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.»

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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.