Posts Tagged ‘san juan mountains’

Parked along the switchbacks from Slumgullion Pass

Parked along the switchbacks from Slumgullion Pass

I came to Lake City from the south along Highway 149, driving from Creede along the headwaters of the Rio Grande River over the Continental Divide at Spring Creek Pass (10,901 feet). After staying on the high plateau, the road climbs again to Slumgullion Pass at 11,361 feet. It then descends toward Lake City, taking a series of dramatic switchbacks. At one hairpin turn, there is a nice overlook of Lake San Cristobal and Lake City. I stopped to look at the interpretive signs and take a few photos.

The San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado

The San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado

I parked along the old main street of town and found a nice old-fashioned soda fountain, the San Juan Soda Company, in a store next to the historic Miners and Merchants Bank. I had a tasty mint chocolate chip shake, which really hit the spot. I asked for directions and drove northeast out of town up Henson Canyon about two miles in a slight drizzling rain for the Hard Tack Mine.

Entrance to the Hard Tack Mine near Lake City, Colorado

Entrance to the Hard Tack Mine near Lake City, Colorado

As I always do, I asked the tour guide if I could videotape the tour, and he told me to check with the owner, who was in the main office next to the mine entrance. She was afraid that I would show their tour to “the competition” and refused to let me videotape it, although she said that photographs were allowed. I tried to assure her that my reporting should help business, but she wasn’t convinced. At least this would give me a chance to take more photographs. As things turned out, I’m glad I didn’t tape the tour. The guide was fairly new, having only done this about two months. He was from out of state, and was unable to answer questions about the types of minerals found here or how mining began around Lake City (which you would think would be standard background any guide would know). Hopefully he’s done more homework since.

Mucking Machine Diagram in the Hard Tack Mine

Mucking Machine Diagram in the Hard Tack Mine

The tour itself was disappointing compared with other tours I’ve taken on my trip through Colorado. To begin with, the Hard Tack Mine wasn’t a mine at all; it was originally blasted as an adit to reach other mines further up the mountain but was abandoned after reaching only 350 feet. No ore was ever struck. The current owners came in, cleaned out the old works, blasted a few way stations to hold exhibits, brought equipment in from other places, and called it a “mine tour.” Now, if I had never been on any other mine tours (such as the one in Creede just this morning, which was far superior) then I might have learned some interesting things about hard rock mining. But the other tours at least had tour guides who had been miners and knew their stuff, and their displays were better designed and more detailed. And their mannequins were less cheesy.

Jack leg drill display in the Hard Tack Mine

Jack leg drill display in the Hard Tack Mine

There were a few good things about this tour. The displays had some illustrated signs that did a good job explaining how the drills and other equipment worked. The signs were on paper inside plastic sleeves and were hard to photograph because they didn’t lie flat, but I did the best I could. There was also a good mineral exhibit and some photographs of the mining in the area. But the tour didn’t last very long nor was it very informative. There is a museum in town that no doubt gives more details about the history of the area, but my time was short – I wanted to get to Victor before nightfall. I’ve had to do some further research on my own.

Lake City Colorado from Highway 149

Lake City Colorado from Highway 149

Lake City, Colorado is the county seat of Hinsdale County and the only incorporated town in the county, which is the most sparsely populated county in Colorado. This should tell you something about how remote the town is from just about anywhere else; although it is not very far as the eagle flies from Lake City to Ouray or Silverton, you need a good four-wheel drive vehicle to make it over Engineer or Cinnamon Pass. This silver camp is located on the west slope of the continental divide along Colorado Highway 149, northwest of Creede and southwest of Gunnison.

