Production from this underground mine that once worked the Amethyst Vein, ended some 50 years ago. Since then privately owned mines in Creede have been closed to the public and Amethyst Vein specimens and lapidary material have become increasingly scarce. But that changed when rockhound and mining-history buff, Jack Morris, recently reopened the Last Chance Mine. The Last Chance, one of Creede's richest and most historic mines, dates back 115 years to the early days of Creede's great silver boom. Today, the mine is again a source of Amethyst Vein material for collectors and lapidaries.
The Last Chance was the last major strike in the Creede area. In 1890, prospector Theodore Renniger had unsuccessfully searched the area north of Creede. Feeling down on his luck, Renniger was about to give up. But when businessmen Ralph Granger and Erick Von Buddenbrock grubstaked him with $25 and three burros, the prospector decided to give it one more try. Knowing that this was his last chance to strike it rich, Renniger began searching Creede's steep ridges and rugged rhyolite canyons in August 1891. Things went wrong from the start; his burros wandered off, and when he finally caught up with them on the side of Bachelor Ridge, the stubborn animals refused to budge. Frustrated and weary Renniger decide to prospect right where he was. This time luck was with him, chipping away at a nearby rock formation, he uncovered a weathered outcrop of lead-silver mineralization in amethyst quartz that marked a north western extension of the Amethyst Vein. Renniger gave his discovery an appropriate name, the Last Chance. Renniger quietly asked Nicholas Creede to assess his strike. Stunned by it's richness Creede urged Renniger to immediately delineate, stake and register his claims. Once Renniger had done this, Creede quickly staked the adjacent lower ground and named his claim the Amethyst Lode.
Mine development along the vein systems proceeded quickly, with the Creede district shipping its first silver-380,000 troy ounces in 1891. When the Last Chance and Amethyst Mines began production the following year, the districts Silver output jumped to 2.4 million troy ounces. And in 1893, it doubled to 4.8 million troy ounces (about 150 metric tons), worth some $6 million (1893 dollars).
By then, Ralph Granger had bought out the interest of Renniger and Von Buddenbrock for $150,000 to become the sole owner of the Last Chance. The mine would remain in the Granger family for more than a century.
The Last Chance was blessed with a wealth of Amethyst Vein ore. Part of the Last Chance New York Mining & Milling Co., the mine, with its 75 employees, immediately became one of Creede's top producers. Its 1,400-footlong inclined shaft eventually served 13 underground levels. The sixth level, called the "Chance Six," worked a 100 foot-wide ore body, one of the widest sections of the entire four-mile-long Amethyst Vein.
The 1970s also saw the final underground exploration at the Last Chance. Although silver reserves still existed, the high costs of modern underground development and environmental compliance made it economically infeasible to reopen the mine. So the Last Chance was closed and largely forgotten for the next 20 years, its surface buildings slowly collapsing and its story becoming lost in time.
The Last Chance would likely have become just another forgotten Creede mine had it not been for Jack Morris. A Missouri native, Morris became interested in mining and minerals via an unusual route. As a professional trucker, he had hauled heavy equipment to mines in Missouri's lead belt, Arizona's copper belt, Illinois and West Virginia coal mines and Missouri iron mines; where he met many miners and began collecting minerals. In 1995, to further his interest in minerals and mining, Morris began spending his month-long annual vacations in Creede.
Of all the historic Creede mines, the Last Chance most intrigued Morris. The owner of the Last Chance was Nancy Granger Schallen, the granddaughter of Ralph Granger, one of the businessmen who had grubstaked Theodore Renniger's successful 1891 prospecting trip. Over the years, Granger had passed sole ownership of the mine to his son Paul, who eventually passed it on to his daughter Nancy. When Morris contacted Granger Schallen to learn more about the Last Chance, she asked if he wanted to buy the mine. After thinking it over, Morris replied that, yes, he was interested, but he couldn't afford it.
When asked why he wanted the mine, Morris explained that he planned to open it to the public, generate revenue from the sale of the Amethyst Vein dump material, then use that money to restore mine buildings and preserve the mine's history. Hearing that, Nancy Granger Schallen offered to sell Morris the Last Chance for nothing more than its assessed tax value.
Morris purchased the mine in 1995. In 1999, Jack moved to Creede and he then began the full-time restoration of four mine buildings. In 2005, he opened the Last Chance Mine as a fee-collecting site and historic attraction.
The Creede mines offered the famed amethyst vein, a remarkable deposit of high-grade silver ore rich in argentite and galena and flecked with gleaming bits of native silver, all in a matrix of pastel-colored, banded agate and purple amethyst. It makes fine display specimens, slabs and polishes well, and can be worked into everything from jewellery pendants to panels for Tiffany-style lampshades. Simply slated, Creede's Amethyst Vein ore may be the most distinctive and beautiful mill-run ore ever mined.
Admission to the Last Chance is free, and whether visitors collect or not, all will hear an account of the mine's history. The restored mine buildings rest on a flat area midway between the steep upper and lower mine-waste dumps, overlooking Willow Creek and the Amethyst Mine runs 800 feet below. The collecting area is a level section of the upper dump accessed by a timbered walkway. Collectors who don't have their own equipment are provided with a bucket, rock hammer, and plastic spray bottle filled with water, the latter to assist in identifying Amethyst Vein rock. The charge to take material from the mine dump is $2 per pound.
During the summer season, some 15 to 20 rockhounds and mining-history buffs visit the mine daily. Morris has also hosted rock and gem clubs from Colorado, New Mexico, and as far away as Tennessee. The family-oriented Last Chance Mine welcomes children provided they are kept under close parental supervision for obvious safety reasons. The Last Chance also has three unique rustic cabins that accommodate up to 12 visitors, with water, wood, and bedding provided. Use of the cabins is free, but donations are gratefully accepted to fund mine-restoration work.
The elevation of the Last Chance is 10,300 feet, high enough to be a consideration for some elderly visitors or for those in poor health. Morris suggests that anyone prone to altitude sickness acclimate at lower elevations for a few days before visiting the mine.
The mine opens on Memorial Day weekend and closes after winter snows make it inaccessible. (Winter weekend snowshoe or cross-country ski trips by special arrangement only.)
In the future, Jack plans to establish the Nancy Granger Schallen Museum to display minerals, mining equipment, artifacts, and photos from the Last Chance Mine and the early days of Creede. He will also recondition an old portal to provide public underground tours, and has already consulted with state mine inspectors about the required ventilation, communication, and lighting systems necessary for public-tour approval. He is hoping to open level 2 in the summer of 2015.
To collect some of the most beautiful mill-run ore you'll ever see, visit the Last Chance Mine. Remember, when it comes to collecting Amethyst Vein specimens and lapidary material, the Last Chance may be your last chance.