through the Rockies, not around them – pt. 1

Travel in today’s United States is mostly about two things: the automobile, which is a fixture in every part of America, and the airplane, which made the vast expanses of the U.S. easy to cross in mere hours. However, one form of transport that was so crucial to the history of the United States is often overlooked in favor of these two: the train. Even though train travel in the U.S. (at least outside of the Northeast) is often seen as the domain of families and retirees it can still be a perfectly viable means of travel for those seeking no more than transport in style.

One of the most well known of America’s modern passenger train routes is the California Zephyr, a named train that has its roots in the postwar 1940s. The route of the original Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco was a cooperative hand-off effort of three American railroads, all now defunct. This relay race of sorts led passengers through some of the most beautiful parts of North America, including the headwaters of the Colorado River in the high Rockies, the strange desolation of the Utah desert, and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. The most difficult portion for the Zephyr to traverse, from Denver through the Rockies to Salt Lake City, was the job of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad – and this was no small task.

The gold and silver rushes of the mid to late 1800s caused a huge amount of railroad expansion into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in search of riches, and dozens of narrow and standard gauge railroad lines stretched between the unforgiving peaks. The engineering challenges were gargantuan; narrow, treacherous passages like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison proved almost impossible to build through, steep grades and treeless high mountain passes had to be negotiated, sometimes by blasting paths out of solid rock, and deadly winter blizzards forced shutdowns and stoppages again and again.


A map of the Denver and Rio Grande Western circa 1930, showing Colorado crisscrossed with rail lines originally built by at least a dozen companies. By 1930, the D&RGW had absorbed almost all of them into their dual gauge system – the lines in black are 3′ (90 cm) gauge while the red ones are standard 4′ 8½” (1.4 m).

The Rio Grande’s mountain routes have been famous since their inception for the staggering scenery along the way. Originally, mainline trains had to travel from Denver to Pueblo before turning west into the Rockies, then into the Royal Gorge of the Gunnison River and through the impossibly deep Black Canyon before climbing north over Tennessee Pass – the highest point on the entire US rail system. From the top of the pass, trains then descended the Eagle River valley (passing through Belden) and met the banks of the Colorado River, following it west again through Glenwood and De Beque Canyons before clearing the Rockies. This way of doing things was an ethos for ‘the Grande’; their motto was ‘Through the Rockies, Not Around Them’ – a bit of a jab at their competitors (and, ironically, their eventual owners) to the north, the Union Pacific Railroad. The UP used a much easier route through the gradual, easy grades of South Pass in Wyoming, whereas the Rio Grande went west the hard way – straight through the heart of the mountains.

However, as airplanes and automobiles took over for long-distance trains, the preferred way of crossing the Rockies changed – gone were the days of teams of locomotives shoving passengers over high passes and through smoky tunnels. In 1971, during the height of the Oil Crisis, all of America’s mainline railroads ceased passenger operations, handing them in bulk over to a hastily organized state corporation – Amtrak was born. However, the D&RGW, long known for its independent streak, shunned Amtrak and continued to operate its portion of the Zephyr route as the Rio Grande Zephyr until 24 April 1983, when further declines in passengers finally forced the Grande to hand the Zephyr route over to Amtrak.


The Rio Grande Zephyr waits for its final departure from Denver’s Union Station on 24 April 1983. Photo by Slideshow Bruce via Wikimedia.

Jump ahead now, if you will, to the present day. In the middle of summer, I decided that a friend in Salt Lake City was long overdue for a visit. I booked myself a train ticket, and on the appointed day, my California Zephyr showed up at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station backwards – and nearly two hours late. The backwards part is perfectly normal, with Denver’s Union Station resting on a long stub of track that requires the reverse move for access. Today, it was track maintenance and a few passing freight trains east of Denver that held Train #5 up, but no matter; soon we would head out of Denver for the high country and begin making that time back.


Passengers wait to board the Zephyr at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station. Union Station, the Zephyr’s stop since the 1930s, is being turned into a regional commuter rail terminal, and will reopen in 2014.

With a smooth push, the Zephyr pulled out and we were on our way. My car was overseen by conductor Julia Thompson-Johnson of Chicago, a capable professional traveler. Amtrak’s conductors do far more than simply taking tickets; they are the masters of the rails, seeing to everything from extra blankets for toddlers in transit to midnight wake-up calls. I found myself a seat and watched out the window of the café car as the train pulled out of Denver’s freight yards and headed for the Rockies.

