Posts Tagged ‘ouray colorado’

sign for bachelor mine

Sign for the Bachelor-Syracuse Mine in Ouray, Colorado.

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

Bachelor mine tour

Touring through the Syracuse adit.

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.

change room at the bachelor mine

Change room at the Bachelor-Syracuse mine.

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.

portal of syracuse adit

Portal of the Syracuse adit and entrance to the Bachelor Mine.

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.

Mucker at the bachelor mine

Mucker at the Bachelor-Syracuse mine

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.

Telluride panorama

A panorama of Telluride taken from the top of the gondola lift.


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.

Water cannon

Water cannon nozzle used for hydraulic mining near Telluride, Colorado.

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.

Geology of Telluride area

Geology of the Telluride, Colorado area.

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.

telluride from gondola

Telluride, Colorado from the gondola.

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.

Telluride main street

Telluride, Colorado: July 12, 2012.

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.

Mountain Village

The gondola ride continues over the top of the mountain to Mountain Village.

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.

telluride from above

A Google Earth view of Telluride, showing the gondola run and Pandora Mill tailings pile.

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.

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ouray in 1876

Ouray Colorado in 1876, soon after silver was discovered in the area.

On Thursday, July 12, 2012, I explored the history of Ouray and Telluride, Colorado. I rode a jeep up into the San Juan Mountains to the high mining camps, delved into an adit at the Bachelor Syracuse Mine, and floated in a gondola high above Telluride.

History of Ouray:

Chief Ouray stained glass

Chief Ouray making peace with the Governor of Colorado

The town of Ouray (pronounced “you-ray”) is named for an Uncompahgre Ute Indian chief in the 1800s who tried to keep his people and their land safe from the gradual encroachment of white settlers and miners. Despite all kinds of provocations, he tried to keep the peace. When silver was discovered in the San Juan Mountains, each treaty that promised them they could keep their land “as long as the grass shall grow” was soon broken. Chief Ouray likened their situation to a buffalo that has been shot several times and has no choice but to lie down and take whatever will come. After Chief Ouray’s death the Utes were rounded up and forced to move to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in northeast Utah, near the towns of Roosevelt and Ft. Duchesne. Chief Ouray was known for his intelligence and ability to negotiate, and his stained glass portrait in the old supreme court building in Denver is one of only a few to show Native Americans among the state’s leaders.

Box Canyon

Box Canyon above Ouray, where silver was first discovered.

The original name for the valley and the town was Uncompahgre, the Ute word for the hot mineral springs located there (which Chief Ouray was known to soak in). Spanish explorers, including the Dominguez-Escalante party of 1776, explored the area but it wasn’t until the 1870s that silver deposits were discovered up what is now called Box Canyon. By 1876 the town of Ouray was incorporated and gradually grew. The best deposits were found around Gold Hill and further up the canyons, including the Imogene Basin and the area around Ironton and Guston in the Red Mountain District (which I drove through yesterday). The town itself became the transfer and shipping point, but growth was slow because of the isolation and difficulty of getting the ore to market on wagons.

The main line of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad extended itself up from Pueblo to Gunnison and on through Grand Junction to Salt Lake City between 1880 and 1883 (I talked more about this on Day 1 when I visited the railroad and mining museum in Helper, Utah). A branch line travelled through Durango, and a narrow gauge line extended up the Animas River Valley to Silverton (which I rode on Day 2). Knowing that the mines of the Red Mountain District could make great fortunes if only the ore could be gotten out, Otto Mears built a series of toll roads over the high passes between Silverton and Ouray and from Durango around to Rico and Telluride. The roads met up at what is now Ridgway, north of Ouray. But he saw even greater potential in building railroads.

Mears road

Road from Silverton to Ouray, built by Otto Mears.

The gulch between Ouray and Ironton was considered too difficult a route for a railroad, as it would require a 7 percent grade, a tunnel, and a double loop to get a train through the defile. Not even a Shay locomotive on a narrow gauge track could have done it. Mears decided instead to build a railroad from Silverton over the top of Red Mountain Pass to Guston and Ironton, which would link up with the Durango to Silverton line and bring the ore to smelters in Durango.

