The History of Bear Basin Ranch
Ute, Comanche, Arapaho, Pike, Fremont, Carson, Bent and Goodnight
rode our range
Some thirty-million years before the first migrating hunter clans passed through, the Laramide Orogeny began. The earth’s plate-stressed surface ruptured, slowly pushing skyward what was to become the Sange de Cristo and Wet mountains. Glaciers, erosion and weather eventually shaped the modern landscape.
Million of years later bands of Ute, Apache, Arapahos and others
discovered the region. Eventually, some returned to summer camp, hunt
and revere this magical land lying in the shadow of sacred Tawa, Pikes
A Spanish expedition led by second generation conquistador, Coronado
passed nearby seeking fabled cities of gold in 1541, ending in disaster
somewhere far to the east.
In 1779, Juan Batista de Anza, another Spanish colonial grandee led a detachment of militia, Pueblo warriors and Ute allies from the south, across
South Park and down Ute Pass to ambush troublesome Comanche.
A decisive battle was fought somewhere on the flats east of the Wet Mountains where the infamous war chief Cuerno Verde was killed.
Zeb Pike struggled up nearby frozen Grape Creek in the bitter winter of
1806, dispatched, allegedly, to survey newly acquired US territory by traitorous General Wilkinson, amigo of and co-conspirator with Aron Burr.
Pike’s expedition was unknown to President Jefferson.
William Bent’s compadres; mountain men, trappers and traders, likely
ventured through Bear Basin in the early 1800s rendezvousing with Ute
hunting parties and fire water drinking, renegade Taos traders.
Finally, shortly after Bear Basin became US territory, in 1848 Kit Carson,
Broken hand Smith and a determined group of tough others travelled up
Hardscrabble Pass with John Fremont in tow. His journals suggest that his
party probably camped on the ranch before moving onward to a later winter
The famous ‘pathfinder’ found his way to Taos while his expedition team
starved and froze to death in the severe winter snows of the San Juan
1860 to present: Bear Basin Ranch and Regional History.
Years after John Fremont's 1848 expedition up Hardscrabble Pass to Bear
Basin, the Wet Mountain Valley and on to the San Juan range, vast numbers
of elk, antelope and buffalo roamed the high, open, grass lands and
lush Valley bottoms. Flocks of reclusive turkeys fluttered and flitted through
ancient aspen grove colonies, perhaps older than human history itself in
Summer bands of Ute, Apache, Comanche, Arapaho and others, continued
to camp and hunt, bringing large herds of horses with them. Brightly
colored paints and roman-nosed, short-tailed appaloosas grazed near sunrise-facing, hide covered lodges around Bear Basin’s geological volcanic
anomaly, Dry Lake. A number of lodge-placed stone rings, shaped, jasper
tool artifacts and other evidence can be seen still in place.
Generations of Ute had planted, nurtured, bent, peeled and otherwise
cared for specifically situated Ponderosa, Douglas Fir and Junipers on the
ridges and hills of the ranch lands. Spiritually vested medicine men and
vision quest seeking others must have absorbed inspiration and wisdom
while seated beneath these spirits of the natural world.
Meanwhile, reclusive traders and mountain men passed through, heading
south to Taos, the San Luis Valley, or northward to the headwaters of the
Arkansas River and on to South Park.
Pikes Peak or Bust 1859.
In 1859, before the start of the Civil War, gold was discovered on Cherry
Creek at what was later to become the State Capital, Denver. Caravans of
covered wagons bringing hopeful adventurers diverted from the southern
Santa Fe TraIl or came westward up the platte to seek fortune in the new
Colorado gold field. Others moved on around the territory, founding Colorado City on Fountain Creek below Pikes Peak and wandering southward through our area.
Rankin Scott Kelly, Colorado City and El Paso County’s first Sheriff cornered
and killed notorious outlaw, Filipe Espinosa nearby after he and his
brother, Vivian raided a sawmill on the Hardscrabble in 1863. Two years
later, Kelly hunted down and shot another deadly killer, ‘Big Tooth Jim’
somewhere south on the Huerfano.
It was the year of sixty-one - Kelly pinned a star
Big Tooth Jim, the Espinosa boys - others lurked not far
Rogue Cheyenne - Arapahoe would soon be run to ground.
El Paso's first Sheriff had just now come to town
The Ballad of Scott Kelly, G Ziegler 2016.
