tunnel vision

The cliffs surrounding Manitou Springs, Colorado echoed with yelped curses and the unmistakable *swoosh* of heavy objects sliding down a bed of rocks. In this case, the objects in question were myself and two brave friends, and the streams of profanity came from our somewhat hasty descent down the cliff. Our backsides bore the brunt of the assault, but despite some shredded pants and a few cuts we made it down intact. Whatever, the climb had been worth it. It looked steeper from the bottom anyway.

About halfway up the canyon wall lies part of a neglected route once used to ascend into the heart of the Rockies. A drive up scenic Highway 24 doesn’t even give clues; the deep red hillsides showing no trace of the path carved into their steep faces. This is no ordinary hiking trail, however. It is on no official map, and though it lies very close to one of Colorado’s largest tourism destinations, even most residents have no knowledge of its existence. We had just ventured into what formerly comprised a section of the Colorado Midland Railway – a series of tunnels, blasted and hand-carved out of the Rocky Mountains.


Midland Tunnel #8 in the year 1900. Below, next to Fountain Creek, is the dirt trail up Ute Pass that would eventually become Highway 24. (DPL Western History)

Back in 1883, the fledgling city of Colorado Springs had only a few thousand people within it. One of these residents was a man named H.D. Fisher, manager of a sawmill about 25 miles from the city, near what is now Woodland Park. Mr. Fisher had a problem: his lumber had a long way to go to get to his hometown. Though a logging railway had been built at the site to transport logs, the finished product still had to be hauled overland on rough trails to the Springs, where the railroad could finally take over. Fisher reckoned that if he had the money, he could link the two railways with his own, with the aim of eventually extending the tracks to Leadville – the epicenter of an incredibly rich mining region. The thick stacks of cash he sought were soon found in a man named John J. Hagerman. Hagerman had made his fortune in mining back east, and his ill health drove him to move to Colorado Springs the year prior. Fisher and his associates made Hagerman the chairman of their fledgling railroad, and with money in the bank, construction started in earnest. The route they chose led east from the Springs, over Ute Pass, and north along the Arkansas River to Leadville. This is some of the roughest country in the west, with 14000 foot peaks and deep valleys to wind around and through. Also, the banks of the Arkansas River that led to Leadville were already occupied by the Rio Grande Railway – a direct competitor to the Midland. These factors combined meant that the Midland needed to be creative with its real estate – the railroad turned to tunneling as a solution to its woes.


A Midland steam locomotive pulls a full load through Tunnel #7 near Manitou Springs in April of 1935. (DPL Western History)


Modern day Tunnel #7 peeks out from behind a hill as storm clouds start to gather. The above photo appears to have been taken from just above the bushes at far left.

As the line left Colorado Springs for the mountains to the west, it followed the steep, narrow canyon carved out by Fountain Creek. The banks of the creek above Manitou Springs proved too narrow to accommodate more than the existing dirt trail up Ute Pass, so to push the railway up to Woodland Park, the company’s engineers decided to dig. A series of eight tunnels were carved into the red rocks of the canyon, moving the railway through the most narrow parts. When the company finally went under in 1949 under the name ‘Midland Terminal Railway’, the tracks were simply pulled and the tunnels left to nature. Today, they are not on any tourist map, no signs point to them as historical relics, not even a marked trail to acknowledge their existence. When I asked a few Manitou residents about them, even they didn’t know of the tunnels in the hills. My friends and I had driven more than 100 miles for the chance to find them. All I knew was their rough location from a dusty book in the Denver Public Library’s stacks, but that was enough.

Before the evening’s butt-slide down the steep, jagged slope, we first had to ascend. I had tried this climb a few weeks prior on a scouting mission, and ended up having to come down hastily – and in near darkness. This cloudy June afternoon, we came slightly better prepared. As myself and my friends Evan and Ann struggled to keep traction on the constantly shifting surface, we were forced to grab for anything we could use to haul ourselves up. Finally, we reached the level of the rail bed – a shelf about six to eight feet wide more than thirty feet above the bottom of the canyon.