As we ascended up the Front Range, I noticed a group of people who looked as if they were from another century. They sported bonnets, dresses, and long beards for the men – members of the Mennonite religious order, as it turns out. Mennonites are similar in dress to their more well-known Amish cousins, and like them eschew most modern technology. However, their order permits them to travel long distances using trains, allowing this group to leave their native Ohio for sunny California. To these people, Amtrak is their primary link to the rest of the country – an essential service indeed.

As the train pushes into the Rockies, the terrain gets much more dramatic.

As we approached the Continental Divide, the mountains seemed to swell around us, as if they were trying to outsmart us, trying to trap the train in some nameless alpine crevice. Originally, trains on this route had to make a tortuous ascent up a 4% grade to the summit of Rollins Pass, well above timberline at 11,660 ft (3,554 m). Winter was not a kind season to the railroad, with blizzards stranding passengers in tens of feet of snow, even after a series of tall sheds were built over the tracks to protect them. By the early 1900s, the need for an alternative was apparent; the railroad was spending more than forty percent of its money on fighting the snow. Denver entrepreneur David Moffat had entertained the idea of a tunnel here as early as 1902, but it would take twenty more years of political and financial wrangling to make it a reality. The resulting masterpiece of civil engineering that would bear Moffat’s name was a 6.2 mile (10.0 km) long tunnel – straight through the Continental Divide.

The Zephyr approaches the Moffat Tunnel. It takes the train about six minutes to pass through James Peak.


Train #5 calls at Winter Park station, former terminal of the Rio Grande’s Ski Train – the last of the Grande’s passenger trains. The idea was simple: a train leaves Denver full of skiers in the morning, takes them straight to the slopes, and returns them to the city the same evening. The route survived under various owners until 2009.


The Colorado River begins in this high mountain valley, and the route of the Zephyr follows it from here to the edge of the Utah desert.


This stretch of the Colorado River is popular among whitewater rafters and kayakers like these. It is a tradition in these parts for rafters to salute passing trains with their rear ends – this group chose to refrain!

Ahead lay one of the most isolated parts of Colorado: Gore Canyon, a roadless chasm that nearly ran the railroad out of business trying to build through it. This canyon is inaccessable by any other means; only the Zephyr, a few hiking trails, and the Colorado River below allow people passage. This stretch of track was (and still is) an engineering marvel, with sheer drops, tunnels, and miles upon miles of rockfall sensors and fences. Rockslides in particular are a hazard here; in 1942, a huge steam locomotive hit a large slide while entering a tunnel here and derailed – straight into the wall of the tunnel, causing it to collapse and bury the engine until crews could dig it free. Our locomotives, however, remained firmly attached to the rails as we continued our climb through the heart of the Rocky Mountains.


D&RGW steam locomotive #1800 pulls an express passenger train through Gore Canyon in the late 1940s.

From here, our train follows the Colorado River along a rail line known as the Dotsero Cutoff. This shortcut allowed more than 200 miles to be shaved off the trip from Denver to Salt Lake City by connecting the Rio Grande’s main line through the desert of eastern Utah to David Moffat’s direct, tunnel-equipped line from Denver. This combination of routes proved its worth through longevity – it still carries thousands of tons of freight and passengers through the Rockies every month. The terrain changes here, too, as the jagged peaks of the central Rockies change to the weathered reddish sandstone and limestone of eastern Colorado.


The Zephyr takes a long curve along the Colorado River.

There are few places I’ve been to so far that even come close to the natural beauty of Glenwood Canyon. This rugged chasm in the Earth was carved out of the surrounding rocks by the Colorado River over eons, leaving some of the most spectacular land forms I’ve ever encountered. Since its first run in the late 40s, the California Zephyr has been specifically timed to pass through the canyon during the day regardless of direction, always giving its passengers an eyeful of western Colorado. Our train was no exception to this rule, and as we approached the canyon’s mouth, I gave up my seat on the upper deck of the car and found myself a spot next to a window in the lower vestibule – a window that conveniently opened, allowing me to indulge my habit of sticking my head (and camera) out of moving vehicles.