Down the hill at Pueblo and Wetmore, Charlie Goodnight, Oliver Loving
and a colorful assortment of Texas cowboys, Mexican vaqueros and more
than a few desperadoes, drove great herds of cattle across the wild southwest plains to feed the growing Colorado mining camps.
In 1870, Goodnight established a ranch near Pueblo, started a stockman’s bank and partnered in cattle in the Wet Mountain Valley west of Bear Basin with Edwin and Elton Beckwith.
A new wagon road and stage route was completed up Oak Creek from Florence on the Arkansas in 1870. The road followed an old Ute trail crossing
Bear Basin’s northern Bone Yard Park, continuing on across what came to
be called Dutch Flats above Querida to booming Rosita.
A stage station to change out fresh teams for the long, daily haul up from
Florence was establish at what we now call the Hay Meadow.
The foundations and spring are still there. The original homestead house
and current ranch headquarters was build nearby in the early 1880s.
The Ute had also earlier chosen the site. Nearby hills and ridges are dotted
with their modified trees, stone monuments and several mounds, many with
views of Pikes Peak or the Sangre de Cristo Range.
Another wagon road, followed Fremont’s path up Hardscrabble from
Wetmore, joining the Oak Creek road at Bear Basin. This was later to become much of what is currently State Highway 96 to Westcliffe.
Silver Park and Bear Basin Mining
It was on this road that a few hopeful prospectors and miners built a cluster
of cabins, barns and corrals that was to become Bear Basin’s main ranch
facility. The earliest mining discoveries were on the ranch and nearby lands
to the east and south which came to be called Silver Park.
The road up from Wetmore was partially constructed in 1863 when Si
Smith, Sheriff of Pueblo County and others from Pueblo located a showing
of gold and silver on upper Hardscrabble Creek. The Smith claims were
recorded at Canon City in July of that year.
Situated in the ancient metamorphic bed rock of the Wet Mountains, Silver
Park lacked the potential for the rich deposits found in geologically more
recent, hydrothermal enriched, Tertiary volcanics at Rosita and in the Wet
Mountain Valley’s Silver Cliff deposits. Only low grade ore was found in
narrow quartz veins along the upper Hardscrabble.
Undaunted, Bear Basin hopefuls dug numerous prospect holes in the erosional-exposed, mineralized, veins. Several produced enough free gold in
druzy quartz matrix and a bit of galena-amalgamated silver to warrant more
extensive tunneling and deeper shafts. Three; the Woodhull, Blue Bird and
Mac & Mac were granted claim patents; title to the land deeded by the federal government. A spec or two of gold in quartz can still be found among
the tailings scattered about the ranch.
1870 - Rosita; “gold in them east hills”.
Extensive deposits of silver with some associated gold were discovered
five miles southwest of Bear Basin in 1870. Local rancher, Daniel Baker
and several visiting friends located a rich outcrop which was to soon become
the productive Senator Mine. The Humboldt, Pocahontas, Leviathan,
Virginia and other properties followed two years later establishing the boom
town of Rosita. The town expanded to over a square mile in 1874 then
slowly died following the later discoveries at silver cliff.
The neighboring town of Querida, three miles southwest of Bear Basin, followed in 1877 with the location of the Bassick Mine in a breccia pipe lined
with gold on Mt. Tyndall. The Bassick became the only substantial producer
of gold in the county and one of the richest mines in the state.
Eventually, economic reality interceded at Bear Basin. A lack of high grade
ore and mining costs closed the diminutive mining operations there.
A few entrepreneurs drifted on to Leadville or another of the new Colorado
boom towns. Others, less motivated, moved over the hill to take a job shift
in the lucrative Senator, Pocahontas or another thriving mine at Rosita.
Salaries were low so dropping a few high grade ore pieces ‘accidentally’ in
the lunch box to achieve better compensation was not beyond the norm of
the times. Dance halls, saloons and a lively wild-west society at Rosita afforded an escape from grueling underground drudgery while assorted houses of worship salvaged and soothed lost souls.
Up north, the new state was coming together. The former mining camp,
Denver becomes the Capital of Colorado in1876. George A. Custer was
still the martyred hero of the moment so his name was attached to the new
Custer County, severed from neighboring Fremont County by politics and
maneuvers lost to history in 1877.