Ann pauses on the former Colorado Midland rail bed after the climb up. 100 years ago, you’d see this stunning view from a train coming down Ute Pass into Manitou Springs. Tunnel #7 is on the left, and Tunnel #6 is on the right. Click this panoramic image to view larger.


Evan and Ann pause before entering one of the tunnels above Manitou Springs.

We spent several hours exploring the westernmost tunnels, retracing the old route from one end of the rock shelf to the other. After the tunnels fell into disuse, the closest two to Manitou Springs as well as part of a third suffered collapses. The rest, however, have weathered the years in much better shape. The intervening years had allowed nature to take over some parts of the shelf until it scarcely looked like it could have been big enough to accommodate the steam locomotives that once chugged through this canyon. Unlike many of Colorado’s mountain railways, the Midland was built to standard railway gauge of 4′ 8.5″ – meaning that the shelf had to accommodate large main line trains. The remaining tunnels are in very good shape, good enough that an impromptu homeless encampment had sprung up in one of them. Upon closer inspection, we even found 100 year old coal soot still clinging to the ceilings.


The west portal of the 211-foot-long Tunnel #7.


A Midland locomotive pulls a load of empty cars through a Manitou tunnel in July of 1939. By this time, the dirt road at the bottom of the canyon had been widened and paved as US Highway 24. (DPL Western History)


Inside Tunnel #6.

By the time the sun was setting, thick, dark rain clouds were closing in. We decided to make a retreat to the car, and in the dying light, we made our graceful butt-slides down the steep slope covered in jagged loose sandstone and gravel. Dirtier and a bit torn up we made our way back to the car and loaded up. With the rain moving in, we realized this part of the canyon was not a smart place to be. Only a few weeks later, a huge mudslide caused by flash flooding charged down the canyon with the force of a flood of concrete, trapping dozens of cars in the muck. Shortly after that, yet another flash flood caused millions of dollars in damage to Manitou’s downtown. Thankfully, this evening we had only a dramatic sky to worry about.

A few weeks later, I went with a friend to go check out another group of tunnels about 80 miles deeper into the mountains, near the town of Buena Vista. Here, the tunnels were built because the banks of the Arkansas River were already occupied by a rival railroad – leaving the Midland the task of using what little real estate they had efficiently. Rather than winding back and forth across the river on bridges to dodge rock outcroppings until the valley opened, the Midland bored a series of four short tunnels, making the route north to Leadville a straight shot.


A train and its mustached crew pauses for a photo in front of one of the Buena Vista tunnels sometime in the 1890s. (DPL Western History)

This part of the line was actually abandoned before the Manitou portion, in the years following World War I. The Midland, like all other American railroads, was placed under the wartime control of the US Railroad Adminstration (USRA). The USRA decided that all traffic crossing western Colorado would be routed onto the Midland’s line, and for a few years the business outlook was good for a railroad which had just emerged from bankruptcy. Then, just as quickly, the government yanked almost all of the traffic away from the Midland when it became apparent that the line’s facilities and equipment could not hand the overwhelming volume. Adding to their woes, the dizzyingly high passes to the west of Leadville required constant maintenance and snow clearing in the winter, sapping the railroad’s cash flow and stalling their trains in feet of ice. In 1918, the year the war ended, all of the Colorado Midland west of the town of Divide was abandoned and pulled up for scrap – more than 3/4 of the railroad’s mileage. Unlike the Manitou tunnels, which remained in use for another 31 years, these tunnels were converted and repurposed with the rise of the automobile.


A car stops before heading through the Buena Vista tunnels in June of 1943. (DPL Western History)


Our expedition vehicle next to the tunnels in the modern day. Pullouts at each end allow cars to wait as the tunnels are only wide enough for one lane of traffic.


Inside the Buena Vista tunnels. All four are visible in this photo, bored so closely together that trains were occasionally long enough to be in all four at once!

Today, rather than the *chug-chug* of steam trains, only the rumble of tires on gravel resonates through the tunnels. The county owns the right-of-way now, keeping the old route plowed in the winter so backcountry enthusiasts and cross-country skiiers can access National Forest land. It’s well used, too; in our short time exploring the tunnels, dozens of jeeps and a few ATVs passed through one at a time.