The sedimentary rocks that make up Glenwood Canyon also make this route particularly susceptible to rockslides. To prevent the inevitable accidents and derailments, the railroad devised a system of rockslide fences meant to warn oncoming trains. An electric current is passed through the wires guarding the track, and when a rock slide breaks the wires, the broken circuit trips a signal warning of the danger.


Julia Thompson-Johnson and the rest of the conductors sound the ‘All Aboard!’ at the Zephyr’s stop in Glenwood Springs, a city of nearly 10,000 people nestled in the heart of the canyon.

Ahead: the strange Utah desert – and a hot surprise! To Be Continued in Part 2…

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toronto heights

Canada’s largest city is home to some of the tallest skyscrapers in North America. Besides the instantly recognizable CN Tower, lesser-known edifices like the Bay Adelaide Centre and Commerce Court still crack the 700 foot (210m) mark. Recently, the rooftops of Toronto have been fertile ground for fellow photogs; Toronto has been called the best city for rooftopping in the world. It’s easy to see why: a downtown core full of tall buildings and cranes (engaged in the process of making more tall buildings), the potential for fantastic, brilliantly lit nighttime cityscapes, and a certain degree of luck with roof access doors. It’s a cocktail that goes down smooth every time.

After cracking Millbrook Prison with some of Toronto’s finest explorers, I went in search of a new point of view on the concrete canyons I’d been exploring at ground level for the last week. Joined by Jono and Dresden (names changed for mystery’s sake), we set our sights on the modestly tall CF Tower – a 36 floor monolith of steel and glass right smack in the middle of Toronto on Queen Street East. Past the security desk and into the elevators went the three of us, and a short vertical ride later, we were facing down the last door between us and the sky. Jono turned the handle, the catch drew back unhindered by a lock, and the magic portal was opened.

parapet
Three of Toronto’s tallest buildings keep watch over the city; from l-r, Scotia Plaza (902 ft/275m), Bay Adelaide West (715 ft/218m), and First Canadian Place (978 ft/298m). To the right of the downtown core is the CN Tower, dwarfing the skyscrapers at more than 1800 ft (550m) high.

From up here, perspective definitely changes. Aside from the sheer height (for reference, 465.88 ft/142m), turning all the pedestrians and streetcars below into pawns on a child’s play set, there exists up here a strange kind of solitude. Toronto at ground level is a busy, sometimes frenetic environment; people rushing everywhere with something to do, drivers cutting off each other in attempts to make green lights, the sound of streetcars clanking down Queen East, music, everything. However, at this moment, on this rooftop, there were only the three of us, and for all we cared we could be the only people in the city. The only sounds up here were the occasional *whirrrrrr* from the elevator machinery nearby, the muffled, reverberating soundtrack to the city below, and the rush of the wind coming off the lake, intensified by our present altitude. The roof was a fantastic perch, ringed by a small rail system used to carry the equipment needed to lower the window washers on their rounds. This ring of metal, as luck would have it, made an excellent place to anchor tripods.

Downtown Toronto was just starting to empty its buildings of cubicle dwellers, so the three of us decided to slip out among them, saying goodbye before heading off to catch subways and streetcars destined for far-flung parts of the city. Later that evening, Dresden and I headed for the King Edward to meet up with Hilite and pay a visit to not only the long-abandoned 17th floor ballroom, but the summit of the building itself. The King Eddy, which opened in 1903, is one of Toronto’s oldest and most well-heeled hotels. We dressed up for the occasion, my pea coat and D’s leather gloves and classy scarf passing the rich test given to us by the eyes of the front desk concierge as we walked in. We proceeded up the elevator, down a hallway to an out-of-the-way stairwell, and up another flight of stairs until we found an unlocked door to the vaunted 17th floor. We were in.


The King Eddy’s Crystal Ballroom was last used in 1978.


Dresden gets up close and personal with Toronto.

Farther up the magical staircase, another unlocked door led us to the room housing the hotel’s six humming elevator motors. Yet another door, again mysteriously unlocked, let us out into the chilly, cloudless night. From up here, the sleepy city still buzzed, illuminated from all sides by thousands of lights. The view from up here was simply staggering.


Couldn’t resist a little self-portraiture.


Dresden and Hilite make their way back down the magic stairwell.

