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; Colorado has a variety of mineral deposits that are still mined today. Geologists and miners recognized a broad area throughout central Colorado that contained many precious minerals: the so-called Colorado Mineral Belt. This region has produced much of Colorado’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 mountains of Colorado. When prices of metals were high, mining hit boom times, creating large communities like historic Leadville. Some towns 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 Historical 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, shafts) from these operations may be spotted throughout the 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 and has also assisted several federal and state agencies with cataloging information about abandoned mines in the state. Some of these areas impact surface water and/or groundwater and both the Colorado Department of Public Health and the 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 including 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 Colorado 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 website has 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 publications have sections on the particular historic mining districts in each county:
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, can be found in the CGS publication IS-64
Colorado State Publications Library Annual Mining Reports — between 1893 through 1965 the State Bureau of Mines generated reports about the mining industry.
Mindat.org — the world’s largest 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.
Western Mining History — Contains a wealth of resources on mines across all western states.