Huerfano County, Colorado

Contributed by: Louise Adams
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Placer or Russell

Placer or Russell by Nancy Christofferson Huerfano World - August 1, 2002

According to the late Perry Eberhart, chronicler of Colorado ghost towns bar none, the communities of Placer, Russell and Sangre de Cristo "were the most difficult to separate. They moved, changed names, traded names. Maps and other sources only tended to confuse the issue."

The fact is, Eberhart understated the problem!

Placer/Russell is located in Costilla County just a few miles west of the summit of North Veta Pass on Highway 160. Today only a few old buildings, including the 1880s schoolhouse, remain standing, along with a modern dome on the west side of the highway.

Across the road, on a lonely hill of sage, is the community cemetery. Although dozens of grave sites can be discerned, only six graves remain marked, dating from 1875 to 1886.

These relics give little clue to the area's forgotten days of glory. Numerous sources point out that the Placer diggings in the area are the oldest in the state, dating back to 1852 when soldiers from Fort Massachusetts began prospecting at what became known as Officers Bar on Placer Creek.

However, Spanish Bar nearby was believed to have been mined by Spaniards and New Mexicans in the early to mid 1800s, long before the area was settled by easterners. Old timers claimed they had found arrastras and other mining artifacts when they first arrived. A branch of Placer Creek is named Spanish Gulch.

Following the soldiers at Officers Bar came the early settlers of our section. One of these was Green Russell, a Georgia native who in 1858 discovered gold in Russell Gulch near Denver and started the original rush to the Rockies.

In October 1875, Russell reported to the Colorado Chieftain the prospects in Grayback Gulch, a branch of Placer Creek, were "poor man's digging," yielding about $3 to $4 per day. One wouldn't get rich on such money, but it was more than the average man made in a week.

Green Russell, for whom the community was named, drew quite a bit of attention and other goldseekers flocked to Russell/Placer to try their luck.

Enough people were drawn to the mining area that a post office was established May 12, 1876. It was called Russell but the area remained "Placer." By the 1880s the editor of the La Veta newspaper, the Advertiser, beseeched his readers not to address mail to Placer because it had no post office. People confused Placer and Russell because they were, basically, two names for the same place. To add to the confusion, when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built its narrow gauge tracks across Veta Pass in 1877, it named the station at Russell "Sangre de Cristo," giving the settlement three names!

Being just 16 miles from La Veta, Russell had quite, a bit of commerce with that town. People actually walked back and forth between the two communities, even through deep snow. Many La Veta merchants opened branch stores in Russell. The town boasted several hotels, stores, saloons, physicians (including Dr. Erwin of La Veta), a pool hall, smelter, schoolhouse and other niceties and necessities. At times it received the services of several religious denominations from pastors of La Veta and Walsenburg.

Besides the mines, logging was a source of economy, with lumber shipped out on the railroad or being used by the rail company for ties and building materials. Russell had a sawmill by 1885. Russell post office was located on Sangre de Cristo Creek just below its junction with Placer Creek. The mines were to the north and west, along Placer Creek, Grayback Gulch and Willow Creek. To the southeast was another mining area called Big Hill.

However, on other map, such as one from 1885, Placer (population 100) was placed five miles south of Russell (population 200). Another shows "Placier" south of Russell. Since Placer had a railroad depot and was the site of the eating station in those days before dining cars, it would seem the names are used interchangeably or people were just plain stumped as to where they were.

Placer also had a roundhouse and a wye for turning engines. The railroad provided full-time employment for a dozen or so men.

Photo Caption: Dredge Duty - The $90,000 dredge at Placer was launched in May 1910. Although the roof was unfinished, the dredge was christened "Mary Blossom: and put to work with three shifts of men working eight hours. The dredge did not pay for itself and ceased operating in 1913. The remains of the old dredge sit in Placer Creek. The machinery was stripped from the dredge for other uses, as was its front end and crane.

