ALAMOSA — Bill Ellithorpe knows “there’s gold in them hills.”
He helped recover some of it.
The San Luis Valley native shared some of his Summitville mining recollections during a program for Rotary in Alamosa on Monday.
Born in 1920, Ellithorpe, 97, resides at The Bridge whose director Carol Riggenbach introduced him as someone with a “wealth of information.”
“I’ve got a lot of stories to tell,” he agreed. “I have a pretty long history of involvement with Summitville.”
“Lots of people around the Valley have ancestors that worked up there,” he added.
One of his ancestors was involved in Summitville near its inception in gold mining in 1872, and Ellithorpe also owned land there for a time. He also owned mining claims in the Creede area.
“I personally mined in Summitville,” he said. “I sunk a shaft out there.”
His father, uncle and brother were involved in mining at Summitville as well. It was his brother who found a rock with 26 pounds of gold in it that now sits in a museum in Denver.
His father and uncle spent all winter in Summitville, coming out on skis for supplies twice a year. “They packed their stuff in, enough to keep them going all winter,” he said. “They stayed up there all winter in Summitville and mined.”
He added, “It was all hand drilling, no machine drilling, mined all by hand.”
Snowdrifts would get 60-80 feet deep in places, Ellithorpe said.
Ellithorpe recalled a time in the 1930’s when he worked at Summitville when there were 200 people there. “It was a very successful operation,” he said.
Ellithorpe still keeps track of the price of gold which was $20 an ounce in 1928 and $1,320-1,330 an ounce on Monday. “So you can see there is a little scramble for gold, that it’s a reasonably good investment, a little bit of money there,” he said.
“I still have an interest in it. I don’t have much of it,” he added.
Ellithorpe began working at Summitville in the summer of 1936 at age 16. He was the youngest on a crew of six or seven, with the rest coming from the School of Mines.
“We had a sampling crew. We sampled all over Summitville.”
The crew would bring its samples to the assay office on site at Summitville at the time. With 200 men up there, Summitville also boasted a post office and other buildings.
While wages were $1 a day elsewhere, crews at Summitville at the time were making $4.50 a day, he recalled.
“That was big money then,” he said.
Ellithorpe also worked at Summitville in 1941 before he was drafted into the Army.
“Today there’s still lots of gold up in Summitville,” he said. “It’s too bad Galactic Mine made a mess up there. When they built leach pads they punched holes in them and caused it to leak down into Wightman Fork.”
Summitville is an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site now, which Ellithorpe believes is “just a way to milk Uncle Sam.”
After his Summitville experience, Ellithorpe mined in the Crater Creek area in Creede with partner Pete Walker, a fellow veteran who had been mining in Creede for most of his life.
“We would go up all week, worked five days a week, two rounds a day, about 16 feet a day,” he recalled. “My wife would cook for us. There were five of us on the crew.”
He recalled the laborious work of drilling holes, setting off charges and making sure they all went off (“because we dam sure didn’t want any sleepers”) and clearing out and hauling off the muck by hand. They seldom had any misfires, because “we were pretty good at it,” and they didn’t want to lose a day’s work.
“We could make two rounds a day if we worked hard at it,” he said.
“I had some good ore up there,” he added. The Creede mines produced lead, zinc and silver. Indium was also prevalent but was not as precious before the computer age.
Ellithorpe described the way precious ores were deposited and said all of them have a habit of their own in how they are deposited.
“All gold has a little different cast to it,” he added. For example, the gold in Alaska is redder than other areas.
Ellithorpe referred his listeners to “A Gold Camp Called Summitville” by Richard C. Huston as a good source of Summitville stories. The book can be purchased in Creede and Lake City stores.