We hold for a moment at the northernmost tunnel, waiting for traffic to clear as a storm rolls in.

I find it fascinating that these relics of Colorado history have remained in such good condition as they reach well over 100 years old. The most crucial tunnels to the Midland, at the top of Hagerman Pass, both collapsed by 1940. Another set remains passable, on a back road in a place called Elevenmile Canyon. With a few feet of snow on the road now, though, they’ll stay hidden until the melting of summer for a visit. Just a few more months to wait.

Titan I: the remix

« An AtH // urbanescape.fr collaboration »

For the better part of a year, I’ve found myself essentially semi-retired from urban exploring. The trappings of a renewed social life, a (mostly) full time job, and a number of other projects kept me out of the loop. However, sometimes life throws you a little curveball that makes you realize what’s still out there. In this case, that curveball came in the form of two French documentary filmmakers: Mélanie de Groot van Embden and David de Rueda, referred to me by a colleague from the west coast. The target for the crew: an abandoned nuclear missile launch complex we refer to as the Titan. It’s nothing less than a Cold War castle, a huge, decaying underground relic of a time when air raid sirens meant nuclear war rather than tornadoes.


The abandoned Titan I ICBM launch complex from topside. Launcher #2 is at left.

It’s been about six years since my first expedition to this relic of the Cold War, situated about an hour or so from Denver on Colorado’s eastern plains. For this reason, I contacted another local explorer, Micah, who, along with his roommate Ashley, had recently been inside the silo and could give us valuable information as to its condition – and the hazards we would face inside. The recent wet weather meant that the complex could be a muddy quagmire or partially flooded, new developments in the area posed a risk, and decay had doubtless taken its toll on the structure since my last visit.

Our meetup point was none other than Pete’s Kitchen on Colfax, a late-night Denver institution. Its glowing ’40s neon signs cast a bright glare into the night, beckoning our French comrades inside. Over cups of coffee, Mél and David told us stories from the road, tales of climbing bridges in New York and abandoned roller coasters in New Orleans. After crossing half of America, their cross-country road trip had led them here, to the edge of the Rockies. After spending a chilly night high in the Sawatch Range to the west, the two explorers descended on Denver in their fabulously painted van.

The night’s plan was simple: take our team of five and our gear out to the silo, stash Micah’s minivan nearby at a spot he had in mind, and sneak overland under a nearly full moon over to the silo entrance. Subtlety is key to the Titan – it would only take one rifle-toting rancher to mistake us for a varmint in the murk and really ruin our night. Once inside, all we’d have to do is try not to fall in a missile hole and be out by sunrise. Nice and easy.

We headed out of Denver at around 11 p.m., and settled in for the hour’s ride out east. The road was nearly empty, with all the traffic of the day fast asleep. David fired up his camera and our idle chatter became a candid interview. As we drove east, the glow from the city receded until the sky outside the van was an inky black; this is the edge of the Great Plains, and from out here, the relative isolation of Denver was apparent. Once upon a time, the Air Force had the idea that this would be an ideal place to situate the first generation of American ICBMs – the Titan I. The reasons for this move were multifaceted. Lowry Air Force Base was nearby, along with the garrisons of Colorado Springs, providing ready manpower. Denver’s mining history had bestowed some of the most gifted underground engineers in the world, perfect for creating a small, self-sufficient town 40-50 feet below the surface. Even the missiles themselves had only a short distance to travel – they were developed and tested at Martin Marietta‘s Waterton Canyon facility just south of Denver, and their 3.8 Mt thermonuclear warheads were assembled just north of the city at Rocky Flats.

Eventually, we hit our exit, and as we headed away from the highway, the darkness of the plains enveloped us. Our two lane road turned into dirt, then the dirt turned into little more than two ruts in the prairie. With nothing in front of us but headlights, Micah finally said “OK, I think this is it.”, and we disembarked. Outside the van, we gathered our kit: cameras, tripods, respirators in case of airborne nastiness. When we finally looked up, the view was astounding. With no light pollution from the city and a clear night, a seemingly infinite number of stars were visible. Only a few hundred feet away was our quarry. We slipped over to the site and down into the crater holding our entry point. The mission was on; the only hazard we faced on the way in was a lone skunk, stubbornly guarding the path down the crater wall. Lights unpacked and masks on, into the beast we went.