Lake City in 1881

Lake City in 1881

The same caldera eruptions that brought veins of silver, gold, lead, zinc, and copper to the San Juan Mountains also placed veins in this area, cut into by glaciers to form the rugged peaks and ridges of the San Juans. About 800 years ago, a large earthflow filled the canyon and damned off the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, creating Lake San Cristobal, the second largest natural lake in Colorado. Lake City is located in a dell about three miles below this natural dam. The slide itself is called the Slumgullion Slide, because its brownish-orange color studded with boulders reminded the early miners of slumgullion stew, a beef stew with onions, carrots, and potatoes.

Lake San Cristobal above Lake City, Colorado

Lake San Cristobal above Lake City, Colorado

This area was home to various Ute tribes, especially the Tabeguache Tribe led by Chief Ouray. They originally ranged from the San Luis Valley through the San Juans. But their range was reduced through several treaties, ending with the Brunot Treaty of 1873, which moved the Utes to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in Eastern Utah.

Lake City winter

Lake City winter

Even before the treaty was ratified, prospectors were heading into the San Juans, pressing south along Lake Fork to the area around Lake San Cristobal. One party of six men, led by Alferd Packer, got caught in deep snows as they tried to hike to the Los Pinos Indian Agency near Saguache. They ran out of food and even ate their shoe leather to try to stay alive. Only Packer made it to the station.

Alferd Packer. You would not want to hire this man as a tour guide . . .

Alferd Packer. You would not want to hire this man as a tour guide . . .

Later that year, the bodies of the other five men were found dead at the base of Slumgullion Pass and showed signs of foul play and cannibalism. Packer had seemed well enough fed, and was spending money from several different wallets. He was arrested and charged with murder, escaped, was captured seven years later and convicted of murder in the Hinsdale County Courthouse. He was retried in Gunnison and found guilty again, then sentenced to 40 years. He was later pardoned by the Governor of Colorado. He always claimed he had killed one of the men in self-defense, and that another man, the oldest of their party, had died of natural causes and was probably eaten by the others.

The Golden Fleece mines above the Slumgullion Slide.

The Golden Fleece mines above the Slumgullion Slide.

Other prospectors discovered claims, which were staked out and filed just as soon as the treaty was complete. The first big strike was the Golden Fleece claim discovered by Enos Hotchkiss (who also built the first cabin in the area of what is now Lake City). He and Henry Finley and D. P. Church were building a toll road between Silverton and Saguache in 1874 when he located rich gold ore by the lake. By 1875, Lake City was incorporated as a town, and became the county seat. Within a few years over 500 structures had been built and mining had extended all the way into the valleys and passes above Lake San Cristobal. The town itself became an important jumping off, resupply, and smelting point.

Illustrated map of Lake City, Colorado

Illustrated map of Lake City, Colorado

In 1889 the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built a narrow gauge line in from the north and the ores could now be transported much more cheaply. Otto Mears built toll roads over the passes from Silverton and Ouray to Lake City and charged $2.25 per passenger for the daily stagecoach runs. It would take two days to make the bone-jarring ride, and the stages would stop over at Rose’s Cabin, originally built in 1874 by Corydon Rose as a one-story log cabin. It eventually grew into a saloon and hotel, stable, store, post office, and cultural center for the mining claims in the area.

Downtown Lake City, Colorado

Downtown Lake City, Colorado

Lake City reached its peak population of about 6000 around 1900, but the writing was already on the wall. The Silver Panic of 1893 cut the price of silver so much that it doomed much of the mining in the San Juan Mountains and elsewhere in Colorado and throughout the West. Only those mines that contained enough gold and other ores to ride out the downturn were able to survive. Now maybe 500 people live there year-round.

Soda fountain in Lake City, Colorado

Soda fountain in Lake City, Colorado

The last train out of Lake City left on May 25, 1933. After the railway was abandoned, Mike Burke, owner of the Ute-Ulay Mine, had a 1928 Pierce Arrow automobile remodeled with train wheels so it could run on the tracks. It was called the Galloping Goose because of its tendency to weave back and forth on the rails.