1878 - Silver Cliff; Silver-Silver and more Silver…
A big strike was made on the east edge of the Wet Mountain Valley in a
volcanic outcrop extruding through and raising above the late, lake bed
sedimentary deposits of the valley triggering the next regional boom.
Rositans, R. S. Edwards, Robert Powell and George Hafford filed
the first claims in June 1878 to began developing the Racine Boy
property. Others quickly followed.
Silver was in abundance but most ore was a complex mineralization requiring complicated milling and processing. This raised operation costs
and somewhat limited production. The rich, shallow deposit, chloride-based
horn silver was quickly worked out leaving manganese-silver ore which was
difficult to refine. Meanwhile, a couple of settler’s cabins mushroom almost
overnight into Colorado’s third largest city, Silver Cliff.
Most silver mining in the Wet Mountain Valley was over by the turn of the
century, but some mining continued on an intermittent basis during the
1900s. A few small operations remained in production until World War Two,
shipping ore to Leadville or El Paso for processing. Local miner, George
Colgate recalled working in the Bull Domingo Mine until it finally closed in
1881 - Comes a railroad and rewards for insiders. WESTCLIFFE
Ayn Rand would have loved it.
“It’s a mighty hard road from Westcliffe to Canyon and the road has
ten mile grade. It was on this grade that Casey lost his life and now he’s
dead and gone.
He was going down the track doing ninety miles an hour when
the whistle broke into a scream - oh they found him in the wreck
near Blackburn Station, he was scolded to death by the steam”
William Palmer’s expanding mountain railroad, the D&RG, completed rails
to Leadville up the Arkansas River in 1880 following a short right of way
war with rival railroad, Santa Fe. Immediately after, a branch line was hastily surveyed and built up Grape Creek Canyon from Canyon City to tap the beckoning new riches of Custer County.
William Bell, Palmer’s business partner, had quietly purchased land in the
Wet Mountain Valley close to Silver Cliff where he briefly kept diary cows
and produced cheese. It was no surprise when the new railroad terminated
at Bell’s property. It had already been quietly surveyed out into lots and
streets. Palmer called it Westcliffe after one of his wife’s favorite places on
the coast of England.
The cheese works passed into history as plotted lots sold at inflated price.
Visionary Silver Cliff merchants and hopeful others flocked the long mile
westward to the new center of activity at Bell and Palmer’s new railroad
Westcliffe survived to soon become the county seat. The railroad did not.
In August 1881, only a few months after completion, an immense flood
roared down Grape Creek destroying all of the bridges and miles of track.
Palmer’s investors and stock holders stoically anted up. The road was rebuilt
to run another eight years before yet another flood destroyed the line,
triggering final abandonment. Meanwhile, Bell and Palmer had moved
on to other endeavors.
1889 - Back to wagons, stage coaches and slower times
The daily Florence - Rosita stage continued to run and quieter times in the
Valley prevailed. Cattle again had to be wrangler-driven down the hill to
market and lower grade ore piled up at the mines.
Maybe it was not so quiet? Northward at Cotopaxi on the Arkansas, a
D&RGW express was robbed by desperadoes in August,1891 by a group
called the ‘Wet Mountain Gang’. Aided by a former Missouri Quantrill
Raider, ”Old Dick McCoy” who had a ranch nearby, the bandits escaped
with saddle bags stuffed with gold bars and other valuables initiating a
western-wide search for the perpetrators. The gang reportedly holed up in
our country then fled southward.
Key players in the search were (gotta love this), Sheriff ‘Jimmy Steward’ of
Fremont County, Sheriff ‘Black Bill’ Kelly of Huerfano County and the notorious Pinkerton agent, sometime detective Tom Horn, later hung for murder in a Wyoming range war.
Whew…Doc Holiday had died a few years back in
the booming railroad resort town of Glenwood Springs or he likely would
have been dealing cards on the scene.
Whoever was Sheriff of Custer County when this played out is unknown but
it is certain that he and a local posse would have been heavily involved.
Beyond duties of the job, the railroad offered cash reward would have been
big incentive. Apparently confusion reigned. Rival posses chased
and arrested each other in what we would call ‘a cluster’.
1901 - Comes another railroad; The Texas Creek Branch
A reorganized D&RGW constructed a new branch line up to thriving Westcliffe from the main line along the Arkansas. Costly to build, with a number of complicated loops and long trestles, the new standard gauge line was well engineered and located unlike the previous, hastily constructed, flood prone line up Grape Creek.
