Laying Claim to Red Mountain–Land&People

With his calloused fingers, weathered face, and thick, white beard, Chris George resembles a nineteenth-century miner. Tall and straight, clad in overalls, he grasps my hand outside the aging Silver Ledge Mine headframe– a weathered, five-story wooden structure–and greets me with a voice still accented by his native Surrey. I can easily imagine George here 120 years ago, wresting silver and gold from the bones of the earth in one of America’s most famous historic mining districts.

Despite appearances, Chris George isn’t a miner. He and the small crew that make up his firm, Red Mountain Equipment and Construction Company, are at the Silver Ledge on behalf of the Ouray County [Colorado] Historical Society. The listing headframe, a massive building that once housed the equipment to hoist men, machines, and wealth from the mine shaft beneath it, is in danger of falling down. George’s job, funded by a $25,000 grant from the Colorado State Historical Society, is to stabilize it.

“I think everybody understands that a lot of folks come here for the natural beauty. But they also come to see these relics,” George says, gesturing up at the building. “We have, in a sense, gained tenure, and we’ve got to take care of it. Now we need energy and money.”

The Silver Ledge headframe is one of about 50 buildings still standing in the Red Mountain Mining District, eight square miles that flank U.S. Highway 550 and are draped across 11,008-foot-high Red Mountain Pass, in southern Colorado’s western San Juan Mountains. The district is named for three 12,000-foot peaks that loom treeless above the surrounding forests. Unlike the other mountains here, which run to gray-blue or a vague pink, Red Mountains One, Two, and Three are brilliantly colored, painted vermilion and yellow by the minerals contained in their rocks. They signaled enormous wealth to the miners who knew what they were looking at.

During its heyday, from 1881 until the silver crash and depression of 1893, the Red Mountain district was home to 3,000 people who lived in six now-vanished towns, and to some of the richest mines in the nation.

It was a place of enormous engineering innovation–what Ouray (pronounced you-ray) County Commissioner Alan Staehle calls “the Silicon Valley of its time.” The physical challenges of the geography led to a range of innovations in mining and railroad technologies. Red Mountain’s story is also one of immigration. Workers came to the mines, to the flanking towns of Ouray and Silverton, and to the Silverton Railroad that served this high outpost from homelands as far-flung as Slovenia, China, and Sweden. Hard-rock mining ceased here in 1978. Today, Red Mountain Pass and its surrounding lands are one of Colorado’s great tourist attractions. Each year, one million vehicles traverse the winding, precarious Highway 550, known as the “Million Dollar Highway.” Thousands more venture off the highway annually to ski, hike, and climb.

The Red Mountain mining district lies within the Uncompahgre and San Juan National Forests. Most visitors believe that when they gaze at the aspen- and spruce-covered mountainsides, the scenic mining ruins, and ochre-tinted tailings piles scattered among them, that they are looking at public lands. Even many Colorado residents, such as those who frequent the St. Paul Lodge, Chris George’s rustic backcountry ski lodge located on a mountain flank east of Red Mountain Pass, believe that when they head out the door they’re on U.S. Forest Service lands.

In fact, about half of the land visible from Highway 550 is made up of private mining claims. Under the General Mining Law of 1872, prospectors were able to claim potential mineral lands held by the government. Many of these were eventually “patented” and became privately owned by individuals, investor groups, or corporations. In heavily mineralized areas like the Red Mountain district, a map of landownership looks like a pile of overlapping matchsticks–each stick a 10-acre mining claim, typically measuring 330 feet by 1,320 feet.

Mining waxed and waned here–fading in the 1890s, reviving during the first and second world wars–and many of the older structures fell into disrepair or were salvaged. Today, with mining gone, both Ouray and Silverton depend almost exclusively on tourism for their economies, and both have large and politically effective historical societies (the San Juan County Historical Society, based in Silverton, has a membership, including nonresidents, equal to the county population of 550). By the late 1990s, leaders in these groups realized they needed to do something to stabilize the remaining buildings in the Red Mountain mining district.

Preserving Local History

The 3,200 residents of Ouray County, which lies on the north side of the divide, and their neighbors in San Juan County to the south, have always considered Red Mountain Pass and the surrounding high peaks and valleys to be an integral part of their communities. Ouray, built around natural hot springs, and Silverton, founded in 1872 on a major silver strike, served as supply towns to the Red Mountain mines for a century. Retired miners and their descendants still live in both communities.

The impetus to protect the vestiges of the mining boom days first came from Ken Francis, director of the Fort Lewis College Office of Community Services in Durango, located 47 miles south of Silverton. In 1997, Francis received a $37,000 grant, mostly from the Colorado State Historic Fund, to develop a historic preservation plan for the San Juan Skyway, a 198-mile loop around the west San Juans that includes the 23 miles of Highway 550 that cross Red Mountain Pass between Silverton and Ouray, designated one of the country’s first six National Scenic Byways.

During the summer of 1998, Bev Rich, director of the San Juan County Historical Society, joined Francis and several other preservationists to inventory some of the structures near Red Mountain Pass. The group was following the old bed of the Silverton Railroad on foot when they discovered that two miles of the historic route had been used as a skidway for logged timber and was severely damaged.

“We looked at each other and said, you know, this is private land. Whoever owns it controls its destiny,” Rich recalled. “To save this, we’ve got to buy it.” An ad hoc meeting was held in Ouray, and about 35 people showed up to discuss what they might do. Fifteen of them formed what become known as the Red Mountain Task Force.