Silver ore from the Ute-Ulay Mine near Lake City, Colorado

Silver ore from the Ute-Ulay Mine near Lake City, Colorado

The Ute-Ulay (or Ule) Mine is one of the more famous in the area, with over $10 million worth of silver and lead extracted. Its mill was used as late as 1983, but now the buildings, mill site, boarding house, tram line, etc. are decaying and in danger of collapsing under heavy winter snows. The current owners, LKA International, have donated the land to Hinsdale County and options are being looked at to renovate the structures and remediate the tailings pile and pit near the mill.

Miners at the Black Creek Mine near Lake City, Colorado.

Miners at the Black Creek Mine near Lake City, Colorado.

The county invited in the nonprofit Colorado Art Ranch to put together the Hardrock Revision Team, a group of seven artists to find creative ways to utilize the property while maintaining its historic appeal. Some ideas include turning the over 100 miles of tunnels into a large Aeolian harp, converting the water tank into a camera obscura, covering the roofs of the buildings with protective tarps painted with mining scenes, and turning the tailings pit into an ice skating rink once it has been remediated. This is not a bunch of outsiders coming in to tell the community what to do – it was initiated by Lake City citizens. It will be interesting to see what happens, and perhaps I’ll have to stop when I come this way again. Here is a link to the article I found on this project: http://www.hcn.org/issues/43.20/can-an-old-mine-become-a-work-of-art/article_view?b_start:int=0. I just wish similar efforts could happen in Utah before the state shuts all our mining history down or all the old structures collapse into oblivion.

Mining structures in the Lake City area

Mining structures in the Lake City area

As I left the Hardtack Mine, I drove north out of Lake City on Highway 149 and left the San Juan Mountains behind. North of Lake City, large basalt flows continue all the way to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. I joined U.S. 50 nine miles west of Gunnison and stopped to gas up. Now I was on a familiar road – I’ve traveled most of the length of U. S. 50 at one time or another. I’ve been on this section with my children 10 years ago when I was last in the San Juans.

Captain John W. Gunnison, for whom many towns and places are named in Colorado and Utah. His 1853 survey expedition was attacked by a Pahvant war party in Oct., 1853 west of Deseret, Utah.

Captain John W. Gunnison, for whom many towns and places are named in Colorado and Utah. His 1853 survey expedition was attacked by a Pahvant war party in Oct., 1853 west of Deseret, Utah.

Captain John William Gunnison left his name all over Colorado and into central and western Utah, but not in Nevada. He never made it that far. As a Captain of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, he was commissioned in 1853 to survey a route for the transcontinental railroad between the 38th and 39th parallels. U.S. 50 and parts of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad follow the route his team surveyed. They discovered the gorge of black basalt and the river that bears his name. Once they reached Utah, they surveyed along the Sevier River near the site of Gunnison, Utah and passed through Leamington Canyon into the Pahvant Valley. Fearing the approach of winter, he sped up the work by splitting his team into two groups. His half of the party surveyed a large meander in the Sevier River where the Gunnison Bend Reservoir is now located. Several miles further down the river, west of what is now Deseret (my hometown), they were attacked by Pahvant Utes on the warpath. Of eleven men in the group, only three survived. Gunnison was killed. I travelled east on U. S. 50, thinking about how Deseret would be different if Gunnison had finished his survey and the transcontinental railroad had followed that route instead of the more northern route it took.

Hidden Treasure Mine near Lake City, Colorado

Hidden Treasure Mine near Lake City, Colorado

I became so sleepy that I had to pull over and take a nap for an hour, then press on. Clouds gathered as I drove up into the Sawatch Range and it began to drizzle. I had intended to take the tramway to the top of Monarch Pass, but I was behind schedule and it wouldn’t have been much of a view in the rain, so I pressed on. I drove into Buena Vista and ate supper at a burger place, then tried to get the phone number for the KOA campground outside of Victor that I was going to stay at. It was getting dark and I wanted to let them know I was going to be late coming in. My wife looked up the number for me (somehow I had forgotten to write it down with all my other contact information when planning this trip) as I drove east on U.S. 24. I had to double back to find a spot with cell tower reception in order to get the number, but was not able to get through to the campground. They must have already closed the office.

