In the frigid winter of 1933, David Lavender hired on with the Camp Bird Mine outside of Ouray. He had previously worked as a cowboy in western Colorado and a salesman hawking various products in Denver. He had no mining experience, but he did have incentive to join the mine crew.
"Came a day when I wanted to get married and needed a stake," he wrote in his classic book, "One Man's West." After working for $30 a month as a cowboy, he explained, "the vast affluence of five dollars a day in the gold mines seemed to offer the quickest solution."
Five dollars a day sounds like a pittance now, but in the midst of the Great Depression, it was good money.
And the Depression saw a significant resurgence in gold production.
Author V. Larry Frank Jr., explained why in his book, "Colorado's Great Depression Gold Rush," which was published recently:
"Gold prices in England and Europe slowly crept upwards and gold speculators increasingly bought American gold and resold it overseas at a profit."
Additionally, "Knowing that the value of gold was increasing and the value of the dollar was decreasing, Americans wanted to own gold. Gold became the new safe haven for everyone from rural farmers to big city investors," Frank wrote. "This eagerness for gold, along with the reduced operating costs in this deflationary economy, spawned a 1930s Colorado gold rush."
Frank, former curator of the Western Museum of Mining and Industry in Colorado Springs and later director of the Healy House Museum in Leadville, now lives near Loma. He has done extensive research into the Depression-era mining boom.
"One of the important things to understand about the Depression boom was that it wasn't much about new discoveries," Frank said. "It was about reworking old claims."
The Depression boom didn't occur just in Colorado. Newspaper articles of the time reported on gold mines opening or expanding in Nevada and reopened mines in Utah and California.
Two mining regions in Colorado saw the greatest activity, Frank said. One was the Cripple Creek District west of Colorado Springs. The other was the Alma District near Fairplay.
Author and outdoorsman Arthur Carhart offered a glimpse of that boom in the Alma district when he wrote a Saturday Evening Post article titled "Homemade Gold" in 1932:
"A motley procession of autos followed the roads to the gold camps. Many had out-of-state licenses and often displayed gold pans and shovels among brimming bundles of duffel. Along the road between Fairplay and Alma were dozens of tents and near by, men worked sluices and hand rockers," Carhart wrote.
"One mine up Mosquito Gulch is working 170 men, another 100 men, and others up to seventy-five," he added, "and along the road were slab-walled shacks, log houses and tents — abodes of camp followers of the gold army."
Frank's book tells the story of a mining endeavor in the Alma District led by George Elder and his son, Robert. Their London Mountain Gold Mining Co. aimed to mine old veins of gold in the London Mountain area by reopening and extending the old Oliver Twist Tunnel.
The operation's headquarters were at 12,300 feet in elevation, on the east side of Mosquito Pass, just seven miles east of Leadville.
Because of the altitude and the economic times, it was initially difficult to attract investors. But the Elders sent stock sellers all over the country to woo investors and invited stockholders to the mine to view the operation firsthand. They eventually got the money they needed to reopen the mines.
Meanwhile, the Works Project Administration, a part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, was encouraging individuals to join the gold boom.
"The WPA was teaching gold panning on the banks of Cherry Creek" near Denver "as a way for people to augment their limited income," Frank said.
Roosevelt himself took a great interest in gold production, because gold coins minted in the United States were being shipped overseas to be sold on black markets in Europe.
He gradually increased the government-established price for gold from just over $20 an ounce to roughly $32 an ounce to encourage more production.
But many mining officials, including the Elders, feared he was going to destroy the gold market by taking the country off the gold standard, Frank said.
The silver market was already "in the tank," he said, and that's why mining districts like the San Juans — which were noted for their silver — didn't see much of a boom in the Depression. The Camp Bird Mine near Ouray, where Lavender worked, evidently had enough gold in its ore to make continued mining worthwhile.
And, although Leadville was primarily a silver and lead mining district, the Oliver Twist Tunnel and London Mine sit in a gold belt on the other side of Mosquito Pass.
The London Mine itself had been worked for more than 50 years, beginning in the 1880s, Frank said. And it had produced a lot of gold.
The Elders developed a plan to mine one of the best veins in that region by using the Oliver Twist Tunnel and attacking the vein from below. They expected to hit high-grade ore.
Unfortunately, their project "never made money. In fact, it never even broke even," Frank said.
It closed in 1936, and although there have been several efforts to re-examine the mine and its gold veins in the decades since, no one has ever attempted to reopen it.
The Depression gold boom continued in other mines and other parts of Colorado for a few more years. But most of the mines closed by 1942, when a World War II law declared that only mines producing strategic materials necessary for the war effort could continue operating.
David Lavender spent most of the winter of 1933 working underground at the Camp Bird Mine. The only way to and from the mine was on horseback to Ouray on treacherous mountain trails.`
Lavender stayed with the mine until September, when "the first blizzard howled down on the peaks." Then, even though he didn't have all the money he'd hoped to save for his upcoming wedding, "I spent about a minute and a half remembering the previous winter, then packed my war bag and went down the hill as fast as I could go."
Note: Larry Frank will discuss his book and the Depression Gold Rush at Out West Books on Main Street beginning at 6 p.m. tonight (Monday, Feb. 25). He will also discuss it at the Mesa County Historical Society's monthly oral history program on April 18, beginning at noon at the Museum of Western Colorado.
Sources: Interview with V. Larry Frank Jr.; "Colorado's Great Depression Gold Rush," by V. Larry Frank Jr.; "One Man's West," by David Lavender; Colorado and Utah historic newspapers.
Bob Silbernagel's email is email@example.com.