In the Beginning...
A summary based on the book Lake City Refelections by Grant Houston © 1976. This book is available at the John Wagner Public Library.
In the beginning the area now known as Hinsdale County and the town of Lake City was claimed by the Spanish around 1536.
The Spaniards were looking for riches in gold and silver between 1815-1845 during which the Indians and “mountain men” laid claim to the area for it’s natural resources of food, water, solitude and most especially for the mountain men; it’s abundant supply of valuable fur pelts.
Life was simple, rugged and lived in solitude for most until the mountain men exhausted the fur resources, some returned to the civilized world as scouts for American government and military expeditions while others choose to remain uncivilized by joining the Indians.
By the mid nineteenth century, reports of mineral assets in Colorado created a rising need for the Indians to put a defensive front to protect the land they claimed as their own. The US government attempted to make peaceful agreements with the Ute Indians by offering them a treaty in 1868 granting them 15,120,000 acres in Western Colorado promising that whites would not trespass and allowing Americans to settle the front range.
This treaty however did not last for long as the lure of mineral riches called out from the Southern Indian Territory.
The US government attempted to make a new deal in 1872 to avoid an upheaval and retaliation by the Ute’s. Negotiations for the Ute’s was headed by Chief Ouray, representative for all the Indians of the area, well known for being an accomplished speaker of three languages and being fair decisions maker for the whites and Indians. The US side was represented by Felix R. Brunot, Chairman of the National Board of Indian Commissioners, whom was not very well received by the Indians after his suggestions for the new treaty seemed to lack compassion which reportedly “made the Indians hearts bad.” The Ute’s denied the request, sending a defeated Brunot home.
In the mean time, the US government was curious to know what the area had to offer as well as count the number of settlers already established, sent Lt. E.H. Ruftner on a reconnaissance mission. His report was lengthy in detail about the beauty of the area as well as reporting that only 5-6 settlers were established.
To anxious to wait for Ruftner report, the US government sent Brunot back to Chief Ouray with a generous offer of $25,000 a year forever plus an additional $1000 for Ouray himself as long as he was Chief. In September of 1873, Brunot triumphantly returned to Washington with 312 signatures of the Ute Indians most important leaders.
April 29, 1874 that Congress accepted the Brunot Treaty and Western Colorado was opened to the fever of men hungry for the mineral riches it had to offer.
Within a month or so the Colorado Territorial Legislature would establish three new counties, Hinsdale, Rio Grande and La Platta. Shortly thereafter, in June 1874, San Juan City would be settled as the county seat of Hinsdale County on an upper branch of the Rio Grande River.
A struggling group of commissioners and officers diligently worked towards getting organized, establishing roads and increasing trade in the area. Nearby Saguache also in growth turmoil, had support from Otto Mears, a famous toll-road builder, and other wealthy business investors to set out to build a road from Sauguache to Animas Valley. Heading this crew was Enos Hotchkiss, a veteran road builder and prospector. He and his crew built 100 miles of road by July that year reaching the shores of what is now Lake San Cristobal in August 1874.
Enos Hotchkiss was a man famed for being full of stamina, enough to run a deer to death or survive in absolute wilderness for long periods of time. Driven by shear determination and great work ethic his 100-mile trek left him yearning for the need to find mineral riches. Remaining at the shores of Lake San Cristobal while sending the work crew to finish the road to Animas Valley, he quickly discovered mineral deposits at the outlet of Lake San Cristobal that reportedly valued at $40,000.
Satisfied with his new finding and needing a place to settle while working his new claim, Hotchkiss headed down the Lake Fork river to a flats area filled with beaver ponds and realizing it’s potential for water resources and flat buildable land areas, decided to erect the first two cabins in Lake City, (in the current block area of Gunnison, between Second and Third Street) therefore becoming the “Father of Lake City.”
Hinsdale County was in full swing midway thru 1874; with it’s first elected county commissioners, Enos Hotchkiss, JJ Holbrock and Harry Franklin in place. Rumors of claims hitting big and the Saguache to Animas Valley road (San Juan Road) completed, prospectors began to pour into the valley, most choose to not stay in San Juan City though rather they pushed on into the mountains finally resting in Lake City.
February 1875, Lake City was officially named the county seat of Hinsdale County, reflecting it’s rapid growth and need for a town company to site blocks and oversee lots sales, brought on the election of President Henry Finley, F. Naton Bogue as Treasurer, W.T. Ring, Otto Mears, Enos Hotchkiss, Isaac Gothhelf and H.M. Woods as trustees of the town government.
After many difficulties re-assigning claimed property in the designated town site, the month of March boasted an approximate population of 300 miners and 13 log cabins.
The Siler World Newspaper, first newspaper on the Western Slope, was founded shortly thereafter.
November of the same year boasted even more due to the building of a sawmill in town, now Lake City had 67 wood framed buildings, 45 in progress and 79 foundations laid. The population is guessed to be around 400, with large numbers of new arrivals showing up daily.
Bursting at the seams by the Spring of 1876, Lake City then referred to the metropolis of the San Juans, experienced rapid development in mining claims like the Hotchkiss, Ute and Ule, then the completion of extensive smelting companies Crooke Smelting and Van Grieson Lixiviation Works by the end of the year.
Although the hard winter drove some folks to more promising nearby camps of Silverton, Ouray and Leadville, Lake City experienced another population boom in the spring of 1877 with a mass arrival of immigrants. Over 16 mines were opened and actively being mined, leading to an even larger influx of population based on the prospect of hitting it big.
Lake City saw a more permanent establishment in the summer of 1877 when construction of more costly buildings began to be erected. The first was the Miners and Merchant Bank built of local dressed stone, on the southwest corner of Silver and Third Streets. Others included the Ocean Wave Smelting Complex, Hinsdale County Courthouse, and the Henry Finley Block.
At the time, H.L. Franklin built two large multi-unit blocks in the business district, which eventually burned down. So to was the result of the Brocket Block and J. Graff & Co. Block on Gunnison Avenue. Many wood framed block structures built during this time in the business district burned in the 1879 fire. Many were replaced to yet again be lost to fire or eventual replacement.
The boom years of 1876 and 1877 offered Lake City at its best, unrivaled in size and population on the Western Slope. The 1880’s did not fair so well, with the depression followed by the decrease of mining in the 1890’s.
Lake City experienced a boom of a different kind in the 1950’s with the rediscovery of its unrivaled natural beauty, abundant wildlife, recreational activities and solitude. Tourism became the new fever to effect large numbers of families looking for the perfect summer vacation destination in the mountains. Lake City to this day still offers gold medal fishing, majestic fourteener mountains to climb, world class hunting opportunities and wildlife viewing.
A summary based on the book Lake City Refelections by Grant Houston © 1976. This book is available at the John Wagner Public Library