The Road to Gunnison

The Road to Gunnison

By now it was completely dark, so once again I travelled this highway in the night, the last time being in 2010 when we drove out to Denver, stopping in Cripple Creek. Now I was returning to complete the visit I made then. At least I had driven this route once in the daytime, back in September, 2009 on my way back from Philadelphia, and had good photos of the scenery.

My route from Lake City to Victor, Colorado on July 14, 2012.

My route from Lake City to Victor, Colorado on July 14, 2012.

I was getting very tired by the time I got to Divide and turned south. I took the turn toward Victor, but somehow missed the KOA in the dark and wound up driving all the way into town. I turned around and headed back. I almost missed the sign again. The KOA is located just south of the turnoff to Victor, and I arrived about 11:00. The manager had left a map for me in the entranceway to the office with my site circled, a tent site on the outer edge of the camp. It took a couple of drives around the camp before I found the right trail leading off to the tent sites. Mine was Site 1, nestled back in the aspens with good privacy. I was too tired to make camp, so I just rearranged my gear, setting stuff outside like the tent that I knew bears wouldn’t get in to, and made a fairly good bed in the back of my minivan.

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Mine near Silverton, Coloado

Mine near Silverton, Coloado

My exploration of the Mayflower Mill took quite a bit of time, but it was worth detouring back to Silverton just to see it. I was quite hungry by the time I finished, but I stopped at some interpretive signs along the road back to town, including a road map of the area showing the roads over Cinnamon and Engineer Passes to Lake City. I would like to explore these routes, but knew my minivan was no match for those passes. I’ll take the long way round.

History of mining around Silverton, Colorado.

History of mining around Silverton, Colorado.

Closer to Silverton was a display on the tailings from the Mayflower Mill and a description of the Silver Lake Mill across the valley, as well as the mansion called Waldheim that was built by Edward and Lena Stoiber, who also built the mill. It was eventually sold to the Guggenheims and demolished for salvage in the 1940s.

Mayflower Mill and tailings pile. The Silver Lake Mill was across the Animas River from the Mayflower.

Mayflower Mill and tailings pile. The Silver Lake Mill was across the Animas River from the Mayflower.

Back in Silverton, I found a promising place to eat and had a tasty lunch of buffalo chicken wings at Handlebar’s Restaurant and Saloon. Certainly much better than the place I ate at on Tuesday. The train crowd was leaving by the time I finished and the town was more relaxed.

Main Street in Silverton, Colorado.

Main Street in Silverton, Colorado.

I had one more attraction to see on my Silverton Heritage Pass, and that was the San Juan County Historical Society Mining Heritage Center housed in the old Silverton jail. Downstairs was an excellent exhibit of local minerals, and the jail itself was interesting. From the jail, you pass through a tunnel and connect with another building to see the Heritage Museum. It had good displays of mining equipment and how it was used, including engineer’s transits, safety equipment, and general artifacts from the town itself.

Gold ore from the San Juan Mountains on display in the Silverton museum.

Gold ore from the San Juan Mountains on display in the San Juan County Historical Society Mining Heritage Center in Silverton.

More gold ore in the Silverton museum.

More gold ore in the Silverton museum.

Silverton got its start after the Brunot Treaty of 1873 opened the area to settlement and pushed the Ute Indians out. Almost immediately mining began in the area and continued until 1991 when the last mine shut down. At its height in the 1880s, Silverton’s population reached 3000, with many coming from European countries. The mines advertized in foreign newspapers and promised land and wealth. Usually the younger male members of families came first, hoping to save enough money to send for the rest of their families.

Silver ore from the San Juan Mtns., on display in the Silverton museum.

Silver ore from the San Juan Mtns., on display in the Silverton museum.