Ouray in 1892

Ouray in 1892 at the height of its prosperity.

Meanwhile, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built a narrow gauge extension line in 1897 from Montrose up the Uncompahgre River to Ridgway and on to Ouray. With these two railways in place, the town of Ouray really took off. By 1890 it had over 2500 people. Unlike many mining towns, most of the miners brought their families with them and Ouray was never quite as wild and wooly as some towns. Ouray was also fortunate to never have a devastating fire such as the ones the burnt down most western mining towns. Many of the original buildings are intact, and along Main Street there are metal signs on each block showing what the buildings on the opposite side looked like in the 1890s. The businesses in them have changed hands many times, but the buildings are still there, giving Ouray a much more authentic flavor. Some of the best-preserved buildings are the Beaumont Hotel, the St. Elmo Hotel, Wright’s Opera House, and the County Courthouse (which was used for the courtroom scenes of the 1968 version of the movie True Grit with John Wayne, Kim Darby, and Glen Campbell).

ouray today

Ouray Colorado today.

Ouray opera house

Wright Opera House in Ouray, Colorado.

The Western Hotel, where I stayed, is another historic building. Built near the railroad terminal, it saw good business from the start and is restored very much like it was in the 1890s. The saloon boasts an unusual painting of a lady’s face on the floor. I had originally planned to stay in a campground up at the Amphitheatre above the town, but my reservation got messed up, so I booked this hotel at the last minute. It was in the style of hotels of the day, with a shared bathroom down the hall and fairly small rooms without air conditioning (or many electrical outlets, which had to be added later). I’m glad I brought a power strip to plug in all my electronics. But I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in an authentic piece of western history. If you’d like to stay there, please visit their website at: http://www.historicwesternhotel.com/home.html.

Western Hotel

Western Hotel in Ouray, Colorado, built in 1891.

I ate a breakfast of chocolate glazed donuts and orange juice and walked around town, taking photos while waiting for my jeep tour. It’s a beautiful location, and the town lives up to its nickname as the Switzerland of the West (although it has some competition from Midway, Utah for the same title). Our jeep tour actually began with a tour and brief history of the Western Hotel. Owner Gregg Pieper led our tour of the ballroom and saloon bar, telling some of the colorful stories associated with the hotel, which was built in 1891.

Map of San Juan Tour

Map of the San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours at the Western Hotel.

Face on floor

The Face on the Saloon Floor.

Western Hotel bar

Into the San Juans by Jeep:

Our jeep tour began at 8:30. There were several groups taking different routes, some up over Imogene Pass, others taking different canyons into the high San Juans. Gregg drove our jeep up Canyon Creek to the southwest of Ouray. The morning sun was just topping the mountains to the east, and the road remained quite good all the way to the Camp Bird Mine, where one branch continues up left to Imogene Pass and the other heads higher up the main canyon toward the ghost town of Sneffels and the Yankee Boy Mine, our destination.

Thomas F. Walsh

Thomas F. Walsh, owner of the Camp Bird Mine.

In 1893 the good times in Ouray ended when the Silver Panic hit, the price fell out of the market, and many of the mines closed. Yet some, with enough gold in them, were able to stay open. One man who decided to stay and ride out the bad times was Thomas F. Walsh. An Irish immigrant from Tipperary, Ireland, Walsh worked his way up from being a carpenter to selling supplies to miners in the Dakotas during the gold rush there. Along the way, he learned a bit about gold mining, married a beautiful schoolteacher from Leadville, and moved his young family to Ouray. He had put together a modest fortune from his interests in the Dakotas and had built a smelter in Ironton. While looking for silaceous earth to use as a flux in his smelter, he examined some old tailings up Canyon Creek and saw they contained gold. Following the tailings to their source, he found a rich vein that had been overlooked by previous prospectors. He came home and told his daughter, Evalyn, “Daughter, I’ve struck it rich!”

Camp Bird tailings

Tailings near the Camp Bird Mine.

