Miles of Tunnels

by Samantha Tisdel Wright

A Brief History of the Idarado Mine

The history of the Idarado Mine is as long the tunnels and as rich as the ore veins that riddle its guts. Its stories are stoked by volcanic tantrums, and sculpted by the winds of history that blew Americans across the West.

How far back do you want to go – World War II? Manifest Destiny of the 1800s? Dominguez and Escalante in 1776? The Tertiary period 35 million years ago, with its great belching supervolcanoes and collapsed calderas that spawned the fabled ore bodies of the San Juan Mountains?

All had a role to play in the rise of the largest mining operation that ever existed in the San Juans.

The Big Bonanza

As far as Rudy Davison is concerned, the Idarado Mining Company’s origins near Telluride start in Marshall Basin, where two lucky prospectors named Fallon and Wightman struck San Miguel County’s first bonanza back in 1875.

Davison is the erstwhile publisher of the Telluride Times and author of the guidebook, Rudy’s View, which contains a comprehensive history of the Idarado Mine.

“It all started there,” he says, pointing to a huge landscape painting that hangs above his living room couch in his spacious, southwestern-style home near Durango. The painting clearly depicts an oxidized yellow-orange rocky outcrop stitching its way through the pale green tundra of Marshall Basin.

Davison imagines Fallon and Wightman hiking from Silverton to Ouray, up and over the ragged spine of Virginius Pass and down into the basin.  

“And they were like, ‘That’s it!’” he reckons. “That” being the infamous Smuggler vein that soon became synonymous with the word “bonanza” and triggered a gold rush to the high country above present-day Telluride.

Manifest Destiny was in full swing. The newly penned Mining Act of 1872 had just spelled out the rules for prospecting and mining on federal public lands. The Brunot Agreement of 1873 had then conveniently pried open the San Juan Mountains for mining by removing 3.7 million acres from the Ute Reservation in western Colorado.

The mountains that Fallon and Wightman surveyed on that fateful day would soon be filled with fabulously wealthy mines like the Tomboy and Smuggler-Union that eventually became part of the Idarado – with gold ore so rich in some places that the Italian miners would call it “polenta”, and plentiful base metals down below.

The Sneffels Sag

In 1896, as Thomas Walsh was discovering the storied Camp Bird Mine in the Sneffels Mining District above Ouray and the mines around Telluride were booming, a mine developer named William J. Hammond, Jr. of Pittsburg, Pa. headed up into the Red Mountain area to start a mining venture of his own: the Treasury Tunnel Mining and Reduction Company.

A previous mining boom-gone-bust in the Red Mountain Mining District had plundered rich vertical silver chimneys inside the acidic ring faults of the Silverton Caldera, leaving an oozing mess of abandoned mines in its wake.

On a hunch, Hammond now probed the high gray mountains that rose up just beyond the caldera to the west. He hoped to intercept a rich belt of parallel veins in a formation called the “Sneffels Sag” that nearby mines like the Revenue-Virginius, the Tomboy, the Liberty Bell and the Smuggler-Union chased from different directions.

Hammond never struck it rich, but he did drive his Treasury Tunnel some 2,000 feet into the mountainside, and found enough ore to turn a small profit before returning to Pittsburgh 10 years later.

The project sat mostly dormant for years, as glittering ore veins and crystal caves remained buried in the dark gray country rock beyond the tunnel’s reach. It would take an industrial scale mining enterprise with deep pockets, a broad vision and a long game plan to finally unlock this hidden treasure trove.

War and Peace

In 1939, as the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia and swept across Europe to occupy France, Newmont Mining Corporation trekked into the San Juan Mountains, looking for potential sources of base metals with an eye toward supporting the Allied war effort in Europe.

An eccentric and brilliant exploration-geologist-turned-Newmont-executive named Fred Searls Jr. led the charge. He showed up at the Treasury Tunnel in his old cloth cap, yellow mining boots and signature red “jazzbow” necktie, with a plan to extend the Treasury Tunnel thousands of feet deeper into the mountain to service a block of historic mining properties up above.

His first target was the Black Bear Mine, an old gold and silver producer straddling the divide between Ouray and San Miguel counties that had large reserves of zinc as it descended from Ingram Basin down through the mountain.

Searls began buying up or leasing key claims throughout the district and convinced Sunshine Mining Company of Wallace, Idaho to go halfsies with Newmont in a joint venture to develop the project. With a nod to the shared Idaho and Colorado ownership interests of the venture, they called it the Idarado Mining Company. The project was off and running, but was soon sidelined when the first ore body they encountered inside the tunnel assayed poorly.

Everything changed in 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, catapulting the United States into the global conflict. The nation suddenly, urgently needed zinc, lead and copper to make warships, warplanes and bullets.

