The Red Mountain Mining District was prospected as early as September of 1879. As the miners made their way up Mineral Creek, north of Silverton, they found deposits of gold, silver, lead, and copper. The Red Mountain Mining District, on both the north and south sides of Red Mountain (Sheridan) Pass, was the most prolific in the area. In 1881, John Robinson discovered the fabulously rich Yankee Girl and Guston Mines. These two rich mines were located just above a broad mountain valley, called Ironton Park, which is in the north end of the district. Ironton was established in 1883, and platted on March 20, 1884.
Ironton’s location made it a natural shipping point for the area. Supplies for the mines arrived on pack trains, made up of sturdy little mules and burros. The little pack mules would find themselves lashed up to every kind of merchandise imaginable. Lumber, piping, sides of frozen beef, and even the odd coffin would arrive on the pack trains. The pack trains could travel the steep trails and deliver the supplies to the mines above. In return, the ore from the mines was loaded on the pack trains for shipment into town. Ironton was connected with Ouray to the north, by a toll road, that today we call the “Million Dollar Highway.”
Many authors would have us believe that Otto Mears decided a road from Red Mountain Pass, to Ouray, would be a great idea, so he just up and built one. The road was actually started by the Ouray and San Juan Wagon Road Company on April 1, 1880. Progress on the road was made in 1880, and 1881 but by 1882, the company was running out of money. The connection between Ouray and Red Mountain Pass was a very important one because the Red Mountain District, to the south of Ouray, was booming. As the months went by, the County Commissioners were receiving many complaints from area residents because of the slow rate of progress.
After several attempts to reorganize, and refinance the company, Otto Mears offered to purchase a 54 percent interest in the toll road company. Mears put a much larger and well-financed construction crew to work and succeeded in completing the road. Mears was well known in the area as a competent builder of roads. Mears had the connections and money required to accomplish such a large task. The new toll road opened shipping and gave the mines in the Red Mountain District another source of supplies.
Ironton was quite a tame town, as towns went in the Red Mountain District. Red Mountain Town, to the south, was “livelier,” and was equipped with at least 20 saloons. When a minister came to Red Mountain to establish a church, he was told in no uncertain terms to hit the road. He did, and when he suggested the same in Ironton, he was warmly received.
Ironton’s mines made their wealth from silver and lead at first. In 1893, the Silver Panic hit the area, and as with many mines in the west, they began to close one by one. After a few years, mining activity picked up and in 1898, gold was discovered. The mines had found a new source of wealth, but it came at a cost. As the mines went deeper, under ground water became a problem. This water also contained high levels of sulphuric acid that corroded the miner’s equipment. The water could not be pumped from the mines at a cost that was economical to the owners. If the water was present, mining could not continue.
In 1906, the Red Mountain Mining and Milling Company started a project to drain the mines in the district. In 1904, work began on the Joker Tunnel, a 4800-foot bore, that went from the level of Red Mountain Creek to the Genessee-Vanderbuilt mine. There were also branches that went to the Guston, Robinson, and Yankee Girl Mines. The Tunnel was completed in 1907. The Red Mountain District saw an immediate improvement in mining activity. The tunnel drained the mines of the water that had caused their closure. When the first branch of the Joker Tunnel was completed to the Yankee Girl mine, which had been closed since 1894, mining resumed immediately. As the other mines in the district were drained things began to look up.
As years went by, ever more of the population of Ironton faded away. Mining continued in the area late into the 20th century, and people still lived there until the 1960’s. The site of the former town is very easy to find. On the north side of Red Mountain Pass, just after you descend the switch backs, you will find a large mountain park. The town was located just to the east of U.S. Highway 550, with the old main street running parallel to the present road. There are not any structures left, but Ironton Park is one of the most scenic and beautiful places in the area.