The line offered daily passenger service to the big front range cities by
connecting with mainline trains. Freights were scheduled as needed. Ore
was shipped from the mines to downhill mills and cattle travelled quickly to
distant markets. Supplies and needed equipment to keep the community
prospering arrived daily from below.
It is probably true that one could reach Denver faster in the early 1900s
than by highways today from Westcliffe. The Westcliffe line prospered during the early years but became unprofitable as mining declined and population dwindled in the county.
The D&RGW fell into bankruptcy and receivership in the dark economic year of 1935. Court appointed trustees understandably decided to abandon unproductive lines, resulting in the final closing of the Westcliffe Branch in 1937.
Good highways by 1930s standards now served the region from three directions. Trucks and technologically improving automobiles replaced the
rails with little notice.
My dad at the time was proudly driving a new 1936 Oldsmobile which lasted
as family transport well into the late 1940s after I had arrived on the
scene. He was writing, printing and delivering the venerable Florence Citizen before the Army sent him to Hill Field at Ogden to rehab shot up B-24s and 17s.
Ranching and Farming at Bear Basin
Following the mining flurry, several families settled into planting potatoes,
barley and oats in the open bottoms of what was to become Bear Basin
Ranch. Washington Larey held title to what is now the main ranch. In 1908,
he built and lived in the small cabin, now the ranch office, until 1925
when he sold out to Robert Sielsky, a relative of the nearby Tomsick family.
Sielsky built a new upscale log dwelling in 1929 which is now the ranch kitchen and staff bunk house.
The Sielskys threw a party for the neighborhood when the house was finished. I heard the story from an elderly lady who introduced herself as Mrs. Ricketts who stopped by with her family sometime in the1980s. She recalled playing fiddle with musical others while couples danced around the
She told an interesting story of living in a small mining camp near
Bear Gulch on the east end of Bear Basin at a working mine called
the ‘Prairie dog’. As it turned out, the operation was set up to fleece investors.
The only gold ore coming up the shaft had been brought in and
‘salted’. Apparently it was quite rich. Now, all that remains are several
foundations, a sizable tailings dump and a scattering of prairie dog holes.
Getting back to the Sielskys, a few dairy cows were kept for milk along a
with a batch of chickens supplementing low-income subsistence barley,
oats and potato farming. Hay from the now abandoned stage stop meadow
was cut by horse team, then gathered up and stacked for winter feeding.
Over the hill in Brush Hollow, Harry Bate set up a clandestine still at the
head of a gully not far from the Dry Lake School during probation. His potent, illicit beverage was well known and sought widely around the east hills neighborhood.
Remains of the Bate homestead and barn can still be seen. I met him during
the summer of 1971 when he rode a horse down Hardscrabble to his
later home in Wetmore. He must have been over ninety at the time. A pair
of his antique metal stirrups sit on a shelf nearby as I write this history.
Lee Jones; horses, cattle and a new mining boom
Thinking about Harry brings me to my hero and cowboy mentor, Lee Jones.
They were close friends and neighbors. Lee bought Harry’s place which
remains a part of Bear Basin Ranch when he moved to Wetmore.
Lee grew up horse training and cowboying at Dodge City where his dad
trained and sold remounts to the cavalry. In 1917, Lee volunteered for the
Kansas National Guard serving in France with the 35th Division along with
Harry Truman and other Kansan. He had a horse shot out from under him
in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and lost the use of one lung to mustard
"In nineteen and seventeen my country said “son there’s work to be done”
so they gave me a tin hat, gave me a gun ...and sent me off to the war"
Lee and wife Anna moved to Custer County from Spearville, Kansas in
1927. They bought a place near Ilse from Carl Griffin, one of the large land
holders along with the Spaldings, Sparlings, Hardins and later Dilleys, north
of the Hardscrabble.
Lee trucked potatoes, ran cattle and dabbled in horse trading through the
1930s then moved back to Kansas during World War Two. His young
daughter, Leona Fern attended Dry Lake School on the ranch before the
The Jones’ moved back to Custer County in 1947 buying the Archie
McGregor place, now our home and headquarters, a mile or so distant from
the county road and main ranch buildings. The house, situated near the old abandoned stage road, was built with hand cut, squared logs in the early 1880s. Several original, restored out buildings remain including a granary, smoke house and small barn.
