Colorado history: The short lifespan of the Mountain Pride mine
January 8, 2016
Editor's Note: This is part two of two about the story of two mines — the Washington and the Mountain Pride — that had very different stories and results during the latter parts of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. The first part was the story of the Washington Mine, which had a very typical path from the gold rush days to the hardrock mining "boom" of the 1880s and finally to its ultimate demise by 1910 or so. At the Mountain Pride (part two), the owners seemingly did everything right, very professionally, enjoyed very adequate financing but failed miserably. Their stories are probably typical where fervent hopes and naked greed were either realized … or dashed.
While the Washington enjoyed a nearly 50-year history, very much along traditional lines and during a period when such stories played out, the Mountain Pride differed in nearly all aspects except that it was an underground mine near Breckenridge (about five miles away on the lower slopes of Mt. Baldy). A well-known mine, often referenced in period newspapers, it remains well-known today amongst local history buffs. Surprisingly, much of the old structures and workings is still there. The authors are indebted to Bill Fountain for his research involving period newspaper coverage of the mine. Bill provided most of the following information.
The Mountain Pride had a very short lifespan as an actual mine – six years at most, and that might be generous. In short, a flash in the pan, a July 4th sparkler that came and went very quickly. Serious development started in 1897, but most seems to have occurred in 1898 and 1899. Its "heyday" production years included 1899 and 1900. It appears that most of the claims on which the mine is located were staked in 1890, putting the timeframe of the mine roughly 30 years out of phase with the rest of the county. The Mountain Pride produced gold and lead, while most hardrock mines in the county mined silver, lead, and zinc with gold as a by-product.
The mine's initial owners appear to be well-off investors from Chicago and Board members of the Illinois Steel Company, and fairly well-versed in natural resource production. The president of the Mountain Pride Gold Mining Company, John W. Gates, chaired Illinois Steel. The mine manager, Henry (also shown as Harry in some reports) C. Foote, based on extensive newspaper coverage of his tenure, seems to have been an extremely experienced and capable manager.
The owners, it would appear, relied upon, and had a great deal of trust in, Foote's capabilities and provided him with very adequate funding to carry out his recommendations. So, the basic foundation for the mine seemed excellent — an experienced and wealthy company board, an excellent manager on the ground, adequate and continuing funding, and good initial indications of high quality ore.
There is one indication of fairly early activity – a newspaper account of a railcar shipment of ore in 1895 by a person whose name does not come up again in subsequent newspaper accounts of the mine. Perhaps he was an earlier owner of the mine and managed to accumulate and ship a small quantity of high-grade ore.
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The first indication of extensive activity appears in March, 1898, when a mine fire killed two men. The news article cites a 600-foot-long adit that came to the surface at the site of the bunkhouse in which the fire occurred. The adit intersected an inclined shaft at the 140 foot level. These citations indicate that fairly extensive underground development had occurred by the time of the accident. In fact, later news articles imply that this development work had started in late 1896 or early 1897. These facts, then, indicate that serious mine development work was underway in 1897. Interestingly, however, a newspaper article in early 1899 states that, by early 1898, when Mr. Foote arrived on the scene, "there wasn't a pound of ore in sight." So, it would appear that the work done in 1897-98 was development work meant to access the anticipated ore, work that is very normal and necessary in this type of mining.
An article in May, 1898, describes further, extensive underground workings and notes that a 20-ton smelting ore shipment (very high-grade ore ready for smelting) and a 10-ton shipment of concentration ore (lower grade ore) had been made that May from a nearby rail spur. The Mountain Pride sat fairly close to the High Line narrow gauge railroad that had come through the area in 1882. Furthermore, the article notes that 25 men in the mine worked three shifts per day and that blacksmiths, pumpmen, and engineers worked twelve-hour shifts. The article also reports that crews employed mechanical – as opposed to manual – drilling equipment, pumps to clear water from the mine, and power hoists to carry ore to the surface. This degree of activity and equipment indicates a mine in full operation, well manned, and well equipped.
In mid-1898, Mr. Foote, the mine manager, proposed an interesting (and sophisticated, for the time) idea for further exploration – a diamond drilling program to explore for more ore at depth. Mr. Foote wanted the public to fund half the cost (about $2000) in exchange for receiving all of the information gained from the program. It is unclear whether this funding scheme proved successful. Even though the hole eventually reached a depth of about 1,500 feet, it hit no significant ore.
Newspaper accounts throughout 1898 make frequent mention of new, rich ore bodies, in some cases several feet wide, being discovered as a result of the extensive underground development work being done by a larger 30-man workforce. Mention is also frequently made of multiple-car loads of ore shipped to Pueblo smelters. Additionally, a great deal of production – of lower grade ore – traveled to the nearby Gold Pan concentration mill to upgrade its quality. The Mountain Pride leased this mill from its owners in November, 1898, indicating faith that strong mine production would continue. One article reported that the mine had an output of 120 tons per month by the end of the year and anticipated production of 200 tons per month in early 1899.
The newspapers also reported that, for the first time, the mine was "paying its way" in November, 1898. In fact, most of the articles of 1898 sounded downright "gushy" about how happy and optimistic everyone seemed, how the mine broke all records, how the ore bins holding ore overflowed with unprocessed ore, and what a bright future loomed on the horizon. In short, 1898 seemed to be a good year from both a development and production standpoint.