Silverton was a rough town, with gambling, saloons, and other forms of recreation that led to the need for a good jail. Built in 1902, the jail was rarely empty. The jailer’s family lived on the main floor and the cells were on the top floors, with storage in the basement. Eventually, as mining dwindled and the population decreased, the jail was shut down and used to store artifacts for a proposed museum, which finally opened in 1965. Now, a large addition has become the Mining Heritage Center.

Copper ore on display in the Silverton, Co. museum.

Copper ore on display in the Silverton museum.

After completing my tour, I drove out of town on Highway 550 and crossed over Molas Pass again, returning to Durango for the third time in five days. I did stop at the train station one last time, but they still had not seen my hat. Oh well! I drove on out of town on Highway 160 toward Pagosa Springs.

Typical mine blacksmith shop, recreated in the Silverton Heritage Museum.

Typical mine blacksmith shop, recreated in the Silverton museum.

It was a pleasant drive, threatening rain but never more than a light drizzle. It’s about 60 miles from Durango around to Pagosa Springs, which surprised me for being such a large town. I didn’t stop to explore, as I was already behind schedule to get to my camp for the night. It must have a fairly large airport judging from the midsized jet I saw taking off.

Progression of miner's hats and lamps.

Progression of miner’s hats and lamps.

Highway 160 continued on to Wolf Creek Pass. I stopped at a scenic pullout along the switchbacks leading up to the pass and could see a long way down a glacial valley to the west. This is the site of one of the old songs by C. W. McCall, called “Wolf Creek Pass.” The song follows the misadventures of truck driver Earl and his companion, whose 1948 Peterbilt 18-wheeler goes out of control driving down Wolf Creek Pass, until they crash into a feed store in Pagosa Springs, losing most of their cargo of chickens along the way.

Miner's carbide lamp and cross-section diagram.

Miner’s carbide lamp and cross-section diagram.

I looked at Earl and his eyes was wide

His lip was curled, and his leg was fried.

And his hand was froze to the wheel like a tongue to a sled in the middle of a blizzard.

I says, “Earl, I’m not the type to complain

But the time has come for me to explain

That if you don’t apply some brake real soon, they’re gonna have to pick us up with a stick and a spoon…”

(“Wolf Creek Pass” written by Bill Fries and Chip Davis, sung by C.W. McCall)

Drill steals, including single and double jacks and Leyner drill bits.

Drill steals, including single and double jacks and Leyner drill bits.

Interestingly enough, another song by C. W. McCall is entitled “Black Bear Road” and talks of the legendary jeep route between Telluride and Ouray. Since I started out in Ouray this morning, I’ve definitely been in C. W. McCall country.

Jail cell in the old Silverton, Colorado jail.

Jail cell in the old Silverton, Colorado jail.

But the funny thing is, C. W. McCall never existed. It was a pseudonym of songwriter Bill Fries who, along with Chip Davis, worked for an advertising company in Omaha. They were hired to do a marketing campaign for the Metz Baking Company, which made Old Home Bread. They came up with a trucker named C. W. McCall who delivered Old Home Bread to the Old Home Filler-Up and Keep On a Truckin’ Café, where he meets with waitress Mavis Davis. The commercials were a big hit and won the Clio Award. Bill and Chip decided to take the C. W. McCall persona on the road, and released several “outlaw country” albums. In 1976 they ignited the citizen band radio craze with the song “Convoy,” which earned them a gold record.

Mine engineer's surveying transit.

Mine engineer’s surveying transit.

While on the road, Chip began experimenting with a fusion of medieval music with modern instruments and synthesizers and created the group called Mannheim Steamroller. The first album was rejected by all the major record labels, so Chip set up his own record label called American Gramaphone. Their Fresh Aire albums, especially the Christmas albums, are still among my favorite.

1930s photo of Silverton, Colorado with a large mill complex in the background.

1930s photo of Silverton, Colorado with a large mill complex in the background.