Besides being on the railroad, Russell/Placer was located on the Baldy Scott Toll Road. Baldy Scott was the assumed name of Henry T. Sefton who built the road on the east side of the mountains and linked up with the old Sangre de Cristo Trail on the west side. This trail lead straight to, and through, Russell.

Sefton needed a good road because he was an early prospector at Russell/Placer. About 1870 he discovered iron ore along Placer Creek. After the D&RG built to Russell, it constructed a spur up Grayback Gulch to the mine in 1877. The Colorado Coal and iron Company, later Colorado Fuel and Iron, leased the workings from Sefton and employed an average of 50 miners until it closed the mines in late June of 1883.

Sefton became Russell's postmaster in 1880. The post office was undoubtedly in his store which was one of the oldest mercantiles in "this part of the state." He also had a saloon and mined for gold.

When the CC&I ceased operations at the iron mine, Sefton and his partner, J.B. Slone, took it over, employing between 10 and 25 men. They also built a tramway to move the ore since the railroad removed its tracks to the mine.

Speaking of Slone, a resident of Placer since 1871, Russell's most tragic accident involved his only son, who was accidentally shot to death on July 4, 1881. It seems a man spotted another who owed him money across the street near Morton's Eating House at Placer. Intoxicated, the first man took a shot at the debtor when young Bill Slone stood up after lighting a firecracker in the street, just in time to be shot dead at age 15. J.B.'s wife went into a decline and eventually died in a Pueblo sanitarium.

After Placer/Russell experienced its first boom in 1870-1871, it quieted down until 1880 when more rich strikes were made. By December the population was back up to 400. The Matching Mining and Smelter Company was completing its smelter under the direction of Carl Wulsten. The new $15,000 building was destroyed by an arsonist the following May before processing any ore.

In early 1882 gold was found further northeast along Willow Creek. A town named Chaseville was established but soon abandoned.

By September 1883 only one store and Sefton's saloon, along with a café/hotel near the railroad tracks, remained open. The boom was over, but Placer did not die.

Even today, portions of Placer Creek and Grayback Gulch "yield color" according to a gold-panner, with three or more pieces of coarse gold per pan. Prospectors continued through the 1880s and early 1890s to pan for gold, while others worked for the iron mine or continued to tunnel, drill and otherwise search for the legendary mother lode.

In mid-1895, the biggest employer in Russell was Slone and Sefton's iron mine. Within a year, more gold strikes were made, and the third boom began.

The Advertiser of September 19, 1896 announced, "Russell is the new name for the town so long known as Placer." Huh? The Russell post office had been operating for 20 years! No wonder Eberhart was confused. So was the Advertiser editor - he continued to use the old name, such as in the Nov. 14, 1896 item of "…about 50 men are now in Placer.

La Veta merchants again rushed over the pass to open branch stores, like Garren and Strange's general mercantile, J.W. Culler's barbershop, Mrs. John Hudson's restaurant, Jap Bruce's saloon or F. M. Eggleston's hotel. One W.C. Caldwell even started a newspaper, The Russell Review, in 1897. It lasted two years.

This third boom brought a new wrinkle. As the Walsenburg World reported on Jan. 13, 1898, "One of the most important new features of mining in southern Colorado is likely to be the extensive placer proposition at Russell… The Badger State Mining Company is putting in there a steam shovel which will pick up about 800 cubic yards per day of gravel and dump it into a big machine, where it will be washed and the gold taken out. Already there has been an expenditure of $50,000. The locality is about two and a half miles above the old Placer Station…"

This steam shovel was actually a dredge, which seemed to make its owners some money. At other sites, tunnels were lengthened and new lodes opened.

In April 1900 a rumor floated around the county about the D&RG reopening its narrow gauge to get the gold from Placer to market. About the same time, further strikes and high hopes brought about the establishment of a new camp on 80 acres along Willow Creek and Sangre de Cristo Creek, named Rossdale.

Three months later the Advertiser noted, "Rossdale slumbers beside the Sangre de Cristo, but Russell is lively." Most of the new mining claims were along Grayback and in Spanish Gulch. A stamp mill was built near the old iron mine to accommodate the ore.