The Titan I’s power dome from the second floor mezzanine. When it was in operation, this room would have been cramped with ventilation equipment, water filtration gear, and 4 huge diesel generators to provide everything the 14 man crew would need. Click to view this image larger.

Our entry portal let us into the complex’s power dome. David and I busted out our photo rigs and began to get to work. This room was huge; 130 feet (40m) across and 60 feet (18m) high. In operation, it would have been an incredibly noisy place, with four enormous diesel generators running all the time, and right next door, the immense fans that vented the diesel exhaust and moved breathing air in and out of the complex. As David and Mél shot some footage near the mezzanine ladder, I noticed the large slab of concrete I had just jumped onto had moved! I bounced my knees slightly, and sure enough, it seemed that the whole slab was mounted on springs. This made perfect sense; almost everything in the complex was mounted on springs to prevent damage when the missiles were fired – or when a Soviet nuclear warhead hit nearby. The generators themselves were no exception, and even after fifty years underground, the huge springs holding up their foundations still had plenty of bounce left. Maybe not quite a Cold War bouncy castle, but close.


Let there be light!
This newsreel shows the inside of the Colorado Titan Is in operation. Note the missiles raised up above their doors – unlike later ICBMs, the Titan I launched from outside the silo, not within.

From the expansive confines of the generator dome, we headed through the complex’s main tunnel junction and into the control dome. It’s exactly what it says on the tin – this part of the facility held the computers and men that could actually fire the nuclear missiles within. Slightly smaller than the power dome, this space was divided into two levels. In operation, a crew of 14 would keep watch upstairs in rotating shifts until relief came. Instead of bunks, the airmen got a ready room/lounge on the lower level of the dome for their downtime.


The ready room on the lower level of the control dome was used as a venue for a small illegal rave back in 2003.

Before we proceeded upstairs, something caught Ashley’s attention. The floor of the lower level was littered with bullet casings, a testament to the years of locals who came down into the silo for shooting practice. Ashley proved to be an expert in firearms forensics; over there was a 9mm, here a .45 ACP, even a few 12 gauge shotshells. Also present were a few 7.62mm cartridges – spent ammunition for the notorious AK-47. Our French comrades seemed surprised, even slightly taken aback at the knowledge that these casings were not relics, but left here after the fact. This is Colorado, however, and guns in rural parts of the state are about as common as dish soap. Tonight, though, no armed resistance was encountered, and with souvenirs of middle America in our pockets, we headed up the stairs to the heart of the beast: the control room.


“LAUNCH OPS.”

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, this room was at the flashpoint of the Cold War. On 26 October 1962, at 8 P.M. local time, the United States raised its strategic readiness level – also known as DEFCON – to level 2 for the first (and still only) time. This move put US nuclear forces on high alert – and as a result, the men in this room actually raised the nuclear missiles from their silos, ready to fire in minutes if the order was given. I can only imagine what must have passed through their minds, waiting sixty feet below the Colorado plains for orders to obliterate millions upon millions of people and begin nuclear Armageddon. The stress must have been unbearable.


This is the heart – this room once held the control panels and computers for the site’s three thermonuclear ballistic missiles. The drop ceiling has long since given way, collapsing into the floor of the space.

We left the control dome for our next objective, the silos themselves. Down the tunnel lay the moats, deeply dug junctions between the connecting tunnels that served to join the various pipes and control lines strung throughout the complex. Their depth (about 15 ft.) means that they are now flooded with murky ‘water’ – a potentially toxic witch’s brew of chemicals and runoff dissolved in groundwater. We’d have no choice but to cross these pits in order to access the launchers. Micah and Ashley set across first to the right, while David, Mél, and I kept to the left side with our photo gear. There are no more floors in the complex tunnels, as these were some of the first metal parts to be scrapped. There was no easy way across the first junction; the thick steel support beams we had to balance on were spaced far enough apart that shuffling over them was a delicate task.