“It wasn’t a bunch of tree huggers,” says Rich, who is the daughter and granddaughter of miners. “Sure,” she says, “the scenery is beautiful, but the history combined with the scenery is what makes the Red Mountain area unique and worth saving.”

The Threat of High-Country Sprawl

Colorado’s high country has been rediscovered in the past 30 years, not by miners but by home builders, contributing to a population surge that made the state the third fastest-growing in the nation during the 1990s. By 2000, 4.3 million people lived in the Centennial state, a million more than a decade earlier. That number is expected to top 5 million by 2020. The population of the three counties encompassing the Red Mountain district–Ouray, San Juan, and San Miguel–is predicted by Colorado officials to rise 156 percent.

“We’re on the cutting edge of an issue that exists throughout the mineralized belt of the Rocky Mountains,” says Francis. “Hard-rock mining is no longer economically viable, and mining companies are not going to hold on to this property. You couple that with this mass migration and interest in living in the Rocky Mountains, and it’s very easy to see what the next set of landuses is going to be.”

Francis is referring to what some observers call “high-country sprawl.” Ranches are subdivided into 35-acre ranchettes, and patented mining claims sprout cabins and homes. Hard numbers documenting the phenomenon are difficult to come by, but examples abound. New cabins and homes flank the historic dirt road leading west of Ouray toward Yankee Boy Basin, and visitors interested in buying disused mining claims with the intention of building a home are a common summer appearance in the Ouray and Silverton county treasurers’ offices. The former mountain ghost towns of Sherman, Ophir, and Ruby, located in the San Juan and West Elk mountains, were repopulated in the 1990s by year-round and part-time residents who bought up home sites laid out more than a century ago.

“I see the pressures becoming greater and greater,” says Gary Severson, executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments in Silverthorne. Backcountry property owners near Montezuma, in Severson’s central Colorado neck of the woods, are putting “a lot of pressure” on the U.S. Forest Service to provide year-round, plowed access to their remote inholdings. “It is the year-round access that changes the character of this backcountry as much as anything and impacts wildlife habitat and backcountry recreation,” says Severson.

One iteration of Red Mountain’s possible future lies a mere seven miles away from Red Mountain Pass, over the Hayden Mountain ridge to the west. Telluride has metamorphosed in 30 years from a moribund gold mining town to a booming vacation Mecca. Its surrounding hillsides are dotted with starter castles and ski slopes, and its primary business is the construction and maintenance of luxury vacation properties.

Telluride’s version of the future was unpalatable to supporters of the newly formed Red Mountain Task Force. “We knew that large blocks of these mining claims were on the market, and we got the wild idea we could buy them,” says Bob Risch, an Ouray native who chairs the task force. “The first thing we realized was this was going to be a big project, and we were going to need help,” he recalls.

The task force approached the Trust for Public Land in 1998. Eric Love, director of projects for TPL’s Southwest Regional Office in Santa Fe, was enthusiastic about the project but cautious, given its complexity–scores of landowners, difficult title questions, potential cleanup liability at old mining sites. By early 1999, however, Love, the task force, and the Forest Service had a plan to purchase 11,000 acres. “About the same time,” remembers Love, “Congress generally was beginning to increase appropriations from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund for federal acquisition of conservation lands, so it looked like we had a pretty good chance at getting the Red Mountain effort funded.” Total estimated cost: about $15 million.

Once a plan was in place, the project gathered momentum. Peter Metcalf, co-founder of the Salt Lake City-based Black Diamond Equipment, Ltd., a maker of top-notch climbing gear, threw his company’s support behind the effort. Landowners in the area came forward to offer TPL the opportunity to buy their properties.

Many of the old Red Mountain mining district claims had been bought up over the years by Idarado Mining Company, which was formed in 1939 and operated some of the wealthiest mines in the district until 1978. A subsidiary of Denver- based Newmont Mining Corporation, Idarado wanted to shut down and sell all its Red Mountain holdings, preferably for conservation as public land.

“We wanted to leave behind a legacy to mining and to the area for future generations,” says Idarado President Dave Baker.

Another key piece fell into place when the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency assured TPL and the task force that it would help address liabilities associated with historic mining waste, which can leach heavy metals into surrounding waterways.

But when in 2000 the project failed to make the list for funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, task force members mobilized. “They did a grassroots campaign like none other and got a lot of letters onto their representatives’ and senators’ desks. That’s when everyone took notice,” recalls TPL’s Love. Colorado’s two senators, Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Wayne Allard, along with Third District Congressman Scott McInnis and Governor Bill Owens, went to the mat and secured $5 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund that year.

By the next federal fiscal year, the Red Mountain mining district–named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the nation’s most endangered historic places–was first on the list for funding and received an additional $4.6 million to bring 3,042 acres of Idarado property under the protection of the U.S. Forest Service. TPL holds another 3,000 acres of Idarado land under contract, and the project is in line for 2003 Land and Water Conservation funds that are expected to cover the remaining purchases.

In addition to the Idarado purchase, TPL recently acquired 110 acres in Ouray County, and negotiations are under way with several more landowners–including Royal Gold and Excalibur Industries. “It’s kind of overwhelming that this partnership has been able to purchase so much land in so short an amount of time,” says Ann Hoffman, director of the Ouray County Historical Society. “Every time we complete something we look at each other and say, can you believe four years ago we had nothing? It’s really quite fantastic.”

Hal Clifford is the author of three books, including The Falling Season: Inside the Life and Death Drama of Aspen’s Mountain Rescue Team (The Mountaineers, 1999). He writes from Telluride, Colorado.