The early 1950s saw a brief mining boom. The government was buying up
and stockpiling what was then considered strategic minerals. These included uranium, thorium and assorted rare earths which turned out, excepting uranium, to occur in abundance at Bear Basin. Lee, along with local friends, Ed Knobe and Ernie Sparling set out prospecting and staking
claims around the east hills.
The many metal bearing veins and pegmatites around the ranch which
had been explored during earlier times also proved to be a source for thorium and sought after rare earth minerals. Thorium, like uranium is radio active, easily located with then technologically new Geiger Counters.
Lee leased a rich deposit on the hill north of the ranch house to a mining
company. Core drilling and sampling led to a working mine with head
frame, hoist and a sizable shaft. The mine was appropriately named the
Leland Niles of Silver Cliff, another friend of the Jones ran the hoist and
other jobs. He told me about a cave-in which killed two workers around
1953. The government stopped buying minerals, closing the mine shortly
after the accident.
The Jones’ moved in to Silver Cliff in the 1960s keeping the ranch going
from town. Anna died in 1972. Lee died in 1985 at eighty six when a young
horse he was riding fell on him out in the hay meadow. He was hospitalized
in Canyon City but never recovered.
Bear Basin Ranch; 1970 to the present
This is where I come in. Fresh out of graduate school, the Army and a
combat tour in Vietnam, I was managing Spencer Penrose’s old ranch,
Emerald Valley above the Broadmoor at Colorado Springs. Looking for
calmer places and a new direction, I saw an ad for a place for sale near
Westcliffe which looked appealing. It turned out to be three hundred fifty
acres and a group of run down, abandoned buildings.
The price was right; eighty dollars per acre with a low down payment. I bought it immediately. This begins the story of modern Bear Basin Ranch.
The earlier resident ranching farmers had long abandoned the place. The
Rosco family had last lived there in the 1950s. It was now owned by Marvin
Ham who lived in Penrose. Marvin ran a few summer cows and shared
grazing with neighbor, Lee Jones.
After shoeing residing cows out of the houses, patching roofs and replacing
windows, the place was soon almost habitable. Bidding Emerald Valley
good by, I moved in while continuing to run the occasional outdoor program
for Outward Bound and my old alma mater, Colorado College to keep a
cash flow going.
I rounded up several friends to come in as investors. Our vision was to develop an outdoor educational facility while creating a working ranch and retreat well away from Richard Nixon's urban madness.
Mike Lowe and brothers, Jeff and Greg tossed in some bucks to get things
rolling. Mike and wife Carol moved into the bunk house. I claimed the Larey
cabin. Carol secured a teaching position with Custer County School while
Mike and I were off working winter Outward Bound programs on skis in the
San Juans. Colorado College anthropology professor, Mike Nowak also
came in with us.
The Lowes went on to found Lowe Alpine Systems, a successful mountaineering equipment manufacturer which they eventually sold for multi-millions. We like to claim that it all started at the ranch.
As surrounding land became available, we continued to buy and lease,
eventually reaching the four thousand or so acres the ranch encompasses
today. Meanwhile, Lee Jones and I became fast friends. I had horse
packed in South America and briefly played polo in the army but had no
solid, real ranching experience. He was happy to take me on as his apprentice.
Combining our pastures, we ran a summer yearling cow operation while
training and trading a growing remuda of horses which eventually reached
eighty head. He preferred Appaloosas so I soon had a register Appy stallion
named Ben for breeding and riding. Ben sired a long line of excellent, colorful,working horses which we later used on the ranch and for pack trips in the nearby Sangre de Cristos.
Lee would take me to the livestock sales at Salida, Pueblo and La Junta to
buy and sell horses. We would bring them home in my restored 1947 Diamond T stock truck then sort in the big, wood-rail corals. I would ride the rough ones out, Lee shouting encouragement when I frequently hit the
ground. We would sell the good ones ‘guaranteed’ to suitable buyers. The
others went back to the ‘buyer beware’ sale barns for what they would
Eventually, Lee pretty much retired, leaving me to run both ranches. He
kept a gentle horse or two for a ride on the ranch with a lady friend, Clara
McHale, a Spaulding family gal from Canyon City or with Leland Niles’
daughter, Jacky, now the County Zoning Officer, who lived across the street