After paying a visit to the Eddy, we made tracks to a pho restaurant just inside the Kensington Market neighbourhood. Out came big bowls of steaming broth, noodles and meat, and over these tasty midnight munchies we traded war stories, reminisced about long-demolished sites, and talked shop (all of us having some photographic pursuits). Toronto is known as the cradle of organized urban exploration, and the explorers who call this city their home are always knowledgeable about what’s under the surface of their glittering metropolis. Hilite was no exception; calm, well-spoken, and with his finger on the pulse of the city, intent on getting to the bottom (or the top) of whatever urban mission he set himself on. Our conversation was laced with names like Consumers’ Glass, the Royal Constellation, and the legendary Malt. Some of these places would see visits before my departure from Canada, but which to choose? Our bowls now dry of soup, Dresden and I said our goodbyes to our comrade and headed off to the subway again, retreating to the dark reaches off of Bloor Street to make our plans for the next night.

gilman: no man’s land

«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.

strategic beer command: tactical insertion

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.

slummin' it

room with a view

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.

atrophy

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.

shafted

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.

the gauntlet

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.

the far side

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.

sundown

For more photographs of Gilman, click here.

gilman: a primer

«First in a two-part series on Gilman»

gilman

High in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado is a small town clustered around one of the largest zinc mines in America. You see it first coming around a bend on Highway 24, houses and buildings clinging precariously to the side of Battle Mountain. The road to the town is gated, padlocked shut to passersby on the highway. As they get closer, the buildings below start to look different: the windows are shattered, the paint on the outsides peeling, the streets they line overgrown. This is the town of Gilman, and it’s been vacant since 1984.

main street

In 1887, a mining speculator from the nearby town of Red Cliff named John Clinton set up a camp around the Iron Mask Mine and several others on the flanks of Battle Mountain. This camp, appropriately called Clinton in its infancy, was soon renamed Gilman after the well-liked superintendent of the Iron Mask, Henry Gilman. By the turn of the century, the collection of mines at Gilman (including the Ben Butler, the Iron Mask, and five or six other smaller shafts) were sending out gold, silver, and lead ores via the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway’s famed Tennessee Pass route, which reached up the gorge in 1882.

The town nearly didn’t make it past the turn of the century. In the wee hours of 1 August 1900, Gilman was reduced mostly to cinders in a fire that claimed nearly every structure on the mountain. That day’s Rocky Mountain News tells the story:

“The town of Gilman, of 600 inhabitants and the center of the mining industry in Eagle County, was wiped out of existence at 2 o’clock this morning. The fire originated in the Lacknor residence from causes unknown, and owing to the unusually long dry spell and high wind was soon beyond the control of the fire department of miners that was quickly organized. This morning with the exception of the Iron Mask Hotel, little of the mining camp is left…no lives were lost, and only three or four persons were scorched.”
– Rocky Mountain News, 1 August 1900

In the years following, the town rebuilt itself, eventually boasting everything a small mountain town could want; a hotel, a small hospital, post office, even a two-lane bowling alley that was the only place for leagues between Leadville and Glenwood Springs. 1912 saw the arrival of the New Jersey Zinc Company and the consolidation of the remaining mines in the area into one: the Eagle. The company’s arrival heralded a new era for the town; it had always been a mining town, its purpose defined in the dirty faces and tired backs of the men who worked there, but now it took on another name: company town. New Jersey Zinc opened up a general store on Main Street, pumped money into a municipal water system, and kept the mine in the black. As the miners worked deeper into the gut of Battle Mountain, they found that the sulfite ores they were mining (mostly sphalerite and siderite for geology nerds) contained high enough levels of zinc that the smelters simply refused to buy it. Gradually this problem became an asset after the installment of new equipment to extract the zinc; it was useful for coating steel to make it resistant to corrosion, and aside from a stretch in the 1930s when copper/silver ores briefly became the mainstay again, zinc was king at the Eagle Mine. By the end of the 1950s more than 4500 tons of zinc ore were leaving the mine every month.

The 1950s saw the beginnings of signs of trouble in Gilman. A strike over pay in 1954 pitted the unionized miners against the non-union surface workers and bosses, and opened wounds across the picket line that would never heal. For two weeks, the Eagle was worked by a skeleton crew of surface workers and hired NJZ scabs from out of state. Eventually, the union came to an agreement to resume work, but even then, the battle lines between the miners and the surface workers remained until the mine finally closed for good.

outsourcing? nah.