The junction room was filled with all sorts of exposed pipework and conduit, and while some of this metal made great handholds, some was so rusty and rotten it could easily give way. About halfway across I heard Mélanie suddenly yelp “Help me! I’m falling!” from behind me. I spun around just in time to see her wobbling precariously above the moat! Her gear had shifted ever so slightly and thrown her off balance, and David was already out of reach. I had only a moment to flip my tripod over my shoulder and reach out to keep her from falling into the murk. Once safely across, we caught our breath and ventured deeper into the tunnels.


This tunnel junction further into the complex remains high and dry. The tunnels tend to get quite wet during the rainy season, but the sturdy engineering means some parts remain remarkably dry after 60 years.
Mél traverses a tunnel junction near a propellant terminal. There were separate storage facilities for missiles, fuel, and the equipment to handle both. The beams were covered with plate steel floors, long since removed for their scrap value. Plumbing and control lines for the missiles ran underneath.

After another half hour of monkey business, we found our target. Through a pair of blast doors at the end of a tunnel was Silo #2. Water had long since replaced the Titan I missile that was once here, and over the years the water level had risen to only ten feet below our tunnel. With the silos reaching 160 feet in depth from the surface, it’s easy to see why some enterprising people have made indoor SCUBA an adaptive reuse of a few similar sites. A sobering silence took over us as we realized what had once been in here, the magnitude of the space we had come all this way to see. The weapons once stored in here could have killed millions at the turn of two keys. At the end of the access tunnel, only a flimsy wire rope strung as a makeshift guard across the opening stood between us and the abyss.


Mél, David, and I look for a stable shooting position at the silo entrance. Beyond us, in the blackness, is the pit of the silo. Photo courtesy of Micah.
Silo number 2 from the personnel tunnel level. This composite image only captures the top forty feet or so!

A check on our watches revealed that 4 A.M. had come and gone. All that remained now was the long walk back to the power dome and our exit. We packed up everything but our cameras as we began back through the jungle gym, clambering over pipes and ducking underneath low hanging beams. Farther down, once the tunnels became mercifully dry, we simply walked on the packed earth at the bottom.


David grabs some video on the walk back to the power dome.

We emerged from the Earth after four and a half hours, physically tired but totally awake from the adrenaline. If we could only get past our last barrier – that skunk – we’d be home free. Under the abundant starlight, we could see surprisingly clearly. A quick check revealed no marauding wildlife, so up the side of the hole we went. Almost there. Fifty yards away was the van, and a beacon pointed us towards it. Silhouetting our ride were the 139 turbines of the Cedar Point Wind Farm, all flashing on and off in unison, forming a long, red glow across the horizon. It was a fitting end to a surreal night.

Back on I-70, the highway noise took over as the crew snoozed on and off. Micah turned off the road once or twice, seeking the towering lights of an open gas station. Mél and David slept through all of it, getting a head start on an early morning. Their plan was to head out just after sunrise, aiming west for the Rockies and eventually California. They would be missed. Personally, I hope to have the good fortune to meet more people like them in my life. Sometimes, all it takes is a little positive influence to get motivated.

belden – into the rabbit hole, pt. 2

«Second in a two-part series on Belden»

As we peered down the incline, the space below us opened up into the workings of a full-sized underground ore mill, a complex of huge machines used to crush big hunks of ore-bearing rock down to smaller and smaller pieces for transport and further processing. The miners dug out a cavern more than eight stories high in places, housing not only the huge rock crushers themselves, but more workspaces, a few company offices, and a conveyor system which fed the hungry workings of the various machines involved in the milling process. At peak output, an incredible 150-200 tons of ore could be processed in each 8-hour shift. This was Belden’s heart; the place where the huge machines that did the dirty business of milling the ore lived. Our voices bounced off the high walls and huge, silent machines, our breath hanging in the air, visible for seconds at a time after we exhaled before clinging to flat surfaces as shimmery drops of condensation. Years ago, this room would have been deafeningly loud with the sounds of mineral extraction: metal smashing rock, the hum of generators and engines, the shouting of the foremen as the carts crawled up and down the incline. Many of the slowly rusting ladders and stairs didn’t even creak after years in the mountain – a testament to the skill of the men who dug this manmade cave out of the hard granite of western Colorado.