An estimated (by the local editors) 300 men were employed in the mines at Placer in the summer of 1900. Spanish Gulch's black sand was said to yield $88-$102 in gold.

But guess what? The D&RG completed their new broad, or standard, gauge track in 1899, bypassing Placer/Russell. The new grade descended the mountains via Wagon Creek. So Russell Station moved about five miles down the valley to Wagon Creek. The old Big Hill area became known as New Russell. The former Placer Depot was moved by railroad car to become La Veta Pass depot, later Fir, on the new grade.

The post office moved to New Russell in 1898 but was returned to its former home very quickly.

In April 1899 a petition was passed to get another post office for New Russell. This was granted and the office was named Margaret. It was closed in 1900. Another post office on Wagon Creek, named Bernice, operated in 1901-1902.

Back at old Russell/Placer, activity remained steady. Henry Martin's sawmill, rebuild after a 1902 fire, was busy enough to have the post office moved there for about six months in 1904.

Some time around the turn of the twentieth century, reunions were organized among the pioneer of Russell. Some of the local names of those assembled were J.K. and Will Kincaid, F.M. Eggleston, Ray Thomas, Ell Smith, A.V. and Tom Denton, W.H. Hamilton, the Coleman brothers and the Drums. The group reminisced "about the days when gold seekers swarmed the hills and the narrow gauge and the roundhouse made the place lively," said the Advertiser.

Mountain View Mining Company came to the fore in late 1905 when it operated a three-story stamp mill, a boardinghouse, two bunkhouses and a blacksmith shop about five miles from Placer.

The area fell out of the news for a few years, though the post office and many of the businesses were still operating.

In 1910 came the big news of a new, super dredge. In February, the newspapers said the $90,000 dredge was on its way to Russell "to begin work in the old Placer ground." It weighed 300 tons and required seven railroad cars to move it. It was made of 125,000 feet of lumber and 25 men worked to build the superstructure. The dredge's capacity was 2,500 yards of gravel a day.

The dredge was placed on Placer Creek a quarter mile from Placer. It was powered by six big engines of over 100 horsepower each and had 55 buckets weighing 1,070 pounds each. It drew four feet of water. It even had its own electrical plant.

While the mechanics of the new dredge intrigued the local editors, the more important point of the dredge was that it employed 33 men in three shifts of 11.

Photo contributed by Barbara McCoy

The dredge was "launched" Friday, May 13, 1910. Its owner, Col. John A. Ownbey of the Colorado Gold Dredging Company, had made his fortune a few years earlier by winning a law suit against J.P. Morgan's estate. Ownbey's 10-year-old daughter Mary christened the dredge the "Mary Blossom" but one imagines the hardened miners called it simply "the dredge."

Photo contributed by Barbara McCoy
500 shares of stock owned by H.A. Wright, dated 1-19-1911

In November, the newspaper said the dredge had "hoed up a row in the pay sand" and one day took about $800 worth of ore in six hours. The next week it was closed down for the winter.

Restarting in March, the dredge again ran three shifts. In mid-March, "the dredge at Russell produced a gold brick weighing 110.25 ounces" which earned the company $2,089.30. The next week "the dredge at Placer produced $2,600 in pure gold."

A few months later, in May, the dredge earned $4,000 in 10 days. In August, $2,000 was made in two weeks. Production was dropping. In September the dredge was swamped and new machinery had to be ordered.

Despite decreasing production, the dredge was kept running for several years. It sank several times a year until it was dismantled in 1913.

With the end of the dredge, the Russell post office was discontinued. However, the community was saved when the Trinchera Estate built its timber company headquarters there in 1915. Buildings were moved to Russell from Fort Garland, and the little settlement now relied on timbering for its economy. The post office was reestablished in 1916 and did not close until 1956.

Prospecting continued (and still does). Some mines, such as J.B. Slone's old Magnolia, were worked throughout the twenties and thirties.

Where ever Russell/Placer is exactly, it enjoyed a long life.

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