The first miners at his claim were bothered by a bold mountain jay that stole their lunches. He was known as “the camp bird,” and the mine was named after him. It became one of the richest gold mines in the United States and propelled Thomas Walsh into fame and fortune. At one point, the mine and mill were producing $5000 of gold per day, a great amount in the 1890s. The miners at the Camp Bird Mine were treated well; their boarding house was more like a hotel, with excellent meals served on china. Walsh built a mansion for his family in Washington, D.C., which is now the Indonesian Embassy. He even bought the infamous Hope diamond from Cartier for Evalyn as a wedding present (of course, her family then became part of the Hope diamond curse).

The Camp Bird mine continued to produce into the 1950s and has been opened for exploratory mining occasionally since. There appears to be some activity going on around the site even now, since gold prices have gone so high. The mill was eventually dismantled and moved to Mongolia.


Looking back at the overhang on the road to Yankee Boy Basin.

Jeep on cliff

Jeep on a cliff on the road to Yankee Boy Basin.

Further up the canyon we came to the ghost town of Sneffels, once containing about 200 people. Not much remains except the hotel and a few shacks, as the historical structures have been mostly demolished by further development and the harsh climate. The town and a nearby mountain were named for a character in Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days. Just beyond Sneffels are the ruins of a large stamp mill that pulverized and concentrated the silver and gold ore.

Sneffels hotel

The hotel at Sneffels.

Our route became more steep and precarious, with the road carved out of the cliff face and sheer drops on our left side. Gregg stopped to tell us stories from time to time, and at one point the cliff actually overhung the road. We stopped for several minutes to make sure no one was coming down as one can’t see beyond the overhand and meeting a car under it would not be a good idea. Eventually the deep gorge opened up again into a glacial cirque where the Yankee Boy Mine was located. Not many structures remain, only the stains of old tailings piles and a few low-grade outcroppings. But there were many wildflowers and twin waterfalls and gorgeous scenery all around. From here we could see the St. Sophia Ridge, a jagged series of tooth-like pinnacles separating Yankee Boy Basin from Telluride. We were only a few miles from Telluride as the crow flies (although I doubt one could fly over that ridge).

St. Sophia Ridge

St. Sophia Ridge as seen from Yankee Boy Basin.

We got out and explored for about 30 minutes, then met the jeep further down the road and bounced our way back to Ouray. I had tried a number of things with my camera gear, including attaching a Flip camera with my gripping tripod onto the frame of the jeep as we drove around Telluride. I finally decided holding it in my hand was easier and smoother.

Yankee Boy Basin

Yankee Boy Basin

I talked with Gregg for a while at the hotel front desk. He was nervous about all the video taping I had done, thinking I might be working for one of the competing jeep tours, but when I assured him this was for education and for my students, he opened up more. I laid down in my room for a hour or so to rest my spine and charge up my equipment again. It had been an unforgettable tour of the San Juan Mountains.

ladder to mine

An almost inaccessible mine on the Canyon Creek road. Miners had to climb down the ladders to reach the adit at bottom right.


Waterfall in Yankee Boy Basin.

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Nothing happened

Nothing happened here. Move on.

Wednesday, July 11 marked the third day of my journey through Colorado’s mining towns. Because of hitting a rock on my first day, I had to deviate from my carefully planned timeline in order to find a new rim for my minivan, which led to an unexpected detour.

Finding a Rim

The Shiprock

The Shiprock as seen from Farmington, NM.

After striking camp, I set to work trying to track down a rim for my car. A shop in Durango didn’t have anything, and said my best shot was to try the wrecking yard south of town on Highway 160. They didn’t have anything like it, and the owner there checked his computer which located several new rims, for over $300: one in Albuquerque, one in Cañon City, and one in Denver, all too far away and too expensive. I called the Dodge dealership in town, and they suggested calling some wrecking yards in Farmington, New Mexico. The second yard I called did have a used rim for a Dodge Grand Caravan. Finally! But it meant a 45-mile detour south. I had never been to New Mexico before, unless you count the time I visited Four Corners years ago, and then I only had part of my body in the state. Of all the western states, it is the one I’ve missed visiting. So here was my chance at last!