1957 saw the first closure of the Eagle Mine, as falling zinc prices forced New Jersey Zinc to suspend work at the mine until more favorable economics prevailed. Though the price of zinc once again rose enough to keep Gilman alive, the influx of cheap foreign minerals and the substitution of plastics for many of the roles zinc was used for (ie: cars) caused the New Jersey Zinc Company to shut down the Eagle mine for good in 1978. The company gave the 154 workers still living in Gilman only two weeks to pack up and wait for word on new assignments. Some found new mines, some headed for the burgeoning ski industry in the Vail Valley. A Rocky Mountain News two-part feature on the closing interviewed two miners who found work as janitors at Minturn Middle School. Others simply packed up and left, heading off to try to find themselves and their families a new life after spending years underground. State assistance grants were debated, but little help beyond unemployment checks ever found the miners and their families.

A skeleton crew clung on for another seven years, maintaining the complex workings within the mountain and doing exploratory drilling in case the mine were ever reopened. It wasn’t. The end finally came in the early 1980s. The owner at the time, Cañon City businessman Glenn Miller, had been trying to find enough money to keep the mine open, but his backers fell through. Eviction notices began going out to the remaining residents in 1981, whittling down the remaining workforce in Gilman to only six men in the final days of the mine. In June of 1984, the US Environmental Protection Agency took over the mine’s electric bill – which totaled almost $60000 in back services – until the final three electrical transformers in the mine (which contained extremely toxic PCBs – polychlorinated biphenyls) could be removed and made inert. After they were pulled, the final miners simply turned off the lights and walked out. The Eagle Mine, once the largest producer of zinc in the country, was now silent. Gilman was gated off, the last residents evicted soon after.

Today, the town still holds clues as to the people that once called it home. The decaying company offices on Main Street are strewn with papers left behind when the mine closed; inventory sheets, order forms, time sheets, even employee records. These records help tell the story of the miners who worked the Eagle. Take, for instance, Jose Nemicio Martinez, who applied to work for New Jersey Zinc on 29 November 1945 at the age of 42.

Mr. Martinez was an American, born in San Juan Pueblo, a small town in northern New Mexico. In fact, many of the miners at Gilman came from New Mexico; the company’s log books are full of names like Sena, Lopez, and Chacon; places like Rancho de Taos and Truchas. Martinez had worked on his family’s farm in San Juan Pueblo until the start of World War II, when he entered the service of the US government as a worker at Alameda Naval Air Station in California. After the war, he came to the rugged mountains of Colorado to find work. He was a shoveler at the Eagle, making $.89 a day to heave ore from mountain to cart, or cart to mill, or wherever else it needed to go. Martinez lived as many miners did in nearby Red Cliff, making the trip up the road to the mine every day. He had a wife, Esequela, and two children; Pedro and Rosalie, all of whom continued to live in San Juan Pueblo. It’s easy to imagine Martinez sending what he could of his wages back home to his family from Colorado until his brief time in the mines was cut short. Martinez’ pink slip lists ‘Mother sick’ as his reason for leaving – records indicate he returned to San Juan Pueblo at the beginning of 1946.

The town is officially off-limits today, owned by a real estate investment group from Canada who are waiting for the economy to become more favorable for Gilman’s redevelopment. Its fate has become a local political issue. Long story short: the previous owner, a developer by the name of Bobby Ginn, purchased the site with the intent of building a private, exclusive, VIP ski resort and getaway. This was to be no Crested Butte or even Aspen; lift tickets here would start in the six-figure range and come complete with your own luxury condo, private transport, perhaps even an on-call helicopter to whisk your incredibly wealthy self to the tops of the nearby peaks for fresh powder. A championship-grade golf course would sprawl out on the valley floor, and at the center of the resort, an opulent hotel and residences complex that some have likened (in blueprints) to an Austrian castle.

