Sitting at an elevation of 11,200 feet, the first log cabin was built here in 1873 by prospectors. As more miners worked in the area a mining camp was born that was originally called Three Forks of the Animas River. When it gained a post office in February 1875, the name was shortened to Animas Forks. Because of the high altitude, most of the residents of the town migrated to Silverton in the winter.
By 1876 the mining camp had become a bustling mining community, boasting 30 cabins, a hotel, a general store, an unlicensed saloon, and a post office. That year the Dakota and San Juan Mining Company built a large mill in town. Though the mill was never very productive or profitable, it gave the impression of success and encouraged outside investment in the area.
As the camp became a regional center for commerce and mail and a formal townsite was laid out in 1877. The same year, the first legal saloon opened and Otto Mears constructed a toll road linking Ouray, Animas Forks, and Lake City. Before long, daily stagecoaches were running between Animas Forks and Lake City.
Also occurring in 1877 was the development of the Mineral Point Tunnel (also known as the Bonanza Tunnel). Investors of the Bonanza Tunnel Company felt this was the most cost-effective way to allow access to ores between Animas Forks and the higher mining camp Mineral Point. Plans were made to drive the tunnel into the side of Houghton Mountain in California Gulch, under the area of Mineral Point, with a proposed exit in Poughkeepsie Gulch near the San Juan Chief Mill. At that time, the Bonanza Tunnel Company became one of the main employers in Animas Forks.
In 1878, Edwin Brown, Levi Woodbury, and Harrison Garrison built a dam on the Animas River and established a water-powered sawmill near town. By August, it was churning out 4,000 board feet of lumber per day. In 1879 William Duncan built a two-story wood-frame house that still stands, and the Brown brothers, Edwin and Squire, established the Kalamazoo House, the grandest hotel in town, which boasted a piano and the only telephone in Animas Forks. By this point, more people were staying in town through the winter, and some shops were remaining open year-round. The hearty few who stayed were subject to avalanches and isolation.
In 1880 Animas Forks had a population of 114 and the town was incorporated the next year, becoming the second municipality in San Juan County. Animas Forks reportedly grew as large as 450 over the next few years and a number of new businesses were established. Three more stores were opened, as well as two butcher shops, two boarding houses, the Mercer House hotel, the Flagstaff House restaurant and bakery, a drug store, two assay shops, and a blacksmith shop.
One of the boarding houses was run by Esther Ekkard, who was the camp’s first woman, having arrived in 1875. The boarding house was extremely popular with the miners because Ekkard extended them credit. When one freeloader slipped out of town without settling his account for three months of lodging, a vigilante committee set out after him. After catching up with the man in Silverton, the man paid up after the vigilantes threatened to lynch him. Afterward, Mrs. Ekkard had no problems with customers skipping out on their bills.
The town built a jail in 1882 and the same year, it gained a newspaper called the Animas Forks Pioneer and established a school district. Classes were held for a few years in rented buildings. During these prosperous years, the town boasted itself as the “largest city in the world,” bud added in small type, “at this altitude.” However, despite its promising beginnings, Animas Forks began to decline in the mid-1880s, as speculative mining activity in the area slowed to a halt.
In 1884 a terrible blizzard inundated the town with 25 feet of snow, forcing the residents to dig tunnels to get from building to building. The residents were snowbound for 23 days and were unable to obtain supplies.
The same year, work on the Mineral Point (or Bonanza) Tunnel stopped and the blacksmith left. The butcher shop closed in 1885, and the newspaper shut down in 1886. The post office temporarily closed in February 1889 but reopened again in October after the Sunnyside Extension mine started to ship ore.
In October 1891 the town suffered a devastating fire that started in the kitchen of the Kalamazoo House, destroyed the hotel, and eventually burned 14 buildings, causing $20,000 in damage. Afterward, the post office closed again and most of the people moved away.
However, a few gold mines, including the Sunnyside Extension, continued to operate throughout the 1890s, but the town of Animas Forks was nearly deserted.
The town got a second chance in 1903. That year, the Gold Prince Mine Company bought the Sunnyside Extension claims near Animas Forks and planned to build a large mill in the area. That same year, Franklin Rockefeller and N.R. Bagley invested in the Bonanza Tunnel, work began again, and the two men began to acquire 140 mineral claims in the area.
In 1904 the Silverton Northern Railroad extended its tracks from Eureka to Animas Forks, drastically reducing transportation costs and making the mining of lower-grade ores economically feasible. An aerial tram was also installed to transport ore from the Gold Prince Mine. The town’s post office reopened in July, and T. J. McKelvey, who served as the postmaster and railroad depot agent, opened a merchandise store.
In 1905, a number of men arrived to build the Gold Prince Mill and workers repaired some of the town’s old buildings and built new houses. Four saloons were in operation by August. When the Gold Prince Mill was complete it included 100 stamps and had a 500 ton per day capacity. It was the most expensive and largest mill in the state. Ore was brought to the mill from the Gold Prince mine in buckets on a 12,600-foot long aerial tramway.
The same year, Franklin Rockefeller and N.R. Bagley who had bought the Bonanza Tunnel, formed the Frisco Mines and Tunnel Company. The tunnel was renamed the Bagley Tunnel and its first ores were processed at the Gold Prince Mill. With both companies operating, the population of Animas Forks again reached several hundred. Eventually, the town came to have electricity, telephones, and a telegraph.
The Gold Prince Mill operated steadily for about two years, but its owners filed for bankruptcy in 1907, though the mill continued to operate intermittently for several years. At about the same time, the crews of the Silverton Northern Railroad graded a branch line up to the Frisco camp near the tunnel. The Gold Prince Mill closed in 1910. By that time, Animas Forks was called home to 90 people. Many of them stayed as they continued to work on the Bagley Tunnel.