Minerals were first discovered here in 1871 by Joel Mullen, Albert Mead, and Henry Henson. Two years before, the Brunot Treaty removed the Ute Indians from the San Juan Mountains and opened the area up to prospectors and settlers.
In 1874, Joel Mullen, Albert Mead, Henry Henson, and Charles Godwin staked formal claims on the site and performed some initial development. The mine was named in honor of Chief Ouray. Ulay is how the Ute Indians pronounced his name. The Ute-Ulay claims along Henson Creek were the first registered mining claims in Hinsdale County.
However, the initial owners of the claim lacked the financing to fully work the site and they sold it to the Crooke Mining and Smelting Company for $125,000 in the summer of 1876. This company was based in London, England, with offices in New York. Comprised of brothers, John J. Crooke and Lewis Crooke, the company was more commonly referred to as the Crooke Brothers. They also had holdings at Summitville and in Lake City.
In addition to the Ute-Ulay, the company also bought up several other area mines and constructed a smelter just south of Lake City. The Ute-Ulay mine soon began serious production and spurred the growth of nearby Lake City, which had a population of 1,000 by November 1876.
Otto Mears built a toll road through the area in 1877, which ran from Lake City to Silverton and Ouray.
By 1878, Crooke Mining had constructed quarters for the miners, a shaft, ore houses, and a concentrating mill. The camp that grew up around the Ute-Ulay mining complex was called Henson for one of its discoverers.
The town of Henson was officially laid out in 1880 on the north side of Henson Creek. Most of the people who lived in Henson worked at the Ute-Ulay or Hidden Treasure mines. The town was never incorporated.
In 1882, the new owners built concentration works, but transportation was a severe and costly problem without a railroad. At about the same time, a dam was built on Henson Creek to meet the rising energy needs of the site.
The Henson post office was established in May 1883, but the same year the mine was temporarily shut down. In the winter of 1884, Henson Creek froze entirely, cutting off the Ute-Ulay’s energy source. At that time, the mill ceased operation and the Crooke brothers defaulted on their mortgage. The post office was discontinued in April 1884. The closing of the mine also threw nearby Lake City into a full-scale depression.
The site was then sold to the Lake City Mining Company, which over the next three years invested heavily in the Ute-Ulay mining complex. In 1887, the Ute-Ulay mine was reopened and began shipping ore. However, the price of ore was so low and shipping costs so high, the mine wasn’t profitable.
It wasn’t until the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad reached Lake City, that Henson and the other area mining towns, would begin to prosper.
But, for the Lake City Mining Company who owned the Ute-Ulay Mine, it was too late. In 1890, the company defaulted on its mortgage and went out of business. Production continued, however, under the Ute and Ulay Mines, Ltd., another British group. At that time, a new 118-foot high dam was built on Henson Creek with a hydroelectric power plant to supply the mill.
Henson flourished in the early 1890s, boasting a population of about 300 people, three saloons, a school, a barbershop, several grocery stores, and a branch of the Western Federation of Miners, a labor union that counted many San Juan miners as members. The post office was re-established in November 1892.
In 1893 when the U.S. Government demonetized silver, the Ute-Ulay was forced to halt production in early August. In dire financial straits, the owners leased the mines to the Ute and Ulay Mines Leasing Company and production resumed. During this time, much of the area’s population and the economy continued to grow because the local mines produced a variety of valuable minerals.
In February 1896 the Ute and Ulay Mines, Ltd. made a last-ditch effort to attain profitability by purchasing the Hidden Treasure Mine, located just uphill from the Ute-Ulay site. But the effort didn’t pan out and the owners were unable to pay their debt. The mine was then leased to the Auric Mining Company, of Leadville, Colorado.
During this time it took a lot of men to run the mine and relatively cheap labor was available in the form of immigrants. The town of Henson quickly became very diverse as many of the miners hailed from Europe, including England, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Germany, and Italy.
Many of the Italians had earlier worked on the railroad and stayed in the area to work in the mines. One of the largest foreign groups, they kept to themselves, lived in a separate community south of Henson Creek called “Little Rome,” and published their own newspaper, La Verita. The Italian workers were members of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) and promoted unionization of the mine.