The long steel rods inside the crushers would roll around as they turned, smashing the pieces of siderite, sphalerite, and pyrite (among other other minerals) into bits to be transported elsewhere.


A view looking back up at the incline from the crusher level.


An elevator in the upper level of the crusher room moved people and equipment between the crusher and shop levels. If it were operational, it would take us down to a tunnel leading out to the rail siding in the canyon.

It was almost time for us to head for the exit, as we’d be losing light in the canyon soon. Our exit from Belden took a different route than our entrance, and as we moved through the tunnels to the surface, the mill proved there were still surprises around the corner. A plastic tarp, ostensibly put there by the EPA during their cleanup, blocked off a side tunnel. We investigated, and found that the room held something straight out of a video game: a cavern with electric lime green runoff beneath the makeshift floorboards. Once the room was confirmed to be mutant- and zombie-free, we moved in.

Further back, we found a wooden catwalk which gave claustrophobic access to the top of a large holding tank. It seemed we had stumbled onto one of the EPA’s mine water storage locations, part of their plan to clean up the Eagle Mine site. The idea here is that water in the tanks is to be drained and treated in a newly built water treatment plant near Bolts Lake, a few miles up the river. The unearthly shade of green may be a combination of antifreeze (added to the runoff water to keep it liquid during the frigid winter months) and copper leaching, but regardless of its chemical content, we decided the best course of action would be to continue out of the mountain and away from the neon green liquid. Tripods and cameras were packed and accounted for, and off we went.

Eventually, one of the tunnels showed light at the end, and the four of us opened a rusty, creaky door and broke out of the depths and into the warm Colorado sunshine. Our exit let us out of Battle Mountain at an interesting place: about a third of the way up the canyon wall, right above a long, steep slope strewn with sharp, broken rocks of all sizes. Not the easiest place to descend from, but it definitely made for a great view of the exterior of the subterranean giant we had just slain.

Our descent began, the four of us slowly making our way down the scree to the floor of the canyon below. An old steel cable, perhaps once used to move ore or power around the site, now made a makeshift fixed rope to steady us as we tried to keep our footing on the loose, constantly shifting mass of rocks. Before long, the team was once again on ground level. As the sun continued its arc towards the tops of the peaks hemming us in, we investigated some of the above ground buildings in the complex. A small power substation near Darwin’s Ladder once supplied the mine and mill with power enough to keep the machines inside running and the miles of lights on. It was from here that the fateful switch was thrown, plunging the underground into the darkness when the EPA finally pulled the plug.


These transformers, once filled with toxic PCBs, were emptied ahead of the EPA’s arrival by a Union Pacific Railroad subsidiary. UP owns the now-abandoned Tennessee Pass line which runs past Belden.

Our hike out began soon after, the four of us heading back down the tracks toward Red Cliff. The Tennessee Pass line that our boots now traversed was once the highest railroad mainline in America. Built in the late 1800s by the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway to beat the competing Colorado Midland to the mineral riches of the Leadville and Gilman districts, this line was for many years the primary transcontinental route through the Colorado Rockies. Southern Pacific bought the D&RGW in 1988, routing their huge 100-car coal trains up the line, some with as many as ten locomotives shoving them up the steep grades to the top of the pass. Eventually, Union Pacific bought out Southern Pacific, and with UP’s ownership of the Moffat Tunnel and other routes through the Rockies farther north in Wyoming, this legendary route was shut down for good in 1997. Only the section through the Royal Gorge remains open as an excursion line.

hiking out
Digital_me takes point as the team heads for the Red Cliff Bridge, which carries U.S. Highway 24 over the Eagle River. The new water treatment plant, built to clean up water from the mine, is nearby.

We arrived back at the car exhausted, but elated with the accomplishments of the preceding 48 hours. Only time will tell what becomes of Belden; recent work has been centered on stabilization and environmental monitoring. Unlike the town above it, redevelopment is not in the cards for Belden (after all, there’s only so many things one can use a giant, contaminated underground mill for) so for now, only the slow, unyielding forces of decay will continue to work inside Battle Mountain.