In order to develop the site (due to zoning laws), he coaxed the nearby town of Minturn into annexing Gilman – by offering the small town what amounted to $180m (144 times Minturn’s annual budget) in assorted benefits: $50 season passes to his hypothetical luxury haven, new sidewalks, a new water treatment plant, scholarships for local kids, et cetera. Minturn agreed; after all, if they had refused Ginn’s offer, he could have simply gone up the road to Red Cliff and offered them the deal, leaving Minturn out in the cold. As all of this was coming together, however, the economy tanked and suddenly the market for incredibly expensive ski retreats dried up. Ginn’s venture went into receivership, after which the current owners purchased the property. There were other problems too; the town’s soil still needed remediation, the sheer size of the site meant that demolition would be a pricey endeavour, and unfortunately for prospective developers, the town sits on a mountain that has so many tunnels and shafts in it that it more closely resembles an anthill than a ski resort. Heavy equipment would be dangerous to operate, with sinkholes already appearing in the town due to subsidence.

sinkhole

Regardless of the eventual fate of Gilman, it remains an important part of Colorado history as one of the largest mining operations ever undertaken in the state. Its ores found their way to smelters and refiners all over the country – including the now-abandoned Globe smelter which gave Denver’s Globeville neighbourhood its name. For us, it is a place to respect, to explore, to document. Though the town is officially a no-man’s-land, as is so often the case in exploring the off-limits, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Stay tuned for part two.

megatons

In the years following World War II, the United States Air Force began developing a new weapon based on two existing ones: the V-2 rocket from Germany (built by a man named Werner von Braun – who later designed the Saturn V moon rocket after being granted asylum by the U.S. after WWII), and the most terrible of all weapons ever devised by men, the nuclear bomb. The fusion of these two technologies was a simple idea, really: make a missile that could be guided to a target, and strap a nuke on the front.


The crew entrance to an abandoned Titan I missile silo in the middle of nowhere, Colorado.

What they came up with around 1955 was a twofold program. The Atlas missile, which was lighter (its skin was no thicker than a US dime or UK 5p coin) and had less payload, and the appropriately named Titan missile. The Titan was built to be the Atlas’ big brother – bigger warhead, more range, hardened shelters (ie: underground silos).


Layout of a typical Titan I complex. The silos were built to a cartoonishly big, evil-villain-hideout scale, with three silos and over a mile of connecting tunnels. (USAF)

Each had a two stage liquid fueled rocket with a range of 5,500 nautical miles (10,200 km); more than enough to get the warhead to the heart of Mother Russia. The propellants, cryogenic liquid oxygen and RP-1 (which is basically super-refined kerosene), were tough to handle since they ignited on contact – and they packed a wallop. The first test facility at Vandenburg AFB was destroyed when its missile was lowered into its silo too quickly – rupturing its skin and allowing the propellants to mix. The result was a blast which threw the silo cap hundreds of feet into the air – in several multi-ton pieces. Ouch.

These missiles were deployed for the first time to silos at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado in early 1960. Through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Titans at Lowry stood on launch alert 24 hours a day – ready to send the 4 megatons of apocalyptic fire attached to each missile straight to Havana, or Moscow, or practically anywhere else in the world President Kennedy wanted to send them.


The Titan I missiles at Lowry complex 724A stand at attention for the USAF brass in 1960. This was the ready position for the missiles, poised at the tops of their huge elevators. (USAF)

After they were closed down in 1965 – that’s right, just five years later – the land was sold to various farmers who did some salvage work, usually taking copper piping and the steel plate floors from their silos. In this case, Farmer Bob dug up one of the giant diesel tanks that held fuel for the complex’s generators. The resulting giant hole in the ground gave us an access point that is found in no other Titan site – a maintenance corridor to the second floor of the power dome, a giant 60-foot-tall room that held the generators for the complex.

One warm May night, we ventured out into the moonlit Eastern plains of Colorado to explore this relic of the Cold War. The team that night consisted of myself, Tunnelbug from California, Secretdestroyers from Pittsburgh, and locals Lexiphoto and Orogeny. We parked our jeep a mile from the site and began the long walk back in.

After finding our entrance, we emerged from the maintenance corridor and descended the steep stairway from the second level to the first of the powerhouse. Condensation drops clung to every surface, giving off an unearthly shimmer wherever the light from our headlamps touched them. The scale was immense. We stood in a room 60 feet high by 160 feet across, 40 feet underground in the middle of Farmer Bob’s field.


The 60-foot-high powerhouse of complex 725B. The ring around the top of the dome held a gantry crane used to move heavy machinery around in the limited space.

