«Second in a two-part series on Gilman»
When one hears the words ‘ghost town’, the first image to come to mind is usually a small collection of log cabins high in the mountains, perhaps clustered around a rickety old wooden mine headframe; maybe a crumbling stone old-West-style jail house. The mining town of Gilman takes those stereotypes and throws them completely out the window. Its sheer size is staggering, even to those accustomed to exploring abandoned structures. More than 60 extant buildings remain in the town, many of them in remarkable shape.
In 2010, I went with three friends to explore this relic of the Rockies. The trick with Gilman is knowing where to stash your ride – too close, and the ever vigilant Colorado Highway Patrol will catch you, too far, and the hike in will take more time than it’s worth. We compromise. Our car was carefully hidden, locked up and left for the night, and we started the hike to the town.
Main Street was the center of everyday life in Gilman. The New Jersey Zinc offices, as well as a general store, boarding house, and the town’s prized bowling alley were all here. From the moment you arrive, the weathered appearance of the town makes the atmosphere a bit spooky. This is the original nucleus of the town, the part that burnt to ashes back in 1900 only to quickly spring again from the mountainside. The town’s boarding house may have been built on the site of the Iron Mask Hotel, which survived the fire only to be demolished later. During the town’s working days, this building was home to miners who didn’t have anywhere else to stay; rookies, transients, bachelors who needed the cheap rent. It was dorm-style living, with a bathroom at the end of the hallway, communal kitchen, and one hell of a view. We found ourselves a room in the newly christened Gilman Mountain Hostel and dropped our gear.
At the far end of Main Street, just down the slope, there is a nondescript two-story concrete building. This was the science lab for the mine, fully equipped for testing whatever ore samples the miners brought up. The upper floor is set up much like a high school chemistry classroom, but with broken beakers and test tubes littering the floor and rusted gas pipes winding their way through the fixtures like decaying metal serpents. The most striking thing about this building, however, was the masses of X-rays littering the entire lower floor. The miners were required to get regular X-rays to check for things like abnormalities in their lungs (most of the negatives on the floor are miners’ chests), and now after 27 years, the thousands upon thousands of negatives lay strewn all over the floor.
Back up the street is the town’s club house and bowling alley. This was a showpiece for the town, the place that the miners, their families, and residents from nearby communities could come to enjoy themselves. The alley had two lanes, each operated by hand – in its latter days it was one of the few in the state to still use pin boys. At one time, Gilman boasted mens’ and womens’ leagues that went all over the state racking up trophies. A feature in the 15 June 1975 edition of the Rocky Mountain News had this to say:
The clubhouse has meeting rooms, the town library, a ping pong table, a runty basketball court with two baskets that are hardly visible because of ceiling beams and pipes plus a bowling alley.
Gilman’s two-lane bowling facility is the last of its kind in Colorado. Pins are set by pin boys, the ball return mechanism is antique and a chalk stand is located on the approach. A tele-score table and screen help remind bowlers they are living in the age of technology.”
– Rocky Mountain News, 15 June 1975
These days the lanes are quiet, the basketball court replaced by a MacGyvered skatepark made by some local kids. The chalk scoreboard still remains, though, and now serves as the guestbook for the town. I have a neat row of dates under my name on the right side – nine? Ten? I’ve lost count.
We headed next for the shaft house, a fairly conspicuous building closer to the highway which was the epicenter for mining in the town. The shaft house lies on the edge of what we refer to as the far side of the town – much more exposure, less cover to use. This is the part of Gilman that greets you as you round the curve on Highway 24, the ghost town’s most public face. Also, the only access lies down a steep, heavily forested hill which (it being autumn) was already mostly devoid of foliage. Anyone on the highway could easily pick out four figures running (hopefully not falling) down the hill to the safety of the shaft house. However sometimes, as dsankt of sleepycity.net puts it, you just have to roll the dice and run for it. We left the safety of the trees and sprinted down the open hillside into the shelter of the shaft house’s open garage doors.
The Eagle’s main lifts took only three minutes to drop the miners four hundred feet straight down into the darkness to what was known as ’16 Level’ – the heart of the mine, though by no means its deepest point. The lifts were winched up and down by huge motors that pulled the cable over a massive pulley in the top of the shaft house. These lifts have been locked at the top level since the last day of the mine, held by a few inches of steel above what may as well be the bottomless pit.
The shaft house also held locker rooms, showers, and everything else the miners would need to do their jobs. Boxes of respirators and hard hats, bags of cement – even a forklift remain where they were left after the last workers turned off the lights and walked away. The intervening years have not been kind to parts of the structure, and a partial roof collapse has turned the attached locker room into something straight from a B-grade slasher movie.
Today, the mine itself is sealed and flooded, filled with water by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of their cleanup of the complex. The site was added to the Superfund list of heavily contaminated properties almost as soon as it was closed. This is much of the reason that the town remains off-limits; the soil has higher-than-acceptable concentrations of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and cadmium. I wouldn’t lick the rocks.
Farther down the slope, a few rows of nearly intact houses beckoned. Because of the steepness of the terrain, they are arranged in terrace-like rows, still stubbornly clinging to the side of the mountain after 27 years of neglect. This sprint was steeper and much longer than the first, and consisted mostly of fist- to grapefruit-sized hunks of sharp, loose rock. We took the dice in hand once again, waited for our move, and rolled ’em. Down the slope we went.
These houses are almost as they were when their owners walked away almost thirty years ago. While the elements have taken an inevitable toll on them, their remoteness and visibility means that they have been largely passed up by the vandals and scrappers that have ravaged the rest of the town. No graffiti, unsmashed toilets and sinks, even intact windows – unheard of on Main Street. These houses would have been owned by the higher-ups at the mine: superintendents, foremen, company bosses and the like.
We regrouped back up at the shaft house, having nearly been sighted charging back up the hill from the houses below. Our light was fading fast, the sun already approaching the tops of the massive peaks that surrounded us. It was time for us to go the hobo way and return to our impromptu hostel for the night. As the sun set, we cracked a few beers and waited for the innumerable stars of the Rocky Mountain night to appear. Tomorrow, we would descend to the canyon floor in search of entry to the world’s largest underground mill – Belden. Stay tuned.
For more photographs of Gilman, click here.
The Gilman story is fantastic. Went there with my brother in Sept 2001 [6th] on a cross country trip. Stoped in, uninvited of course, for a visit as Grandpa was born there 21 Aug 1887. Possibly the first child born in Gilman. (We’ve spent a lot of time without finding any evidence to the contrary since then.) As a result I ran into your piece. His middle name was Gilman. .
During his day it was “Tent City” sort of like PAINT YOUR WAGON.
only stayed an hour, took some pics, My son stopped by yesterday (Thurs) and took pics in the rain from the Hwy.
Great photos, looks incredible!
Thanks for the great post on Gilman! I used to live in Vail and spent lots of time stopping above the town and looking down into it before I worked up the courage to just do it. I didn’t plan as you did so I stayed on the side with the bowling alley and away from the overly visible houses. I’m loving all the photos you took, and your posts on Belden were great too! I didn’t even know that existed. Keep up the good info! If you don’t mind I’m writing another post on Gilman and would like to link to your primer. No need to keep reinventing the wheel 🙂
Thanks Jes! Feel free to link back…I’m looking forward to reading your take!
I lived in Gilman when I was a little girl my parents married there. Lived in a big two story white house,garden in back yard and miles upon miles of beautiful mountain surrounded us. Thanks for sharing it brought back fond childhood memories!