Bill Fries eventually moved to Ouray, Colorado and was elected mayor there in 1986.

View from Wolf Creek Pass toward Pagosa Springs.

View from Wolf Creek Pass toward Pagosa Springs.

It was raining a bit more heavily as I crossed over Wolf Creek Pass but lightened up as I headed down into South Fork. I had a reservation at a large RV park a short distance up Highway 149. I had set up the reservation long before I had the trouble with my tire and had to modify my itinerary; originally, I was going to come in from the north on Highway 149. Fortunately, even though I was late, the manager was still in the office making bread for a bake sale in the commons room. My camping spot was right next to this room and the spot was so narrow my tent was literally wedged between the building and my neighbor’s pop-up tent. I covered my tent with a tarp in case of rain and to keep out the bright light on the side of the building. I ate supper, got my electronics charged up, uploaded my photos, and slept well despite the light.

Sign near the Silverton Museum detailing the history of the area.

Sign near the Silverto museum detailing the history of the area.

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red mountain reflection

The Red Mountains near Ouray, Colorado.

My original plans for this fifth day in Colorado’s mining towns was to drive north on Highway 550 to Montrose, then east on U. S. 50 and south on Highway 149 to Lake City and eventually Creede. But having to detour two days ago to Farmington, New Mexico to pick up a used rim for my minivan made it necessary to drive through Silverton without stopping. I did some quick calculating and found an alternate route that would allow me to hit all three places (but it would mean missing Alamosa and Great Sand Dunes National Park and having a very long day tomorrow). Since my trip is mostly about the history of mining in Colorado, I chose to take the alternate route. Alamosa will have to wait for another trip.

I packed up and ate some doughnuts and other supplies I had that were still good. The ice in my coolers had long since melted and things were beginning to go bad. I videotaped some panoramic shots along Ouray’s main street and talked for a few minutes with a Native American wearing a veteran’s hat, whom I had seen around town. He had been to Provo and enjoyed visiting the national parks in Utah.

Mining at Red Mountain 2

Mining ruins near Red Mountain #2, near Ouray, Colorado.

I drove out of town south on Highway 550, stopping to take photos of the Red Mountain peaks reflected in a small lake, as well as some mine structures I’d missed on my way in two days ago. Once over the top of the pass, I pressed on through Silverton, talking a gravel road out of town to the northeast toward Engineer Pass and Lake City, then southeast through a narrow river valley (Cunningham Gulch) to the Old Hundred Mine at the base of Galena Mountain. I arrived just at 10:00 in time to take the first tour.

Old Hundred mine location

Location of the Old Hundred Mine on Google Earth.

The Old Hundred Mine

This mine was named after the 100th Psalm, where it says: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.” No doubt the prospectors who found this deposit made a very joyful noise! Galena Mountain was laced with veins of rich silver-lead-gold ore, and the Niegold brothers (Reinhard, Gustave, and Otto) staked claims on some of the richer veins in 1872. About 300 feet from the top of the mountain, they located the best vein of all at what came to be called the Number Seven Level. Other veins were located further down. The mountain was so steep that mining the higher levels was very difficult – supplies and equipment had to be lowered from the top of the mountain and ore removed on ropes to the bottom level. A small town grew up at the bottom with a hotel, a saloon, a post office, and cabins for the miners. It was called Niegoldstown. Well-educated and classically trained, the Neigold brothers would entertain the miners during the long winter months with music, operas, and plays.

Change room of Old 100

In the change room of the Old Hundred Mine.

In 1904 additional investment built a trail that winds its way around and up to the Number Seven Level, where a boardinghouse with bunks and a tram station were built perched on the side of the cliff and anchored by cables to the cliff face. A tram station was also built at the bottom of the mountain, and massive foundations poured for a stamp mill to process ore. A long adit was blasted into the mountain just above the mill level with hopes of reaching deeper veins inside the mountain.

