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, covering about 12,000 square miles of Colorado’s awe-inspiring “southwest.”
Rich in veins of ore that have greatly influenced its history, the northeastern San Juans also boast the geologically significant Slumgullion Earthflow, the second largest natural lake in Colorado, dramatic waterfalls, rugged peaks, and natural bounty that remain 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 archaeological studies has revealed that humans were using area resources as early as 12,000 years ago. Artifacts found at a site just north of Lake City indicate cultural activity beginning 8,700 years ago, with seasonal hunting and gathering ventures thought to continue off-and-on until the presence of the Utes was actually documented by European explorers in the 17th century.
Because Native Americans did not record their history, it is not known exactly when the Utes arrived in southwestern Colorado. It is known that their domain included the San Luis Valley and the San Juan Mountains. By 1868, Ute presence in the San Luis Valley was considered a barrier to development of the area by the United States. Hoping to prevent growing hostilities between the Utes and the Americans, Chief Ouray, leader of the large Tabeguache tribe, and Kit Carson championed the Kit Carson Treaty of 1869, which moved the Utes from the San Luis Valley to millions of acres west of the Continental Divide. The government’s desire to remove the Utes entirely from the mineral-rich San Juans was realized in 1873 with the signing of the Brunot Treaty.
Prospectors who had found mineral deposits while the land was still under Ute control returned to file claims and settle in Hinsdale County – formed on February 20, 1874. In August, 1874, Enos Hotchkiss built the first true structure on the present site of Lake City after filing the Hotchkiss (Golden Fleece) claim with partners Henry Finley and D. P. Church.
Reacting to news of the discovery, prospectors and speculators flooded to the area; and on February 23, 1875, Lake City became Hinsdale’s county seat. On August 16, 1875, the town was officially incorporated, quickly became the supply hub and smelting center for mining operations in the region, and included the land office where all San Juan mining claims were initially filed. The area developed quickly. In a few years over 500 structures had been built and many Western Slope firsts 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, 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 proving to be the mainstay of Hinsdale County are its pristine beauty, its diverse recreational opportunities, its hospitality, and a well-preserved history highly visible in Lake City’s National Historic District and along the Silver Thread and Alpine Loop byways.
Hinsdale County and its historic town of Lake City – well worth discovering.