However, the Auric Mining Company had little patience for the collective demands of their workers, probably because they had dealt with the WFM a few years earlier in Leadville. In response to demands for unionization, Samual Nicholson, one of the men who ran the Auric Mining Company, declared that all single men working at the Ute-Ulay and Hidden Treasure Mines must live in company boarding houses. During these busy mining years, the town of Henson had become rather lawless and shootings were common. Nicholson blamed most of this on the single men and generally perceived that WFM members had a reputation for lawlessness.
There had been tension at the mines for weeks, but this declaration immediately provoked the ire of the union members. For many of the single men, the forced move meant higher rents, deplorable living conditions, and longer commuting distances.
On March 14, 1899, about 100 well-armed miners, most of which were Italian, went on strike, blocking the entrances to both the Ute-Ulay and Hidden Treasure Mines and made every attempt to intimidate other miners who showed up for work.
In the days before the strike, the protestors had quietly bought many firearms and suspiciously, the Lake City Armory had been robbed of 50 rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Faced with armed miners and an empty armory, the Lake City sheriff wired Governor Charles Thomas for help. Within no time, the governor dispatched six companies of the state militia to Lake City. The 326 troops were accompanied by Joseph Cuneo, the Italian consul, who was able to negotiate with the strikers.
The strike ended after two days without bloodshed. However, all of the strikers were fired and ordered to leave Hinsdale County. Single men were given one week to be gone and men with families were given six weeks. Advertising for replacements was listed in local newspapers, specifying that “Italians need not apply.”
Despite the strike, the Ute-Ulay and Hidden Treasure Mines were profitable, and in 1901 the Auric Mining Company purchased the mines.
But, in the early 20th century, Henson and its mines began to decline. Though some of the other mines on Henson Creek and other points in the area were large and rich, the Ute-Ulay Mine topped the rest. The Ute Ulay mine alone produced about $12 million in gold, silver, lead, copper, and zinc from 1891 to 1903.
In 1910 there were still 100 inhabitants in Henson, but Henson’s post office closed in November 1913.
Over the next decades, the mines were sold and leased a number of times, and intermittent mining occurred until the 1960s. The mill was used as late as 1983. During these years many improvements were made to the site and a new mill was built by 1930.
The railroad continued to serve Lake City until a major decrease in mining activity occurred in the mid-20s, causing the branch to begin losing money. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad attempted to abandon the railroad in 1931 but was unsuccessful due to loud protests from the Lake City residents. However, the Public Utilities Commission finally allowed the Denver Rio Grande to give up the line and the last train left Lake City on May 25, 1933. In August, the line was bought by the owners of the Ute-Ulay Mine, who attempted to operate the branch as the San Cristobal Railroad by using a “galloping goose” (a flange-wheeled automobile). However, the venture was abandoned in 1935 and the rails were pulled and sold as scrap.
During World War II the mines were producing at their peak to support the war effort.
In 1973, the dam on Henson Creek broke resulting in the deaths of hundreds of fish for 14 miles downstream from the metallics and chemicals in the water.
In 1983, the site was sold for the final time to LKA Minerals of Lake City. The company did no mining but briefly processed ore from other area mines.
In 2009, the site underwent $1.2 million cleanup and reclamation and in 2013, LKA Minerals transferred 12 acres around the Ute-Ulay site to Hinsdale County.
Today, the Ute-Ulay mining complex is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is considered one of Colorado’s best-preserved, historic mining communities.
Self-guided walking tours of the 12-acre property allow visitors to view mining structures that include several headframes, hoists, an assay lab, powerhouse, and mill buildings. Other buildings include residential cabins, a blacksmith shop, a boarding house, a red-cedar water tank, an assayer’s office. Some of these structures date back to the late 1800s when 250-300 miners worked the rich silver veins of the Ute-Ulay mines.
The remains of Henson and the Ute-Ulay mine and milling complex are located on the north side of Henson Creek, 3.5 miles west of Lake City, Colorado.
©Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated December 2020.