The U.S. Government’s Gold Closing Order of 1942 forced all gold mines across the country to shut down, shifting the mining labor force toward producing war-related metals. Meanwhile, the War Production Board had created an agency called the Domestic Metals Procurement Program (later known as the Metals Reserve Company) to help finance the production of these strategic metals.

The Idarado’s Treasury Tunnel project was a prime target for this program.

The Metals Reserve Company leased the Idarado’s group of mines in June 1943, and the U.S. government footed the bill to drive the Treasury Tunnel 7,000 feet deeper into the mountain. The legendary Colorado tunnel driver “Long John” Austin and his crew were hired for the job, and hit the Black Bear vein in no time flat. It was as rich in ore as Searls had hoped for.

But a lot of development work still remained before the Idarado Mine could begin producing – from driving the 600-foot Treasury Raise or “T-Raise” to intersect and drain the old Black Bear workings, to driving drifts along the vein, to building ore chutes to fill the haulage trains and blocking out stopes for eventual ore extraction.

By the time all this was done, the dust of D-Day was settling in Normandy, and an Allied victory shone on the horizon. No Idarado ores went to World War II, but the Korean War soon came along, and Idarado production was in full swing by then.

In June 1944, Newmont and Sunshine bought back their lease from the Metals Reserve Company, reimbursed the government for the money it had spent on the tunnel extension, and began to develop the property in earnest.

‘Telluride Saved!’

The first matter at hand was to build a new 250 ton-per-day mill at the Treasury Tunnel. By January 1945 the mill was in business, producing lead, copper and zinc concentrates by the truckful.

A long slurry-bridge channeled mill tailings across Red Mountain Creek and down to Ironton Park (the bridge span across Corkscrew Gulch was one of the longest suspension bridges ever built in Colorado) while specialized “con trucks” hauled the concentrates down Red Mountain Pass, through Ouray, and on to the Rio Grande Railroad load-out in Montrose day and night. The din of their jake brakes on the steep descent into Ouray became such a familiar lullaby that the townspeople couldn’t sleep at night if the trucks stopped running.

Before long, the Idarado was raking in a modest profit. Newmont bought out Sunshine and became majority owner of the Treasury Tunnel project.

Meanwhile, Telluride Mines Inc. (formerly Veta Mines) had been steadily expanding and consolidating its own holdings over on the Telluride side of the mountains, and had recently driven the Mill Level Tunnel to get underneath some of its older workings. But when the market prices of lead and zinc sank in 1952, it was more than the mining company could bear.

On April 27, 1953, Telluride Mines Inc. announced it would shut down. Its 230 workers – representing 90 percent of Telluride’s male work force – would be out of a job.  “It’s like the death of a loved one,” the editor/publisher of the Telluride Tribune wrote.

But just two weeks later, the paper ran a jubilant banner headline: “TELLURIDE SAVED!” The Idarado Mining Company had come to the rescue in the eleventh hour, and was buying Telluride Mines Inc. for $1 million cash, consolidating the claim ownership of the two companies, and ultimately putting Telluride’s miners back to work.

The merger of the two companies made Idarado the largest mining operation that ever existed in the San Juan Mountains. It now owned all of the famous old mine properties that Telluride Mines had acquired – the Smuggler-Union, Liberty Bell, Tomboy, Montana, Argentine and others – along with the Pandora Mill, the Bridal Veil Hydroelectric Plant and many more assorted remnants of Telluride’s early boomtown days.

‘Best Underground Mine in the US’

Over the next five years, Idarado mine manager Johnnie Wise and his second-in-command Bob Hilander (who went on to become mine manager in the 1960s) spearheaded a program to integrate the meandering maze of workings in the mountains between Telluride and Red Mountain Pass, with the goal of making all of the old mines into one.

Logistically and geographically speaking, Telluride was a better spot for a mill than Red Mountain. So in 1956, the Treasury Mill shut down and the Pandora Mill (aka the old Gray Mill) in Telluride was refurbished and expanded. Meanwhile, the mine workings were reconfigured so that all of the ore could be transported across upper levels of the mine and dropped through a series of ore passes to the Mill Level Tunnel on the Telluride side, with a straight shot to the Pandora Mill.

The new system worked brilliantly.

By 1959, the Idarado Mine was working double shifts and churning out 400,000 tons of ore annually. The Pandora Mill operated around the clock, transforming that ore into rich concentrates and rich profits.

The Idarado was a good place to work, and morale ran high. The American Mining Congress named it the “best underground mine in the United States”, with kudos to the mine’s exceptional management team.

“Dad knew there was so much potential in that mountain,” reflected Johnnie Wise’s daughter Linda. “To consolidate all of those mining claims that were between Red Mountain and Telluride, to build a new mill on Telluride side and take the ore all the way through that mine – I think that was just really visionary. The ore prices were so challenging. It was a horrible risk. Yet through innovative mining and milling techniques, they made it happen. It was ultimately really profitable.”