Ore Chute

Ore chute on the road to Ouray

At the suggestion of the lady at the wrecking yard, I took 160 west about 10 miles, then 140 south. I got stuck for half an hour waiting for road resurfacing near Breen, travelled on through Red Mesa and La Plata into New Mexico to Farmington. I missed the turnoff to the wrecking yard, and realized I’d gone to far and pulled over. Up ahead to the west I could see the Shiprock, a famous landmark in these parts. I’ve never seen it before, and snapped a photo even though there were power lines in the way. I knew a Navajo kid in high school named Albert Todacheenie who was from Shiprock and I’ve wondered since whatever happened to him.

Silverton to Ouray route

My route from Silverton to Ouray over Red Mountain Pass

I got the used rim and found a tire store to mount the rim and tire. They had quite a crowd waiting, but the prices were good. I walked in blazing heat (near 100 ° F) to find someplace to eat, a good Mexican restaurant about a half-mile away. After getting my car back about 3:30, I headed north out of town on Highway 550.

The Million Dollar Highway

I was over six hours behind schedule and knew I wouldn’t be able to stop in Silverton to take the mine or the mill tour as I had originally planned. I had to be in Ouray that evening, as I had a reservation at the Western Hotel there. So I had to make some choices. In order to get back to Silverton, I would have to miss going through Alamosa and seeing Great Sand Dunes National Park on Saturday. It was a hard choice, but I was here to see the history of Colorado mining and the sand dunes had always been optional.

Molas Pass

Panorama of Molas Pass on Highway 550

Route over Molas Pass

Route over Molas Pass to Silverton

So I wound up back in Durango. Again. After favoring the spare tire for three days, it was hard to get used to driving at normal speeds. I took 550 north past the ski resorts, then the road began to wind its way up into the San Juans. It is called the Million Dollar Highway here because it cost that much and more per mile to build. It wound over Coal Bank Pass and then Molas Pass (10,910 ft.), where I stopped to take some wonderful photos. It then curved its way down steeply to Silverton. I stopped wherever the road allowed for good views of the town below.


Silverton, Colorado as seen from Highway 550

Beyond Silverton the road travelled up a broad glacier-carved canyon toward Red Mountain Pass. I had seen a video on the Internet called “America’s Most Dangerous Highways” about this pass, and it seemed much worse on the video than it actually was. I wouldn’t want to drive an 18-wheeler around the switchbacks, but it was no problem in my minivan. In fact, I quite enjoyed the drive and the views were amazing.

Red Mt Pass

Red Mountain Pass in 3D

The Red Mountain Mining District

Treasury Tunnel trestle

Treasury Tunnel trestle and Red Mountain #3

Just beyond the pass was the Idarado mine, with a great deal of infrastructure and even houses intact. I stopped and photographed it all. Large silver chimneys were discovered here in 1882 and within a few years, six different towns grew up around the pass, including Guston and Ironton. The most prosperous mine in the 1880s was the Yankee Girl; its headframe is still intact. Later, as prices dropped after the Silver Panic of 1893, some of the mines were closed and others consolidated as other metals were mined.

Red Mountain 2

Red Mountain #2 and Champion Gulch

Eventually the Idarado became the leading mine, gradually expanding its drifts, levels, shafts, and stopes. After World War II three major ore bodies were connected underground through the Treasury Tunnel. It began here at Red Mountain Pass and continued underground (with a few internal shafts which dropped over 1700 feet) until it reached the Pandora Mill above Telluride. Altogether, over 100 miles of drifts and tunnels were blasted out of these mountains. Mining continued here until 1978.

Yankee Girl and Guston

Yankee Girl headframe and the town site of Guston

Idarado Tunnel

The Treasury Tunnel of the Idarado Mine at Red Mountain Pass

It was just past sunset as I travelled on toward Ouray. The worst part of the road was the last five miles as it was carved out of the side of a steep canyon cliff face without any guardrails to speak of. It was just getting dark as I drove into Ouray and checked into the Western Hotel. This is an authentic 1800s hotel and saloon, with European style rooms and a shared bathroom down the hall. I got everything charging up, and ate supper of excellent pizza in the saloon.

Toward Ouray

Highway 550 north of Red Mountain Pass looking toward Ouray

Company town

Miners houses at the Idarado Mine at Red Mountain Pass

Ouray, Colorado

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