mirror’s edge

Chicago is known in the world of architecture as the birthplace of the modern skyscraper. The motivating force behind much of this vertical way of thinking was one of the most destructive events in the history of the United States as a whole – the Great Chicago Fire. In rebuilding itself from the cinders of the inferno, the city began reaching ever higher. Architects like Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan dreamed up ever taller edifices, financed by railroad and steel money pouring into the reborn city’s affluent upper crust. Before long, the city was home to artificial canyons, the sunlight at ground level dictated by the heights of the soaring buildings lining the streets. By the time the 1990s came to an end, Chicago was host to not only the tallest building in the world (at the time, the Sears Tower), but an entire skyline full of towering monoliths of glass, steel, and concrete.

Click on any photo in this post to view it large on black.

My experience with rooftopping began in Toronto back in 2009, giving rise to my current habit of getting on the tops of buildings in pursuit of photographs. Late winter 2011 saw an opportunity to visit Chicago – fertile ground for seeking heights. With only a few days to spend in the Windy City, plans to this end needed to be made carefully. Tops on the list for this trip was a 40-odd story skyscraper conveniently located on Michigan Avenue, the ‘Magnificent Mile’. This glittering strip of pavement is one of the most expensive streets in the world for real estate; a mere square foot of room on this high-rolling boulevard will cost you a cool $127/mo in rent. Let me put that into context: this absurd going rate means that a tiny 250ft² shoebox of an apartment would cost you more than $30000 every month. Well-heeled is a nice way of describing the residents of this street; however, despite all the massive piles of cash money all over Michigan Avenue, the best views here cannot be purchased; they must be attained.

I headed to the building in question (which I will refer to as the H) to see what the upper reaches of the stairwells held in store. It was late afternoon, the lobby packed with travelers and patrons for the establishment’s swanky first-floor bar. Thankfully, the herd of people made it easy to dodge the prying eyes of the concierge and head for the lifts. The ride up the elevator to the top floor (a base camp, so to speak) is one of the best parts of rooftopping – nothing but anticipation and butterflies in one’s stomach as the numbers tick upwards.

The door opened at my floor with an insistent *ding*, and out I went. The corridor seemed to be vacant, save for a housekeeper’s cart propping open a door on the far end. Unfortunately, this next part gets a bit fuzzy (funny how that works), but the next thing I can remember, the roof door was opening and I was face-to-face with Chicago’s Near North side. Paydirt.

The next day, I hopped an ‘L’ train and headed into the city to revisit the H after dark. However, the central Loop neighborhood was my first destination as the sun began to drop behind the artificial horizon of Chicago’s skyline. So named for the layout of the elevated railway encircling it, the Loop is the center of Chicago, and home to many of its tallest buildings. However, sometimes in the quest for ever greater heights, it’s easy to forget the shorter buildings that offer cityscapes that are just as appealing. Blue hour was fast approaching, so I made for some strategically located rooftops near the elevated.

After dark, I met up with Katherine of Chicago and headed for the H’s now neon infused rooftop. The mob that had been in the lobby the previous day was still present albeit in smaller size, allowing us to once again take the lifts all the way up. A few minutes later, out into the frigid night we went, the world suddenly shrinking as the door opened to the seemingly endless cityscape. This was a scene I was not prepared for; the jaw-dropping, brightly lit vistas on the skyscrapers to our north and south and the great, tangled blanket of streetlights in the neighborhoods and suburbs to the west.

While some fellow rooftoppers have used the fisheye lens to great effect, as of late I’ve been a fan of the multi-shot panorama. The idea here is to pivot the camera around on the tripod through a given arc, taking overlapping images all the way across. These images are then combined (after a lot of thinking by my computer) into a single image.

Bear in mind this image is actually much larger than this blog will hold, so I strongly recommend clicking on this one to view large.

Chicago is not a city known for its mild winters, and tonight, the arctic blast coming off of Lake Michigan was amplified threefold by the heights. After our fingers were good and numb, we descended back to the street below, the clueless concierge politely holding the doors open for us as we exited.

Michigan Avenue at ground level is something altogether different, our peaceful rooftop sanctuary replaced by honking taxis and hapless tourists stumbling all over the sidewalks. Ah, well…there’s always tomorrow night!

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toronto heights

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

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

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

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

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


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


Dresden gets up close and personal with Toronto.

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


Couldn’t resist a little self-portraiture.


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

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

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.