Two posts ago I outlined my jeep tour up into the San Juan Mountains of Colorado around Ouray to visit Yankee Boy Basin and the Camp Bird Mine. Now, let’s move on to what I did during the afternoon on Day 4 (Thursday, July 12, 2012) of my journey through Colorado’s mining history.
The Bachelor-Syracuse Mine
I returned to my room after the jeep tour to recharge my electronics and to rest my spine. I then found a fun hamburger joint in town on Main Street for lunch, and drove north about a mile to the turnoff to Country Road 14 to Gold Hill and the Bachelor-Syracuse mine. This was the first actual mine tour on my trip.
During the main silver rush in Ouray (1876 to 1893) most of the silver mines were located up Box Canyon, up Canyon Creek in Yankee Boy and Imogene Basins, and around Ironton and Gastun to the north of Ouray. One other area was north of Ouray around what became known as Gold Hill. There was enough gold at the site to survive the Silver Panic of 1893. The Bachelor mine was claimed in the early 1890s by three bachelors, C.A. Armstrong, Frank Sanders, and George R. Hurlburt. Seeing as how none of them were attached, they settled on the name Bachelor Mine. It was a high producer and eventually bought out other claims in the area. The main shaft drilled downward from the top of the hill and eventually reached over 2000 feet into the mountain. As the shaft got deeper, ground water began to flood the mine and it became increasingly expensive to haul every ore bucket up out of the mine through the shafts to the top of the hill. A drainage adit was drilled from the east, which allowed the mine to go even deeper. In the 1920s, another adit was needed to come in from the west into the bottom of the mountain to drain deeper water and allow the ore to be removed more easily. It was hoped that the adit would pay for itself by encountering new ore bodies along the way, and it was named the Syracuse Tunnel since the money to build it was raised mostly in Syracuse, New York.
Today, the mine tour goes in through that adit. The electric tram that used to carry in miners and then tourists has been shut down, so that we had to walk in about 1500 feet after donning hard hats. When the tram was running, the tour went in 3500 feet, but this deeper tour is no longer allowed for safety reasons. It had been a nice, warm day in Ouray with a few rain sprinkles, but it felt good to walk into the cool mine with temperatures in the 50s. It was fairly damp inside, with water dripping from the ceiling in places. Even now, a steady stream of water drains out of the mine in a ditch to the right of the tracks.
They showed us how the pneumatic drills were used to hammer out a series of holes in the face following a pattern of concentric circles. The guide actually turned on the drill for a few seconds, which was very loud in such a confined space. In addition to getting rocked up, old time miners often went deaf as there was no hearing protection used.
Since I was recording the tour with my HD videocamera, it was difficult to take still photos at the same time. I will eventually capture still frames from the video and add to this post, but for now you’ll have to make do with photos from the outside. I found that the headlamp I had purchased to provide more light for my camera worked fairly well. Between trying to point my head in the right direction to provide light for my camera and looking through the LCD screen as I was trying to walk made for several bumps of my head on the ceiling (hanging wall), especially in the side drifts. I’m glad we wore hard hats.
After the tour, I took a few photos outside, then drove on to the north on Highway 550 to Ridgway, then turned west and eventually south, then back east again on Highway 145 to reach Telluride. Although only about 10 miles from Ouray as the crow flies (right over the route I took this morning on the jeep tour), it takes about 50 miles to go around on passable roads. Imogene Pass can be taken in between, but only in a 4 x 4. Then there’s Black Bear Pass, the most dangerous pass in Colorado. Someday maybe I’ll be back and try it, but absolutely not in a minivan.
On the way into Telluride, I stopped at an overlook that described how mining was done in the lower parts of the San Miguel Valley. Gold was scattered here in the gravel bars along the river, and early panning was unable to reach the deeper grains. Hydraulic cannons were installed to wash the gold out of the gravel. Water from upstream was diverted into ditches that became progressively more narrow and steep, putting a great deal of pressure on the water. Finally, it would be directed through a moveable nozzle at the gravel beds to wash the gravel and gold away. This slurry was collected in sluice boxes and riffle beds where the gold particles would settle out. It was effective and cheap, but it left lasting scars all along the riverbed. Since all the topsoil was also washed away, the scars remain to this day since nothing can yet grow there. Hydraulic mining was also used in the California gold rush; It is especially bad along Highway 149 in Mariposa County.
