Willow Creek Mining District Reorganizes

On Sunday, August 25, 1867, the miners of New Mexico Territory’s Willow Creek Mining District  organized themselves for the second time that year. They’d done a rush job in June. With miners pouring onto the slopes of Baldy Mountain, there hadn’t been time for organizing and mining too. But it didn’t look like things were going to settle down any time soon: There were up to 7,000 miners in the region, and activity everywhere. On Willow Creek alone, over 350 placer claims would be staked between 1867 and 1868, from high up Baldy Mountain almost to the edge of what is now Eagle Nest Lake. With the staking of claims came the potential for conflict. The only answer was to take the time to reorganize, and Sunday seemed as good a day as any.

The new Willow Creek rules allowed four claims per miner. A man could file a ravine claim (200 feet along the bottom and from bank to bank); a hill claim (200 feet along the stream by 300 feet toward the ridge), a flat claim ( 300 feet by 300 feet); and a quartz or lode claim (300 feet along the lode, with no specified width). In addition, a man who discovered a new creek, hill, flat, or load claim could also file one extra claim of any of the four types. To be considered “alive,” a claim had to be worked one day in every ten and at least once within the 15 days after it was recorded.

The Willow Creek Mining District lay on the south slopes of Baldy Mountain, much of it within the boundaries of the 20th century town of Eagle Nest, NM. The District was bounded on the east and north by the ridges that extended south from Baldy, and on the west by a divide that separated the creek’s drainage from Anniseta Gulch, which ran west in the direction of Moreno Creek and Elizabethtown.

While it never produced much lode gold, the Willow Creek District yielded well to placer operations. In fact, at one point, the main channel of Willow Creek was the highest producing creek bottom along the south and west slopes of Baldy Mountain, topping both Humbug Gulch and Grouse Gulch (see the table below). In addition, a Willow Creek side canyon called Last Chance Gulch and an area at the head of this gulch called Last Chance Flats, were both rich in gold. As a result, the District’s placers brought in 40% of the area’s placer gold in 1868 and 1869 and remained just behind Grouse Gulch’s placer production throughout the next decade.

Aug. 25 illustration.Value of load and placer mining

The high levels of gold from Willow Creek may explain why there were at least twenty miners involved in an 1869 court fight over placer claims and water rights on the creek. The battle was not resolved until Spring 1870, when Lucien Maxwell intervened, purchased all the water rights in question, and then proceeded to lease them back to just a handful of individuals. Even though Maxwell was in the process of selling the land grant, he was keeping the Willow Creek Mining District water rights—perhaps its most lasting wealth—firmly in his own hands.


Sources: R. F. Pettit, Jr. “History of mining in Colfax County, New Mexico,” Taos-Raton-Spanish Peaks Country (New Mexico and Colorado), Northrop, S. A. & Read, C. B., eds., New Mexico Geological Society 17th Annual Fall Field Conference Guidebook, 128 p., 1966; R. F. Pettit, Jr., Mineral Resources in Colfax County, NM, NMBM&MR Open-File Report 15, 1946; Colfax County New Mexico real estate records.