Good things continued in early 1899 – more ore shipments, bins overflowing with unprocessed ore, a workforce now of 40 men. Perhaps the most significant plans included a new shaft about 1,000 feet away from the original shaft and a new onsite 50- to 60-ton-per-day concentration mill near the new shaft. It should, once again, be pointed out that this operation had competent management on the ground making things happen and a well-funded, trusting source of cash to continue development using the latest in mining technology. Few of these early Summit County mining operations had this happy confluence of opportunity.
One interesting – but unfortunate – development interfered with their plans – "The Big Snow." The winter of 1898-99 is famous – or infamous – because of the tremendous amount of snow that fell with little let-up from roughly Thanksgiving, 1898, into April of 1899. The snow completely isolated Breckenridge when the railroad could no longer operate because of the incredibly deep snowpack on the tracks. The snow prevented any ore from going out from the Mountain Pride; mining production ceased.
However, mine management used the time to accelerate development of the new shaft. Reports indicate that work proceded with three shifts per day on shaft development – again, an example of innovative management and plentiful funding. In April, 1899, work began on removing snow so that the mill's foundation could be started. Workers began building a series of cabins for employees and their families. Construction was possible because, despite the heavy snow, the lumber came from the local forest and snow actually made hauling logs easier.
Mid-summer of 1899 saw a beehive of activity. Construction continued on the mill and the shaft reached greater depths. The mill, designed by a Denver firm, had all of the latest equipment and technology. In fact, the three boilers installed to produce electricity for the mine and living quarters used steam-powered dynamos. Those living in the cabins and bunkhouses considered electricity the height of luxury. That same summer, a school for 13 students opened. A telephone connected the mine to Denver.
November of 1899 saw the connection, underground, between the new shaft and the older workings from the 1897-98 period. This connection was not a trivial accomplishment. The old workings, not in operation since 1898, had filled with water. The final "tap-in" proceeded extremely carefully to avoid a disastrous flood.
The new century – the year was 1900 – saw the Mountain Pride in full swing. Development work proceeded on the new shaft; reports of rich ore strikes followed through most of 1899 and into 1900; and the new mill operated well. The only issue – and it was strictly a seasonal one – was insufficient water for the mill. In the winter, most of the local water was frozen – not useable until warmer temperatures arrived. In short – everything was hunky dory.
And then came March 10, 1900: Henry Foote, the experienced and competent mine manager resigned, ostensibly to take another job in South America. This single event seems to mark the beginning of the end for the Mountain Pride although it took several years to finally vanish in a bankruptcy sale. The mine seemingly operated normally into June. A new manager replaced Mr. Foote in April but he, too, left in June. In July, the mine and mill sat idle and that, through "inefficient management," the water pumping system failed flooding the mine with water.
Signs of further trouble surfaced in November, 1900, when a local group of investors/operators leased the property for two years. The new operators immediately ran into trouble in de-watering the mine workings. A series of equipment failures and losses slowed the work. By April, 1901, however, things seemed to be going much better – both mine and mill produced concentrates ready for shipment. However, the road from the mine to the railroad proved too muddy for use until July, when shipments began once again. It appears that, in June, the mine had been shut down and had flooded again. As if the mine hadn't had enough problems, a large forest fire destroyed many of its structures – but not the mill – in July 1901
Going into 1902, the mine sat idle, but the lessees continued their attempts to de-water it once again. Things had not gone well – other than a short period of production in 1901, the mine had been shuttered since about July of 1900 In January, 1902, the original Chicago owners, after investing about $250,000 in the property, sold the operation to "eastern investors."
By March, 1902, crews de-watered the mine again so that production could begin. Glowing reports of new ore bodies followed in the local newspapers. The mill started production in May, shipping concentrate. Reports through the fall of 1902 literally gushed with enthusiasm and good news about new discoveries, shipments, profits, and full production, which apparently continued at a reasonable pace. Despite some production problems noted in the press through 1903, once again, the property was sold to new investors during the year.
In the early fall of 1903, several accounts of long-term employees leaving the mine surfaced but no particular indication of any problems at the mine followed. No news items appeared until June of 1904 when it was reported that Henry Foote, the former experienced manager, had committed suicide. In September, 1904, the mine was sold at a sheriff's auction in Breckenridge for non-payment of certain outstanding invoices. And, in perhaps a final sad note, the newspaper listed the property on the delinquent tax list in November, 1907.
So, what happened to cause the sudden death of the Mountain Pride, especially considering the glowing reports of rich finds, seemingly good management, and adequate financing? It is impossible, of course, to say. Flooding was undoubtedly an expensive and pervasive problem. Market prices for the mine's main products might have had an influence, but the price of gold remained absolutely steady during the mine's life. Silver prices were definitely "in the tank" during the mine's life, but the mine did not produce an especially large amount of silver. Management turnover in the latter years of the mine's life certainly did not help. One significant factor – in the author's opinion – is that the mine's ore – while wildly gushed over – probably occurred in relatively small but very rich pockets – randomly located, isolated, and fairly far apart. Thus, a small pocket of very rich ore might be struck but have a very limited life after expensive development efforts to reach it.
So, therein, lies the story of the booms and busts of two famous local underground mines – the Washington and the Mountain Pride. Very different stories but, in the end, a similar fate after some potentially rich times. And, as they say … the rest is history.
Rick Hague is a local mining historian and member of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance and Summit Historical Society boards. This article is part of a book currently being written for the Summit Historical Society's 50th anniversary. "Windows to the Past" by Hague and Sandie Mather is expected to be published in September or October 2016.