Posts Tagged ‘telluride 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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Reid Nixon

S. Reed Nixon, nuclear engineer

On Nov. 30, I had the privilege of interviewing S. Reed Nixon, who lives not far from where I do in Orem, Utah. I met him through my wife, who has known the Nixons for several years. Over the summer, we went to visit them and Reed told me of some of his experiences as a nuclear engineer on Admiral Hyman Rickover’s staff during the 1950s. I couldn’t pass up such an opportunity, so I arranged to bring over my video equipment and interview him on camera.

Reed got into nuclear engineering by chance. He started out by receiving a B.S. in electrical engineering from Caltech in Pasadena (where he had Linus Pauling as a chemistry professor – according to Reed, Dr. Pauling would nervously pace up and down the chemistry lab during his lectures, turning the Bunsen burner gas stopcocks on and off). This was in the late 1940s, after Reed had served two years in the Navy. At the time, Robert Millikan was Chancellor and would have the seniors and their parents over for tea each year. He told how gracious Dr. Millikan was to his mother at the tea party.

Upon graduation, he moved to Provo, Utah where he taught math part-time at Brigham Young University and then started working for Telluride Power Company, which ran the power utilities for southern Utah at that time before it was bought out by Utah Power and Light. Telluride Power Company originated in Telluride, Colorado when the mines there began to have trouble with ground water. The Nunn brothers bought out a number of mines, then contracted with George Westinghouse to design a hydroelectric power system based on alternating current as conceived by Nikola Tesla. This was the world’s first commercial AC system, which supplied power to the mines for pumps that kept the water at bay. Reed had some interesting stories about this original power system, including how it was difficult and dangerous to shut off. When the mines in the Tintic Mining District around Eureka, Utah began to have the same trouble with flooding, the Nunns built a hydroelectric plant in Provo Canyon (now the site of Nunn Park) and transmitted electricity about 40 miles across the valley to Eureka.

USS Nautilus

USS Nautilus, SSN 571

After a few years with Telluride Power, Reed heard of a new laboratory being built in Arco, Idaho to process spent nuclear reactor fuel rods. They needed an electrical engineer. This was about 1951, and nuclear reactors for generating power were a brand new invention. As Uranium-235 splits, it releases free neutrons, which in turn split other atoms. The fission byproducts, such as Barium-141 and Krypton-92 (among other isotopes), are themselves mostly radioactive. Some byproducts, however, are not, and they act as neutron sponges, so that of the three neutrons given off by a single U-235 atom, only about 2.5 are available to continue the reaction. Eventually these products poison the reaction, to where fission will no longer occur spontaneously. The Arco facility (now the Idaho National Laboratory) was built to take the “poisoned” fuel rods and remove the impurities, so that the remaining U-235 could be re-used in reactors. It also was the training facility for the prototype reactor for the USS Nautilus.

After a year or two at INL, Reed applied to receive training in nuclear engineering at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which was the primary source of U-235 enrichment at the time. It was such a new field that only one textbook had been written, and he could see an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a whole new technology. Hyman Rickover (later an Admiral) had recently been put in charge of developing nuclear reactors for the navy, and was sending his people to Oak Ridge as well. While there, Reed got to know the navy personnel and also finished as one of the top engineers in his class. His job at INL had meanwhile been eliminated, so he decided to take a chance and apply to be on Rickover’s staff.

Hyman Rickover

Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear navy

Rickover was infamous for being a hard-driven workaholic. He was also abusive, profane, and intolerant of anything less than perfection in his subordinates and in the contractors (such as General Dynamics) who were building the first nuclear submarines. He personally selected his staff members and all officers in nuclear vessels until his retirement in 1983. His recruiting interviews were legendary; he was known for being so confrontational during the interviews that several candidates tried to attack him physically, and so he usually had his director of personnel in the room as well for protection. He would push a candidate to the edge – he already knew their technical qualifications or they wouldn’t have been there in the first place. What Rickover wanted to know is how much abuse the person could take.

USS Nautilus

USS Nautilus, SSN 571

Reed Nixon’s interview was probably the easiest one that Rickover ever gave. After Reed was accepted, his job was to act as a liaison with the contractors as they built the USS Nautilus (SSN 571) and USS Seawolf (SSN 575), making sure that all the specifications were followed exactly, even down to inspecting each weld on the reactor vessels with X-rays. Rickover was a demon for quality assurance, and would insist that contractors tear a system apart and start over if there was even the slightest flaw. Reed was a part of Rickover’s staff through the launch of both vessels.

Using nuclear reactors to power naval vessels has many advantages, especially for aircraft carriers and submarines. The power plant can operate for many years without refueling, so there is no need for tankers to follow along and act as targets for enemy torpedoes. Also, the old diesel subs during World War II were noisy and fairly easy to locate, since they had to run close to the surface in order to pull in air and discharge exhaust from the diesel motors. Nuclear reactors run quietly (no moving parts except the propellers) and have no exhaust, so they can run silent and run deep. Our “boomer” subs (those with nuclear weapons) are said to “hide with pride.” Nuclear carriers, such as the USS Enterprise (“nuclear wessels” anyone?) and the USS Nimitz, employ at least four separate reactors. They don’t need to take up a major portion of the ship with diesel tanks, so they can hold more planes and ordnance.

The Nautilus was the world’s first nuclear powered vessel, which used what is now a standard design of saturated water cooling. It was launched in 1954, and was used to test the feasibility of nuclear reactors on ocean vessels. Two of its first accomplishments were to sail under the North Pole (Operation Sunshine) and to sail all the way around the world underwater, thereby living up to its namesake by going more than 20,000 leagues under the sea. It was decommissioned in 1980 and is now a museum in Groton, Connecticut.

USS Seawolf

USS Seawolf, SSN 575

The Seawolf used a more advanced superheated water system with liquid sodium metal as the primary coolant. The sodium, however, was corrosive and difficult to maintain and the pre-heaters for the superheated steam rarely operated at top output. The Seawolf was known as the “Blue Haze” because of a sodium leak that occurred during the original reactor fitting. It was eventually refitted for a standard reactor in 1959. The liquid sodium reactor was sealed in a steal container and towed out to sea on a barge, then sunk 120 miles east of Maryland. The Navy has not been able to relocate the container. Originally launched in 1955, the Seawolf stayed in service until it was decommissioned in 1987 after a long and distinguished career.

Admiral Rickover’s insistence on perfect quality has led to our nuclear navy now having over 5400 reactor years and over 200 million miles sailed without a single accident or even a safety incident related to the nuclear reactors. This perfect operational record should convince the general public just how safe and reliable nuclear power can be, but unfortunately it’s a fact that often goes overlooked.

Reed Nixon worked in Rickover’s office for about two years. One memory he shared of his time there was a memo that Reed wrote to a contractor in which he said that, “we desire that you do the following . . . .“ Rickover wrote a caustic correction in the margin of the memo saying, “We’re the Navy! We don’t desire anything! We demand it!” Reed eventually left Rickover’s staff to work in the private sector as a consultant, promoting the use of nuclear power in industry. Rickover wasn’t at all happy for him to leave.

The Nixons

The Nixons

Our interview ranged over many subjects, from Nikola Tesla to nuclear reactions and the disposal of nuclear waste, such as the radioactive byproducts that had been removed from fuel rods at INL. Reed Nixon was very generous with his time, and it was a pleasure to hear these stories of the dawn of the nuclear age.

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