Animas Forks is a shining example of what can happen when people, counties, and historical societies come together to preserve history. So few of Colorado's historic places have been saved for future generations to experience. Animas Forks is a standout exception. Stabilization efforts have been on-going for several years. Most recently, new roofs were placed on all of the buildings, and the jail was restored.
At 11,300 feet, Animas Forks laid just below timberline and was one of the largest and busiest towns at such a high altitude. Legend says that the local Justice of the Peace once told a defendant that appealing his conviction was pointless since his court was "the highest court in the United States."
Animas Forks was a mining town, to be sure, but it is remembered more for its role in treating ore from nearby mines and as a central hub for other towns in the area. There were at least two large mills here. The first, inside the town limits, was the gargantuan Gold Prince. As the town's fortunes waned in the early twentieth century, the mill was moved down the road to Eureka.
The first mine was located in 1875, and Animas Forks was busy and building by 1877. To attract attention, lots were given away for free. Over a thousand people heeded the call and flooded the area. Most left during the winter, when snowdrifts often reached 25-feet high and snowslides were commonplace.
Much of the time, the people who "struck it rich" in mining towns were not the miners. Often, the people who made the most money were those who saw a need and filled it. They were the ones who supported the miners with the necessities of life. Even today, wild-eyed fortune seekers usually spend more than they make in their quest for riches. Those who provide the means can make a killing (think Las Vegas). Mrs. Eckard, for example, ran a boarding house (she was also the first woman in town). Newcomers needed a place to sleep; Mrs. Eckard provided beds. Sol Raymond published the Animas Forks Pioneer. It was required that all new claims appear in a newspaper. As a result, the first issue cost five hundred dollars. After that, it never sold for less than a dollar. Often it sold for as much as twenty-five dollars. The citizens even had a direct telephone line that ran over the Continental Divide and on to Lake City.
If you make the trip from Silverton to Animas Forks, you'll be driving along a road carved out by Otto Mears. Mears' name is synonymous with roadbuilding and trains in Colorado's San Juan mountains. Without his engineering skills, much of this rough country may never have been opened up to settlers. He expanded the railroad grade for four miles from Eureka into Animas Forks. First, he built the road. Then he built a spur line on that road. His route still ferries four-wheel-drive vehicles into the highest places in the San Juans to this day.
Then, and now, roads leading out of Animas Forks take visitors to essential points in these mountains. To the south is Silverton. To the north was Mineral Point and eventually on to Ouray or Lake City, depending on the road you choose out of Mineral Point. To the east is Lake City.
Much remains of Animas Forks today, making the trip well worthwhile. Among the structures that remain are the Frisco Mill just west of town, and the William Duncan house with the impressive bay window. It was in this home that the daughter of Frank Walsh, Evelyn Walsh McLean, penned at least part of her biography on her father, Father Struck it Rich. She also happened to be the heiress to her dad's fabulously wealthy mine, the Camp Bird, and the owner of the Hope Diamond.
Some of the best mines here were the Silver Coin, the Gold Prince, the Early Bird, and the Columbia. There were also the Bagley Tunnel where the Frisco Mill stands, and the Red Cloud at Mineral Point, among many others.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Animas Forks began to wane. In 1917, the vast Gold Prince mill was dismantled piece-by-piece and moved down the road to Eureka, where it was placed back into operation to treat ore from the Sunnyside mine. By 1920, Animas Forks was all but deserted.
In spite of preservation efforts spanning decades, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, Animas Forks was in trouble. Vandals had damaged the site. Some non-thinking visitors tore wood off of buildings for campfires or as souvenirs. Others sprayed graffiti. Roofs were starting to sag. And year-over-year, the weather at 11,300-feet was taking a huge toll.
In 2011, a group of amazing and dedicated people in and around the Silverton area began their preservation work in earnest. Animas Forks was added to the National Register of Historic Places and they were funded with $330,000 in grant money to save this grand old town. And what a beautiful job they've done. New roofs and new windows have been installed. Buildings have been fully stabilized. Even the jailhouse with its two-by-fours stacked one on top of the other has been lovingly restored.
In addition to Animas Forks, many of the historic treasures of the San Juans have been saved, including the nearby massive Frisco Mill. A debt of gratitude is owed to the dedicated people at the local historical societies (including the San Juan and Hinsdale County Historical Societies), the National Forest Service, and the BLM. Thanks to them, over twelve million dollars in grants have been obtained and preservation work continues on to protect the history of Colorado's San Juan mountains.