The complex smelled of all sorts of nastiness. These silos were laden with PCBs, asbestos, airborne lead, diesel, and all manner of chemical solvents. Our respirators were quickly donned, and added yet one more layer of unearthliness to the expedition. We were visitors in a very alien place, one which few are privileged (or stupid) enough to see; a place that once held the power to end the world – literally. Though the weapons once housed here contained weapons-grade plutonium, thankfully there is no danger from residual radiation. One less thing to worry about, at least.


These blast doors still moved without a squeak after 65 years underground.

The tunnels were damp, but passable. The steel plate floors of the complex had long since been scrapped, so we were reduced to walking on the dirt of the tunnel floor. Tunnel junctions were a different story, as they were dug deeper to accommodate the various fuel and electrical lines. 65 years later, through water infiltration and seepage, they had become moats. Due to the lack of floors, these moats require a special method of movement to conquer them: beam walking. Keep your feet parallel on the steel beams traversing the moat, shuffling along so as not to lose balance. It gets easier with practice.


Danarchy crosses a tunnel junction moat on Expedition #2. All forms of nastiness reside in the “water” beneath his feet.


Control lines for the missiles remain intact.

The Titan Is were guided to their targets, but unlike today’s smart bombs and missiles, the invisible hand directing the flight was not in the missile, but on the ground. Two smaller silos at the far end of the longest tunnel in the complex held radio antennas that would beam target information to the missiles in flight, as they cruised high above the Earth’s atmosphere. Though these silos were now empty, they still made for good light painting practice.


Lighting up the nearly half-mile long tunnel to the antenna silos.


Up top, these concrete targets were used to calibrate the radars and computers that guided the missiles.

The missile silos themselves loomed ahead. 160 feet from top to bottom, they originally held a complex latticework of steel that supported the giant rocket within it. The Titans did not burst from their silos on a pillar of flame like later ICBMs. The missiles were fueled in their holes, and huge hydraulic rams would move the immense reinforced concrete doors covering the silo. After the doors were opened, the missiles would be hoisted up to the surface on a massive elevator attached to the cribbing, and launched. The whole process took 15 minutes for the first missile, and 7 minutes each for the last two. Only one could be armed and fired at a time. This lengthy procedure was one reason they went obsolete so quickly, the other being the liquid fuel. Liquid oxygen had to be kept at cryogenic temperatures requiring a lot of specialized equipment, and could not be stored in the missiles. By the time the Titans went on line, the next generation of solid-fuel ICBMs were already being designed. The Titan Is would soon be obsolete, replaced by the solid-fueled Titan IIs, which remained in the USAF arsenal until 1987.


In here was the rocket itself, and at one time the massive cribwork containing it. (photo: tunnelbug)

What once held an unbelievable destructive force was now slowly filling with water. During the rainy season, or after the spring snowmelt, some of the silos fill almost to the tunnel level with water, then they drain through the myriad cracks in the concrete walls. Some enterprising silo owners have converted these to indoor SCUBA tanks, but this one was now a watery graveyard for whatever animal was unlucky enough to tumble into the darkness. We stood 40 feet under the surface, with 120 feet worth of tangled metal and water below. It was an awe-inspiring experience knowing that this place once held such a terrible power. Each Titan I missile carried a 4 megaton thermonuclear warhead – more than enough to turn Moscow or St. Petersburg into a glowing, radioactive mass. The Little Boy bomb that leveled Hiroshima was a mere firecracker at 15 kilotons. 1 megaton of explosive equivalent, when converted to commercial kilowatt-hours, produces enough energy to power the average American house for 103,474 years. And this complex housed not one, but three of these bastards. Walking with a big stick indeed.

The control center was our last stop, a two story structure similar in size to the power dome, but a bit smaller. Its panels and computers long since removed, the nerve center of the complex was now home to graffiti, dead snakes, and empty beer cans. What must have gone through the minds of the men charged with the duty of being ready to annihilate the world I can only imagine.


The entrance to the two-level control dome.


The photographers take their shots in the control center.


These racks held launch control computers and telephone equipment.

We emerged from the silo around 4am, exhausted and smelling like eighteen different kinds of chemicals, but with a new respect for the ground beneath our feet which holds a testament to the destructive power of men – and the sheer ridiculousness of the nuclear arms race. All those millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars were spent on holes in the ground which were only ‘useful’ for five years. Now this huge facility rusts in the ground, only giving up its secrets to those brave (or stupid) enough to enter.

More photos from inside the silo right here.