Quite a Commute

The Idarado’s two main access portals, the Treasury Tunnel at Red Mountain and the Mill Level Tunnel at Pandora, were five-and-a-half miles apart on opposite sides of the range with a 1,600-foot difference in elevation.

But the newly-built physical connections inside the mine now meant that a miner could catch the mine bus at the corner of Main Street and Second Avenue in Ouray, ride up to Red Mountain, commute through the Treasury Tunnel and down a series of raises, then spend his shift working alongside miners from the Telluride side who had entered the mine through the Mill Level Tunnel.  

Dick Swerdfeger, chief engineer at the mine in the 1960s, brought in a fleet of four-wheeled mine bicycles to help people get around faster inside the rambling mine. If he timed it just right with the hoists, he could ride his bicycle in through the Mill Level Tunnel and come out the Treasury portal 40 minutes later.

“I would go to the dry room, change clothes, spend the day in the office, then ride back over to Telluride,” he said.

Miners weren’t the only ones to travel through the mine. One time, when an avalanche shut down Red Mountain Pass, a whole bus-full of stranded passengers were ferried underground all the way to Telluride.

The Beginning of the End

Around the time of the famous hippie invasion of Telluride in the early 1970s and the birth of the Telluride ski area, stagnant base metals prices, rising costs, a severe labor shortage and a strike at the smelters conspired to spell financial trouble for the Idarado. For the first time, the company was unable to pay dividends to its shareholders in 1971.

The mine briefly rebounded, however, due in part to the development of a fat ore body in the basement rock of the Telluride conglomerate called “replacement ore” that could be mined more cheaply and easily than the narrow ore veins in the volcanic rock up above.

“From ’72 to ’74 there was a lot of activity,” said Rick River of Ouray, who worked in the Treasury Tunnel warehouse at that time. “We were opening up a bunch of new mining areas, hiring everybody we could hire. We were in a big expansion phase. We used to have two 40,000 pound truckloads of dynamite a week that came in from Salt Lake City.”

By the end of 1974, Idarado was the second biggest mine in Colorado (after Climax Molybdenum near Leadville). That year, it reported a record income of $21,200,000 in gross sales, $2,700,000 in net income and a healthy dividend of $1.38 per share. The mine had almost 500 employees and was milling a whopping 1,800 tons of ore per day, with 21 miles of active tunnels underground and three major raises between Red Mountain and Telluride.

The Idarado was by far the biggest employer in the region, making a huge contribution to the local tax base. It also provided community health care through clinics in Ouray and Telluride – and affordable housing – for its employees and their families.

Ironically, the Idarado’s best year was also its last to operate at a profit. In 1975, the smelters in Leadville, Colorado and Corpus Cristi, Texas that processed the Idarado’s concentrates both shut down. The mine had to start sending its concentrates much farther away, and shipping and treatment costs suddenly soared from $1.8 million to $11 million per year.

“No matter how efficient we got as far as tons per man shift, we couldn’t overcome that cost,” River said. “We just couldn’t do it.”

The mine was struggling for other reasons too. “It was economics – the price of metals, plus we were out at the last remnants of all the major ore bodies,” said Swerdfeger. “Productivity dropped. We were not mining the heart of ore bodies, and they were a farther distance from the mill.”

The Idarado began hemorrhaging money and laying off employees. It shut down for good on Sept. 30, 1978. Dozens of families in the region lost their means of livelihood. “A drive through the residential districts shows ‘for sale’ signs sprouting up like claim stakes did a century ago,” wrote the Silverton Standard.

Newmont placed its Idarado property on an indefinite care and maintenance status, hoping that base metal prices might recover enough to allow the mine to reopen. It never happened. Instead, Newmont auctioned off its mining and milling equipment and prepared for reclamation, ending a century of mining, and a way of life, in Ouray and Telluride.

A New Beginning

A sign once hung above the trestle at the entrance to the Treasury mine yard at Red Mountain. It read: “The metals mined by the men working here help to keep America strong.” For those men and their families, the memories of their time at the Idarado are still as thick as rock dust, as pungent as blasting smoke.

“Sometimes I lie in bed and think about mining – driving a shaft, doing stoping or raising,” said Bill “Senior” Mahoney, a Telluride old-timer of renown who worked at the Idarado for a quarter-century. “We drove miles of tunnel in those mountains – Jesus.”

Other times, as Mahoney stares out the window of his new home in Montrose trying to catch a glimpse of the distant Sneffels range, he dreams of carving turns in deep white snow. That’s where the future of Telluride would lie. And Mahoney would lead the way.


Next week:  “Snow is the New Gold”