Born of volcanic fire, but shaped primarily by glacial ice, the San Juans make up the largest mountain range in Colorado. They encompass an area comparable in size to Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts combined, covering about 12,000 square miles of Colorado's awe-inspiring "southwest."
Rich in veins of ore that have greatly influenced the history of this wondrous place, the northeastern San Juans – including Hinsdale County and Lake City – also boast the geologically significant Slumgullion Earthflow that produced Lake San Cristobal (the second largest natural lake in Colorado), dramatic waterfalls, rugged peaks, valleys, gulches, and natural bounty that remain today virtually undiscovered. The following is a historical timeline of Hinsdale County and the Town of Lake City – hidden gems in Colorado's beautiful San Juans.
Information gleaned from various archaeological surveys and studies has revealed that resources of the area were being used by humans as early as 12,000 years ago. Artifacts found at an excavated site approximately nine miles north of Lake City indicate cultural activity beginning 8,700 years. Seasonal hunting and gathering ventures in the Lake Fork Region are believed to have continued off-and-on from that time, with the presence of the Utes actually documented by European explorers in the 17th century.
Because Native Americans did not record their history in writing, it is not known exactly when the Utes arrived in southwestern Colorado. It is known that their domain was extensive and included the San Luis Valley and the San Juan Mountains. The San Juans were not only considered bountiful hunting grounds, but were also a refuge from marauding tribes, such as the Apache and the Plains Indians.
By 1868, the Ute presence in the San Luis Valley (Colorado Territory) was considered an undesirable barrier to development of the area by the United States. Thinking it possible to prevent growing hostilities between the Utes and the Americans, Chief Ouray, leader of the large Tabeguache tribe, and his friend Kit Carson fostered the Kit Carson Treaty, which was ratified in 1869. Terms of this treaty moved the Utes from the San Luis Valley to approximately sixteen million acres on the western side of the Continental Divide. However, the government's growing desire to remove the Utes entirely from the mineral-rich San Juans was realized in 1873 with the signing of the Brunot Treaty.
Even before ratification of the treaty, prospectors who had found mineral deposits while the land was still under Ute control returned to file claims and settle in Hinsdale County, which was formed on February 20, 1874 from parts of Costilla, Conejos, and Lake Counties and originally included present-day Mineral County. In August of 1874, Enos Hotchkiss built the first documented structure on the present site of Lake City after filing the Hotchkiss claim (Golden Fleece) with Henry Finley and D. P. Church.
Reacting to news of the Hotchkiss discovery, prospectors and speculators flooded to the area, and on February 23, 1875, the county seat of Hinsdale was moved to the swiftly growing community of Lake City. On August 16, 1875, the townsite of Lake City was incorporated and quickly became a supply hub and smelting center for individual prospectors and mining operations in the region. And, initially, all San Juan mining claims had to be filed at the land office located in Lake City. The area developed so quickly that in just a few years more than 500 structures had been built and many "firsts" for the Western Slope of Colorado occurred. Experiencing both ups and downs, the mining industry and the population of Lake City and Hinsdale County peaked around 1900. Over the next decades, however, mining activity decreased, as did the number of people claiming Hinsdale as their year-round residence.
While, mineral production around Lake City continues, the resources that are proving to be the mainstay of Hinsdale County are its pristine beauty, its diverse recreational opportunities, its down-home hospitality, and a well-preserved history that is highly visible in the Lake City National Historic District, at the Hinsdale County Museum, and along the Silver Thread and Alpine Loop byways.
Hinsdale County and its historic town of Lake City – well worth discovering and visiting over and over again.