Entering the Old Hundred Mine

Entering the Old Hundred Mine on an electric tram.

The boarding house still stands on the side of the mountain. Damaged by deep snows in the winter of 1983-84, the roof has been repaired and the boardinghouse and tram station stabilized by some very brave carpenters and helicopter pilots.

Inside the old hundred mine

Inside the Old Hundred Mine; near Silverton, CO.

The bunkhouse was built to house 40 miners and a cook. Miners would stay there for two weeks at a time, with two shifts rotating through the bunks. When they got their pay after two weeks, they would either take a slow mule down the steep trail (just wide enough for two mules to pass each other and much narrower than that now) or ride the tram buckets down. In Silverton, they would spend their money on gambling, whiskey, and women and head back to the mine after the weekend dead broke. Some miners had better sense, saving up money to send for their families in Cornwall or Ireland or elsewhere.

Charges on the face

Charges set to blast the face at the Old Hundred Mine.

Dynamite in Old Hundred Mine

Dynamite boxes at the Old Hundred Mine

With the improvements made, mining continued in earnest. Over 16,000 ounces of gold was removed from the mountain by 1908, but then the veins dried up. The panic of 1907 also dried up the money for further investment, and the property defaulted back to the Neigold brothers. Eventually the mine was lost to back taxes, and the last of the brothers died in 1927.

Old Hundred mucker

A working mucker inside the Old Hundred Mine.

Other owners worked the mine sporadically until 1967, when the Dixilyn Corporation brought new investment. The Mill Level Tunnel was continued over 5000 feet into the mountain and other levels were also extended and connected. A modern mill was built with better techniques for processing the low-grade ore, but the mine remained unprofitable. By 1973 it was finally realized that the deeper veins just weren’t there. The buildings and mill were torn down and sold for scrap. To find out more about the history of the Old Hundred Mine, go to: http://www.minetour.com/history.php.

For our tour, we donned hard hats and slickers, then boarded an electric tram and travelled deeply into the Mill Level adit. There is something a bit spooky and exciting about zipping along a railroad line underground in an open car. Since this mine only closed in the 1970s, they have kept some equipment inside in working order. Our guide demonstrated a working drill and even a pneumatic mucker, which are not usually available. Lots of old muckers are found with the rust painted over as standing displays outside of the mines (including some at this mine), but this is one of the only times I’ve seen one actually working.

No 7 level painting

Painting of the No. 7 Level at the Old Hundred Mine.

No 7 level

Number 7 Level above the Old Hundred Mine.

The tour was truly enjoyable, and I would recommend it as one of the best in Colorado, along with the Mollie Kathleen Mine tour in Cripple Creek. Our guide was knowledgeable and he gave us a good explanation of the technologies and history of the mine. Running my HD camcorder to record all that the tour guide said meant I couldn’t take many photos during the tour itself and some were taken rather hastily and turned out blurry in the darkness. After the tour I took photos around the mine entrance and of the boardinghouse high above us on the cliff. I also bought a used hard hat in the gift shop to add to my collection.

Hardrock holidays

Poster for the annual Hardrock Holidays celebration in Silverton, CO.

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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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Preparing to leave

Preparing the steam engine to leave in Durango, Colorado

On the second day of my journey through Colorado’s mining towns, I rode the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. I had reserved a seat in an open gondola on the second train. This is the second time I’ve ridden this train; the first was ten years ago, in 2002, when I took my two oldest children. I had a camera malfunction and could only take a few photos with my daughter’s film camera. This time I was loaded for bear, with my HD video camera and two batteries, two Flip cameras, my still camera, and my iPad, as well as a tripod, panoramic head, and my wireless microphone system. All this was in a backpack which was quite heavy.

Leaving Durango

Pulling out of the Durango Station on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

The D&SNGRR uses authentic steam engines to pull a combination of closed and open cars. The gondola car I was on has a roof and benches facing the sides but no windows – the sides are open to the air (and the soot from the engine). I was in car 30, toward the end of the train, which allowed some great photos as the train pulled around curves.