Telluride is a former mining town that has gotten developed into a ski resort and tourist attraction, which was good for business but not so good for history. Most of the mine dumps and infrastructure have gotten erased to make way for ski slopes. Some of the original buildings remain, but it is hard to tell which are which since modern buildings were designed to match the original 1890s style. Much of the main mines, such as the Pandora, were further up the box canyon from Telluride and the dumps and tailings piles can’t be seen from town.
The first gold was discovered in 1858 in the Marshall Basin above Telluride. The first successful claim occurred in 1875 and the town of Columbia, later Telluride, was founded in 1878. Interestingly, the type of gold in Telluride was not telluride ore (as is found in Cripple Creek). In addition to gold, silver, zinc, lead, and copper were mined. Because of its extreme isolation, Telluride grew slowly until the railroad finally arrived in 1890 built by transportation entrepreneur Otto Mears. At its height in 1900, the population reached about 2500.
One of the most historic events in the town was the robbery of the San Miguel Valley Bank in 1889 by none other than Butch Cassidy, his first major heist. He got away with $24,580.
In canyons to the south are the ghost towns of Alta and Ophir. Ophir boasts the first alternating current hydroelectric plant in the world, the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant. The second plant in the world was in Telluride at Bridal Veil Falls and served the pumps at the Smuggler-Union Mine. The Ames plant was designed by Nicola Tesla and George Westinghouse and financed by Lucien Lucius Nunn, a prominent Telluride banker. Westinghouse was reputedly paid with a pouch containing $50,000 worth of gold. When first activated, the engineers realized they had a problem: they didn’t know how to switch it off safely. It could only be turned off when the power cycle reached zero or the switchman could get electrocuted. Finally, the power failed when a squirrel shorted out a transformer (which was unfortunate for the squirrel). With the power finally off, the Nunn brothers were able to install a safer switch. Eventually these two plants became the Telluride Power Company.
Interestingly enough, all this has a tie in to Orem and Provo, Utah, where I live. The mines in the Tintic Mining District around Eureka, Utah, about 40 miles away, were having a similar problem with water flooding the lower levels, and decided to install electric pumps. The closest reliable water supply was the Provo River where it exits the Wasatch Mountains (about a mile from Walden School of Liberal Arts, where I teach). So the mine owners contracted with the Nunn brothers to build a power plant in Provo Canyon, which was called the Olmsted Station. Not only did it provide power for about 3000 homes (and still does), it also housed an electric power education institute for about 40 students. So as a child growing up in southern Utah, the power company was Telluride Power. It eventually merged with Utah Power and Light. Today there is a park in Provo Canyon near Bridal Veil Falls (just like in Telluride) called Nunn Park.
By the 1930s the mines at Red Mountain Pass (such as the Idarado) had followed the veins toward Telluride and the Pandora, Tomboy, Smuggler-Union, Nellie, and Sheridan mines near Telluride had followed the veins in the other direction. Eventually they met up, and ore and men could be transported underground all the way from Red Mountain Pass to Telluride. The mines were consolidated by 1953. The mill at the Pandora portal continued to process ore until 1978. Fortunately, after mining closed down another business was available: skiing and tourism. With the addition of ski runs, a free gondola connecting Telluride with Mountain Village, and several music and film festivals during the year, Telluride is now flourishing even though it may not have much left of its historic mining flavor.
I rode the gondola up the mountain and got some impressive views of the canyon below. I walked the streets for a while, then discovered I was starving and ate some excellent Chinese food at a restaurant in town. I tried to talk Chinese to the owners, but no one could understand me except their young daughter. I guess my Chinese is pretty rusty; thirty years ago I was fluent, but not anymore.
I drove back to Ouray and fell into bed after plugging in all my cameras to recharge. I had wanted to go swimming at the hot springs/pool complex north of town but was too tired to attempt it.