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.

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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.