A Gold King Mine Timeline

A tangled history of profit, tragedy and unfulfilled dreams.


It’s April 1891 and Olaf Arvid Nelson is dying. He’s just 35 years old, lying in his bed in his little home in Howardsville, a few miles up the Animas River from Silverton, his body drowning itself. 

The "Mighty Swede" has faced down his own demise before, and won. Back in 1879, he had lain motionless under the debris of the rockslide-crushed cabin on Brown Mountain for 11 hours before Jonathan Peterson had dug him out -- with a straight razor. Six years later, an avalanche wrecked the Sampson boarding house, with Nelson, his wife, Louisa, and two kids inside. Nelson was able to dig everyone out, unscathed, with a stove pipe.

Now his lungs are slowly filling up with fluid, and there’s no digging his way out of this one. The best he can do is to breathe shallowly, and lie as still as possible, thus avoiding the horrible sensation of nutshells rattling around in his lungs. 

Stoic, he doesn’t complain, but surely he’s frustrated. He staked the Gold King claim on the slopes of Bonita Peak above Gladstone in 1887, and worked it surreptitiously and alone, often on bitterly cold nights, after working a full shift on his other mine, the Philadelphia. And for what? Louisa and the six kids will be left with nothing but a useless 10-acre plot on a steep and snowy mountainside. Still, even now, he's sure the Gold King will someday pay off. 

Nelson is not known as a religious person, or even a spiritualist in the vein of Silverton's Amanda Cotton and her coven. Yet we have to wonder whether the huge spring snowflakes outside don't remind him, perhaps, of angels as he closes his eyes that evening one last time. 

Nelson’s obituary won’t even mention the Gold King. Yet he will one day remembered as the man whose location of a claim would launch a 130-year tale of profit, tragedy and unfulfilled hopes, climaxing with the catastrophic blowout of August 2015. 

Sources: Many More Mountains, Vols. I, II, III, by Allen Nossaman; The Story of Hillside Cemetery, by Freda Peterson; US Environmental Protection Agency; Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety; La Plata Miner, Silverton Standard, Silverton Democrat, San Juan Herald, Durango Wage Earner, Silverton Mountain Journal, San Juan Mountain Journal, Durango Herald and other historic newspapers accessed via Coloradohistoricnewspapers.org, Silverton Public Library, Center for Southwest Studies and Durango Public Library; San Juan County Historical Society Archive; personal interviews with Bill Simon, Peter Butler, Larry Perino, Steve Fearn, Bill Gardner, Bev Rich; US Securities and Exchange Commission filings; San Juan County Assessor's Office; Colorado Secretary of State; Wikimedia Commons. 

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. 

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