«Many thanks go to the Denver Public Library’s Western History Department for providing invaluable information on the history and underground workings of Belden.»

belden – into the rabbit hole, pt. 1

«First in a two-part series on Belden»

We awoke in our hobo hostel room in downtown Gilman, Colorado to a warm autumn morning, the town around us silent except for the chirping of birds and the occasional truck passing on the highway nearby. Our mission today was twofold: reposition our vehicle for an easier pickup, and descend into the canyon below the town in search of access to Belden – the immense underground ore mill deep inside the bowels of Battle Mountain.


This is only the tip of the iceberg.

As the Eagle Mine began to mature, the owners found that the small mill operating on the banks of the Eagle River was simply out of its element. As they sought to increase the capacity of the mill, they quickly found themselves running out of space in the narrow confines of the canyon. The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway’s critical Tennessee Pass route took up a premium amount of this limited space, running on both sides of the canyon at points to make good use of the available real estate. Along with the twin track siding near the mine, various outbuildings and coal/oil/water supplies for the locomotives quickly put a squeeze on the milling operation. To the New Jersey Zinc Company, there was only one thing to do: go underground. Lower parts of the mine that had been exhausted were enlarged into cavernous rooms, some twenty feet high and nearly a hundred feet from end to end. Miles of labyrinthine connecting tunnels were dug to move the incoming ore around the mill levels of the complex. Massive rock crushers were moved into the spaces piece by piece and assembled in their new homes. The mine and mill soon ratcheted up production until it peaked in the late 1950s at nearly 4500 tons of ore every month – some silver and gold but mostly zinc, used primarily in galvanizing steel against corrosion. By some accounts, Belden became the largest underground milling operation in the world by the early 60s.


Belden’s exterior buildings in the early 1910s. A string of ore cars waits at the siding for loading and transport to NJZ’s Cañon City smelter. (Colorado School of Mines/Heritage West)

The mine’s success was soon overshadowed by trouble on the horizon. Increasing labour problems, falling prices for ores as production began to shift overseas, and the use of plastics in more and more things all started to push the operation at Belden towards the edge. Several mine shutdowns occurred in later years, the on-and-off employment prospects slowly driving away the miners who had once called the town above home. By the time 1980 rolled around, only a skeleton crew was left in the mine, keeping the lights on and the mine dry just in case full scale production ever returned. It never did.

When the mine shut down in 1984, the US Environmental Protection Agency took custody of the site. They pledged to work with the mine’s then-owners, the Viacom Corporation (through their Gulf+Western subsidiary) to clean up from more than a century of mining in the area. Their solution was to plug and flood the mine itself using huge bulkheads buried deep inside the former mill level. The groundwater seeping into the mine would slowly be drained and treated in a new processing plant built near Red Cliff. After pulling the last PCB-filled transformer out of the slowly flooding mine, the last team in simply turned out the lights and left. The end had finally come for the Eagle.

Digital_me and I hiked out of Gilman to reposition the car and resupply the group with fine Colorado ales; orogeny and shotgun mario would descend to the canyon via the rickety remains of an ore tramway still somehow attached to the side of the mountain. This was one way of getting ore from the mine to wherever it needed to go, but in its decaying state, the tramway is known as ‘Darwin’s Ladder’ – the difficulty of traversing it tends to weed out those who are unqualified (to put it nicely). Our team was well up to the task, however, and by the time digital_me and myself were hiking up the now-dormant rail line into the canyon, our other half was already having lunch on the banks of the Eagle River.


Darwin’s Ladder as seen from the canyon. It’s best to be careful on the way down.

Tailings from the mine that still dangle precariously over the river near Belden were shored up a few years ago, preventing the rotting, century-old retaining logs from giving way and dumping thousands of tons of waste into the river. The Eagle River in particular was affected by Gilman and its mine; fish kills were reported first in the 1950s, then more often as the years progressed. These days, the river is prime territory for anglers fishing the renewed populations of trout and kayakers looking to shoot the Class IV rapids not far from the mine.

That afternoon, our adventures were elsewhere, and onward we pressed, probing the mountain for entry to the secret world within. Finally, we found ourselves an entrance, a wonderful hole in the side of the mountain that led us into a strange subterranean world. On went our hard hats and headlamps, tripods were unpacked, and with our 02 meter making no scary noises, we took our first steps into the depths of Battle Mountain.

