal environment. The trip down to Carbondale for supplies would have been long and hard.

“I suspect this far up and this ragged it had to have been gold they were after,” Congdon said. “I don’t think they would have come up here for silver or irons or copper.”

His theory is the lower mines were probably started in the late 1800s. Prospectors eventually followed the seams up and started the upper mines – probably well into the 20th century, long after silver prices had crashed.

“A lot of times the guys would come out as independents, and if they found something the company would buy them out right away,” he said. “Very few old miners really reaped the benefits of success.”

Miners need `the cure’

Directly downslope from the cabin is the dump where the miners discarded hundreds of tin cans, soles of shoes, ancient elk bones with clean cut marks and mostly broken bottles. The key word is “mostly” broken.

While at the site Wednesday, Congdon found a small medicine bottle inscribed in raised lettering with, “Hall’s Catarrh Cure.” Catarrh is “inflammation of mucous membranes, especially of the nose and throat,” according to one dictionary.

Congdon figured the miners probably needed plenty of cures for numerous ailments. All the tin cans were sealed with lead, something that probably had major health implications.

Each minute at the cabin seemed to produce another small treasure. A wooden panel from a crate, apparently used to fill space between logs in the roof, was stamped with lettering that read, in part, “Gold Medal, Baker and Co., 1878.”

Congdon figured old wooden crates were probably used time and again, long after they were dated.

An old homemade chair is off to the same side of the cabin as the mine.

Congdon is convinced the site could produce more artifacts if the time and effort were made to poke around.

“I think it warrants hours and hours of digging and filtering through the dumps and collecting things like (the medicine bottle),” said Congdon. “There are probably a lot of neat little treasures in here that need to go in the museum.”


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