History of the Chicago Basin Area
Weminuche (whem-a-nooch) is the name of one of the seven bands of Ute people who made the Southwest Colorado Rockies their home. They hunted, fished, and held sacred the land that now bears their name.
Because of its remoteness, little entry and development in the Needle Mountains by settlers and miners occurred prior to 1877. The Animas Canyon Toll Road from Silverton to Animas City (now Durango) was completed in 1877. The toll road opened up commerce through the Animas Canyon and resulted in a number of small developments in subsequent years. The most notable developments in the canyon were the Shaw House at Elk Park, a way station run by John and Almina Shaw whose renowned cooking was its premier attraction, and the town of Niccora at the mouth of Cascade Creek established by Frank Blackledge, which was the area’s most short-lived post office (only 134 days). A Mr. Webb bought land at Needleton and promoted the area, which accounts for the present day private land and cabins near the train stop.
The original access and development in the Chicago Basin area was apparently from Vallecito Creek to the east. A mixed party of soldiers and civilians led by Lt. C.A.H. McCauley located a route to the heretofore foreboding Needle Mountains via Johnson Creek, which they named after one of their members, Miles Johnson. The McCauley party also named several other features in the area, including McCauley peak, Valois Peak, and Grizzly Peak. There is an interesting story behind the naming of Grizzly Gulch. One of the party members, James Smith, was an older prospector who was also rheumatic, supposedly so severe that he had to have someone help him on his horse. With such help one morning, Smith rode up one of the tributaries past a lake, slid off his horse, and started prospecting. He looked up after a short time and saw an infallible cure for rheumatism in the shape of a tremendous grizzly. Jim took off and outran the bear the mile and a half back to camp. At one point, he saw another prospector across the gulch and reportedly yelled “How far behind is he?” in lieu of turning around. The bear was right behind him, and people scattered when they reached camp, all except Lt. Valois, who weighed 250 pounds and carried a long sword. Valois swung the sword, danced around, hollered at his men, and scared the bear off. Valois Peak, a flat-topped mountain to the south, was named after the valiant lieutenant.
Miners in the party established claims in Columbine Basin and Chicago Basin. In Chicago Basin you can see small yellow/orange tailing piles on some of the hillsides, marking where miners dug prospecting holes. The mining activity in the area apparently never went much beyond the prospecting stage, because there are no signs of mechanization, e.g., a reduction mill or other ore processing machinery, and the mine dumps are relatively small. At most, the miners hand-sorted their ore and packed it out on mules. After the railroad was completed in the Animas Canyon in 1882, a trail was constructed down Needle Creek to connect with the train at Needleton. Today, that miner’s trail is the principal access to Chicago Basin.
Source: Nossaman, Alan. 1993. Many More Mountains. Volume 2: Ruts into Silverton. Sundance Publications, Ltd., 250 Broadway, Denver, CO 80203.