The innards of the mountain are made up of miles upon miles of mazelike tunnels, some of which flood from time to time due to changes in seepage and water infiltration. Thankfully, today, the water had receded, leaving in its wake a floor thick with inches of sticky, bright yellow mine goop. This goop contains all sorts of wonderfulness, mostly garden variety mine waste but laden with heavy metals, solvents, and no doubt many other questionable substances. We were in a very foreign place; cavelike, but with the natural wonder of rock formations replaced by the remnants of a long-abandoned industrial powerhouse. The myriad pipes and conduits that once carried the stuff of life to the miners below the surface – air, power, and water – now rusted away, some still managing to cling to the still-solid rock walls of the tunnels.

As we moved through the tunnels, we found all sorts of remnants from the mine’s operational days. The mine and mill had 24″ gauge tracks laid throughout it for mine carts, and though many left the mine to be turned into scrap, many still remain inside. As we approached the ore storage pocket (a part of the mine where crushed ore was dumped from the trains coming from the mill), we came across a curious looking addition to a derelict train. Several cars in the train had closed tops with holes in them, which made them unsuitable for carrying ore. As luck would have it, we had stumbled upon what was known to the miners as a ‘honey wagon’ – basically a portable toilet. The toilet cars would be attached to the end of a string of ore cars going into the mine, allowing the miners to relieve themselves without having to go all the way out of the mine. This honey wagon ended up near the ore pocket’s 100 foot deep shaft, a giant hopper which ended in a loading room where larger mine trains would carry ore out of the mine and onto the waiting railroad cars. We elected to tread lightly across the chasm.


Orogeny lights up a train of mine carts waiting before the ore pocket in Belden’s upper levels.

Further on, we found a collection of machine shops and work spaces for the mine and mill. Under the surface, it was easy to lose the scale of the size of the complex we were in. Larger corridors led to huge dug-out caverns partitioned off by walls, some reaching up into three floors in height. These rooms were used to do everything from maintaining the miniature locomotives pulling the carts through the mine to keeping the miners’ rock drills sharp. The larger ones were outfitted with heavy lifting equipment in case repairs needed to be effected on one of the huge machines elsewhere in the depths of the mill. So much of the equipment was simply left in place that if it weren’t for the decades of decay that inevitably result from being inside a dark, leaky mountain, it could be as if the lights were turned out yesterday. As for our lighting equipment, there was no such thing as too much. The lack of power meant cave darkness inside Belden – a terrifying prospect if our lights gave out. This meant backups aplenty: headlamps, fluorescent lanterns, the ubiquitous Mag-Lite, compact LED lights, even a few glow sticks and road flares just in case.


This clock records the time that power was cut off to the mill. Interestingly, the calendar mounted on the solid rock wall reads 1970, more than ten years before the final closing of the mine.


This jar of mysterious deep red goo is lit from behind by a blue LED. Our best guess is transmission or hydraulic fluid, though superhero-spawning mutation properties are not out of the question.


Some unknown underground mold has taken over this chair in an upper level workshop. Airflow is still adequate in the mill, though recent work has sealed many of the shafts and adits that previously allowed fresh air (and thus potentially outside agents like mold spores) inside.


This two-story machine shop room (illuminated with the help of Akron on a previous trip) allowed heavy maintenance to be done on large, bulky mine equipment without actually having to remove the equipment from the underground workings.

One tunnel led us to the top of a long slope extending far down into Battle Mountain. The nearby structure and rail junction (complete with an abandoned locomotive) gave clues to this ramp’s purpose: this was the South Incline, a long stretch of tunnel that was critical to the transport of ore within the mill. The shack at the top held a huge winch that was used to move the ore carts up or down to either end of the incline, where they would be hitched to waiting mine locomotives to move them along to their next stop. This incline was no ordinary tunnel, however, as we were about to find out.


The mine carts were shunted around in this small yard at the top of the South Incline for transport to other parts of Belden’s upper levels.

Stay tuned for Part Two, which promises even more underground goodness. In the mean time, check out the photo set right here.

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.