Durango Colorado

This train follows the actual route and grade laid down to service the mining town of Silverton. Durango was built as a railroad town and hub for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in 1881, and a narrow gauge track was built in 1882 along the Animas River from Durango to Silverton, a distance of 45.6 miles. Part of the route was carved out of steep cliffs overlooking the Animas River Gorge, and it is spectacular scenery. Three shorter routes extended on from Silverton into the canyons northward to service the mines and smaller communities.

Railroad sign

Sign describing the railroads around Silverton, Colorado

The route takes three hours each direction. The first hour out of Durango is not very interesting – you gradually work your way north, crossing Highway 550 several times as you travel through trailer parks, along golf courses, farms, and a few towns and tourist traps along the Animas River. As we traveled, we noticed a lady by one of the crossings dressed in Native American costume waving a stick with feathers on it. Then a few miles up the track we saw her again at the next crossing, and again at the next. Either she’s a clone or she has fun every day greeting the trains as they pass, then jumps into her car and drives to the next crossing (the train is quite slow, so this is easy enough to do). I remember seeing her ten years ago doing the same thing.

Around the cliff

Chugging along the cliff above the Animas River Gorge

We reached the town of Rockwood and stopped to take on water and to pick up a few more passengers. This is the last town before the gorge. Leaving Rockwood the grade winds its way up the side of the canyon wall, with shear cliffs falling into the swirling river below. The train inched its way around curves, puffing and belching soot and steam. If you’ve seen the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it is here that Robert Redford and Paul Newman (or their stunt doubles) jumped from the boulder onto the train. It was also here in the gorge where they jump into the river to escape the persistent posse.

Animas River Gorge

The Animas River Gorge. If you were to jump in, the fall would probably kill you . . .

Further up the river the rocks along the edges of the river take on a reddish-orange tint. Some of this is natural staining from iron sulfate deposits further up stream. The silver ore was associated with these same deposits and years of smelters and concentration plants, along with exposed tailings piles, have added greatly to the stain.

I videotaped much of our journey and tried to narrate some of it, but there was too much noise even for the wireless microphone. I talked with other passengers. One had gotten a teaching credential from San Jose State in science education the year after I went through the program. I also walked between the cars with a Flip camera and got some good footage. As the valley opened up just before Silverton, a stray gust of wind blew my hat off and out of the gondola.

Staining along the river

Iron sulfate staining along the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado

In Silverton, I walked with my heavy backpack over to the depot office to see if the chase car that follows the train (just in case the steam engine lights any fires) could look for my hat. I ate a buffet lunch, then used my panoramic head to get some panoramas from the center of the streets in Silverton. I also videotaped the first train pulling out, our train using the triangle tracks to turn around and back into the station, then got some great footage of the train blowing off steam. We boarded about 3:00 and left at 3:15.

Oiling the engine

Oiling the engine in Silverton, Colorado

On the way back to Durango I saw my poor hat lying right beside the river, but there were no good landmarks to locate it by. It never was recovered. And I liked that hat . . . I used up all the batteries on my HD camera, filled two SD cards on my still camera and used the batteries up for that as well (I wasn’t able to get them completely recharged this morning), and filled up most of the Flip cameras. Inching along the gorge, I was on the outside this time and got some great shots (I hope) of the train and the gorge below, with my last battery dying just as we got to Rockwood. From there on I dozed as best I could on the uncomfortable bench with the constant rocking of the car. We arrived back in Durango about 6:30.


Stagecoach in Silverton, Colorado

Back at Lightner Creek Campground, it was raining slightly and I did the best I could to charge up my camera batteries by wrapping the cameras in plastic bags and setting them on a camp chair to keep the rain out. I had set up my tent that morning, so I called home while waiting for the rain to end, made supper, read a book on my iPad, and enjoyed a comfortable evening.

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