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.

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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.