Rabbitbrush Rambler: Unearthing Summitville

It was obvious from the standing-room-only crowd at the Rio Grande County Museum on April 22 that Summitville played an important part in the life of the San Luis Valley. The museum’s program included firsthand reminiscences by LeeRoy Fuchs, Floyd Getz, Glen Getz, and Bill Ellithorpe, and exhibits showed old photos, newspapers, artifacts and a painting.

Summitville grabbed my interest as soon as I moved to the San Luis Valley. For one thing, it provided a scenic drive in the mountains, and remains of the old boardinghouse and nearby miners’ cottages still were standing for photography, as they still are. Also, there was lots of pretty pink fireweed to enjoy along the roadside.    

Gold, gold, gold was the lure that first got all the excitement started up on South Mountain. Some placer miners noticed glitter around 1870, but mining began in earnest after the Little Annie Mine was discovered in 1873. Stamp mills and amalgamation works soon were operating. Never mind the altitude and those long cold winters. Tom Bowen was one of the better known promoters.

Although earlier Hispanic settlers were already living on both sides of the Rio Grande, the present town of Del Norte was born in 1874 with supplies and miners going up and wagons with ore coming down. Some early traffic followed the Alamosa River to Conejos County, but a rough road by way of San Francisco Creek was more common until a toll road, using the route that follows today’s RG Road 14, was built.

Gold’s excitement at Summitville was already slowing down somewhat when silver was discovered over at Creede. Nevertheless, the more humdrum work continued up at Summitville, decade after decade. I’ll make no attempt to relate the whole story of Summitville. Read Richard C. Huston’s great books instead.

But no bonanza would be complete without a good legend. A 141-pound quartzite rock that was just lying around got noticed and proved to contain about $500,000 worth of crystallized gold on today’s market. At the program in Del Norte, Bill Ellithorpe told the audience about this find. The boulder itself is now safely housed at Colorado School of Mines Geology Museum in Golden.

The museum’s newsletter also told about an avalanche that tragically claimed the lives of two miners. On the lighter side, it also pictured youngsters skiing down the pitch roof of the schoolhouse.     

Other metals besides gold, such as copper and zinc, were mined up there in the latter part of the last century, but unwanted minerals also were seeping out of South Mountain’s mines and treatment operations and gurgling down Wightman Fork and the Alamosa River. Long before the modern operations came along, toxic brews like sulfuric acid were festering below ground in the old mine workings.     

ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Company) was operating up there when I first visited Summitville and was causing new problems. Things soon were going downhill. (Pardon the pun.) ASARCO filed for bankruptcy, and a bankruptcy court granted ASARCO funds, though hardly enough, for cleaning up its messes left behind at Leadville and Summitville and elsewhere.   

Then EPA’s federal Superfunds were needed. At Summitville alone, the EPA clean-up has cost more than $100 million to date. Silverton’s EPA project, where the Animas River famously carried bright orange water last year, comes next.

History can teach some very bitter lessons.