Colorado’s historic metal mining districts tell the tale of a state rich in mineral resources. From precious metals to lead, zinc, copper, molybdenum and tungsten: the state has a variety of mineral deposits that are still mined today. Geologists and miners recognized a broad area throughout the central part of the state that contained many precious minerals, the so-called Colorado Mineral Belt. This region has produced much of the state’s mineral wealth for many decades, beginning in the late-1800s. Prospectors came from all parts of the world to seek their fortune in the Rocky Mountains. When prices of metals were high, mining (and miners) had boom times, creating large communities like historic Leadville. Some towns completely disappeared after mineral prices fell or when mineral resources were depleted.
Many mining-related structures stand as a testament to Colorado’s metal mining history and are listed in the State or National Register of Historic Properties. Some of these structures may be seen in towns such as Idaho Springs and Silverplume along Interstate-70. Mine waste piles and openings—adits and shafts—from these operations may be spotted throughout the entire state. Many of the historic mining features we see today are the result of mining prior to the enactment and implementation of federal and state laws that govern mining and protect human health and the environment. The CGS has assisted the U.S. Forest Service with studying some of these issues, see: ON-008-04D U.S. Forest Service Abandoned Mine Land Inventory Project – Colorado (Data). It has also aided several federal and state agencies with cataloging information about abandoned mines in the state. Some of these abandoned mine areas directly impact surface water and/or groundwater. Both the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the US Environmental Protection Agency work with other public, local, state, and federal stakeholders to study and clean-up these sites.
Most of the federal environmental laws that regulate active mines, other industries, and environmental remediation of abandoned sites were implemented in the 1970s and 1980s. Colorado state mining laws were developed in the 1960s and 70s and include the Open Mining Land Reclamation Act of 1973 which established a permit process and limited bonding for coal mines and other industrial mineral producers. In 1976, the Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Division was created under the Department of Natural Resource (DNR) to regulate non‐coal mining operations.
Today, the DNR’s Mined Land Reclamation Board and Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS) promulgates the State rules and regulations associated with mining, mine safety, and the reclamation of abandoned mines. While these areas are interesting and celebrate the miners and geologists of the past, these historic structures, waste piles, and mine openings are dangerous and should be enjoyed from a safe distance.
The CGS historically had an extensive set of information on historical metal mining districts in the state. We recently re-compiled that information into a downloadable data package and a GIS map:
ON-007-08D Historic Metal Mining Districts of Colorado (Data) – v20201112 — Includes a compilation of individual mining district histories including the location, mineralogy, production, and references as well as GIS shapefiles of all the districts that include hyperlinks to the documents.
ON-007-08M Historic Metal Mining Districts of Colorado (Map) – v20201112 — This online map includes the estimated mining district boundaries and hyperlinks to summaries about the location, mineralogy, production, and references associated with each mining district.
Four additional county-based publications have sections on the particular historic mining districts in each:
RS-37 Geology and Mineral Resources of Gunnison County, Colorado — Includes section on mining districts located in the county.
RS-40 Geology and Mineral Resources of Park County, Colorado — Includes section on mining districts located in the county.
RS-42 Geology and Mineral Resources of Lake County, Colorado — Includes section on mining districts located in the county.
RS-44 Geology and Mineral Resources of Saguache County, Colorado — Includes section on mining districts located in the county.
Additional information about coal mining areas may be found in IS-64 Historic Coal Mines of Colorado.
We also recently re-published a collection — Compilation of Colorado Bureau of Mines Annual Reports 1896-1965 which detail the history of mining in the state between 1896 and 1965. Totaling almost 5,000 pages, this publication is fully searchable and opens with a side-bar directory listing each individual report.
Colorado State Publications Library Annual Mining Reports — Compilation of annual reports about the mining industry from 1896 through 1965 from the Colorado State Bureau of Mines.
Mindat.org — The world’s most extensive open database of minerals, rocks, meteorites, and the localities they come from.
Russell L. and Lyn Wood Mining History Archive (at the Arthur Lakes Library, Colorado School of Mines) — Established in 1995 through the generous donations of former Mines Board of Trustees member Russell L. Wood and his wife Lyn, the archive supports research on the history of mining, with emphasis on Colorado and the US West. The current curator of this collection published a report on the mining districts of Colorado.
USGS Mineral Resources Data System (MRDS) — A collection of reports describing metallic and nonmetallic mineral resources throughout the world. Included are deposit name, location, commodity, deposit description, geologic characteristics, production, reserves, resources, and references.
USGS Prospect- and mine-related features on USGS topographic maps — Compilation of data points representing prospect pits, mine shafts and adits, quarries, open-pit mines, tailings piles and ponds, gravel and borrow pits, and other features.
U.S. Geological Survey – Map Showing the Extent of Mining, Locations of Mine Shafts, Adits, Air Shafts, and Bedrock Faults, and Thickness of Overburden Above Abandoned Coal Mines in the Boulder-Weld Coal Field, Boulder, Weld, and Adams Counties, Colorado — An important compilation from 2001 made in collaboration with the CGS.
U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) — Regulates coal mines and abandoned mines on federal property.
Western Mining History — A wealth of resources on mines across all western states.