By John Leach
Lake City is best known for the alleged cannibalism by a guide named Alferd Packer who was accused of killing and robbing a party of five prospectors he was escorting through the San Juan Mountains near Lake City in 1875.
Packer escaped from a jail in Saguache but was found in Cheyenne, Wyo., in 1883. He signed a confession claiming that he had killed self-defense but admitting to theft, and he was convicted of manslaughter at a trial in Lake City. He was sentenced to death, but the ruling was overturned on appeal. He served time in prison until 1901.
Lake City started out as a summer camp for the Ute or Nuchu tribe, nomadic hunter-gatherers who roamed the Western Slope starting in 1000 A.D.
Prospectors began to enter the San Juan Mountains in the 1860s in search of gold and silver, even though the land was controlled by the Utes as part of the tribe’s reservation.
Rich silver veins were found in 1871 along Henson Creek just west of what would become Lake City. These finds would become the Ute and Ulay lodes, and as word spread other prospectors to begin to explore in the area, bringing pressure on the federal government to negotiate a new treaty with the Utes.
The area was opened up to prospecting with the 1873 Brunot Treaty, under which the Utes gave up rights to the San Juan Mountains. The town of Lake City was incorporated in 1875 as a supply center for the prospectors and miners who were flooding the area.
Among the discoveries was a gold vein that led to the development of the Golden Fleece Mine at the north end of Lake San Cristobal. The original claim was filed in 1874 by Enos T. Hotchkiss, who went on to found Lake City and Hotchkiss, and the financially struggling mine was purchased at a sheriff’s sale in 1876 by George E. Wilson, Sterling’s first mayor, who named it the Golden Fleece. A rich gold vein was found in 1892, and the mine produced $1.4 million worth of silver and gold ore by 1904.
Hotchkiss, whose crude log cabin was one of the first buildings in Lake City in 1874, also built the 130 mile Saguache-San Juan Toll Road, which reached Lake City in 1874 and brought many of the town’s early settlers to the area for years afterward.
Lake City drew national attention when Packer showed up at the Los Pinos Indian Agency 75 miles south of Gunnison on April 16, 1874. He was alone and claimed to have been abandoned by five prospectors he was escorting through the San Juan Mountains. He told a tale of hardship and near-starvation, yet he looked healthy and well-fed, and he asked for liquor for his first meal, which drew suspicion from agency officials.
Indian Agent Charles Adams accused Packer of killing and robbing the prospectors, and Packer confessed to the killings. Packer was jailed in Saguache but escaped. In June, J.A. Randolph, an artist for Harper’s Weekly magazine, found five bodies southeast of Lake City at the base of Slumgullion Pass. The men apparently had been murdered and reportedly showed signs of cannibalism. Packer was arrested and was being held in Saguache but managed to escape.
On March 11, 1883, Packer was arrested in Cheyenne, where he had been living under the alias of “John Schwartze.” He signed another confession on March 16, claiming that he had killed self-defense but admitting to theft, and he went on trial in Lake City on April 6. He was found guilty on April 13 of manslaughter in the slaying of one of the five men, and he was sentenced to be hanged on May 19.
The Colorado Supreme Court reversed the conviction in 1885, but Packer was retried and convicted again in 1886. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison, but he was paroled in 1901 and went to work as a guard at the Denver Post. He died in 1907 at the age of 65 and was buried in Littleton.
A major fire in 1879 destroyed much of Lake City, which was dominated by wooden buildings, and that led to the construction of new buildings using brick and stone.
Lake City experienced an economic downturn in 1884 but bounced back with the 1889 arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad on narrow-gauge tracks on the Lake Fork Branch that were laid from Sapinero, a small town west of Gunnison. The railroad sharply cut the cost of shipping gold and silver ores to smelters.
The population hit 607 in the 1890 Census as the town marked its 15th year and hit its peak of 700, along with the peak of the mining boom, by the 1900 Census. Over the next decades, the silver and gold mines dwindled away, along with the population. The Denver & Rio Grande stopped serving Lake City in 1933 and removed its track in 1937.
Lake City held on while other mining towns turned into ghost towns because of tourism and the arrival of newcomers who bought the historic buildings and preserved them. The Lake City Historic District, created in 1978, contains 200 historic buildings that remain from the 19th century mining boom.
Coloraddo State Archives collection on Alferd Packer