by Samantha Tisdel Wright

Getting to know the Idarado Mine is a little bit like that poem about the blind men and the elephant. Depending on which part of the elephant each man encounters, he declares it to be a wall, a tree trunk, a spear, a fan, a snake – never grasping the whole animal for its bewildering array of parts.

Likewise, it’s hard to imagine that the scattered remnants of the Idarado Mine could possibly all belong to the same being:

The wooden trestle that stretches out like a watchful dinosaur skeleton along a hairpin curve on Highway 550 halfway up Red Mountain Pass. The ponderous boarded-up mill and infiltration lagoons just east of Telluride below Bridal Veil Falls. The hydroelectric plant that teeters at cliff’s edge beside the falls. The network of concrete diversion channels further up in Savage Basin and Marshal Basin that funnel snowmelt away from  waste rock piles and the thirsty gaping mouths of old mine workings. The piles of tailings above Ironton Park and on Telluride’s valley floor.

Even harder to imagine are the hundred-plus miles of invisible innards that honeycomb the mountains between Telluride and Ouray, connecting some of the richest, most fabled mines in the region.

When Newmont Mining Corporation came along in 1939, it began consolidating these old workings into the Idarado Mining Company – the largest mine operation ever to exist in the San Juan Mountains. Millions of dollars’ worth of precious and base metals were recovered from the mine over the next four decades until plummeting metal prices and rising production costs conspired to shut it down for good in 1978.

Here’s where the story takes a twist.

For the past quarter century (after a decade or so of legal wrangling with the State of Colorado) Newmont has undertaken a mammoth reclamation project at the Idarado Mine, greening and stabilizing its tailings piles and cleaning up the metal-laden water that flows out of its portals.

Today, a skeleton crew of five long-timers and two summer contract employees (who hope to one day achieve long-timer status) take care of day-to-day maintenance and reclamation tasks at the aging decommissioned mine.

Together they must find safe ways to manage risks of avalanches and blizzards, rock falls and wind storms, stale air and unstable ground, tourist traffic and brave the occasional dirty looks from local passersby to ensure Newmont continues to meet its environmental responsibilities and commitment to getting things done safely in this wild, mountainous corner of the planet.

Just like people as they grow old, the Idarado Mine needs long-term care – although new technologies may come along that reduce or transform what that looks like.

Over the next few months in a 10-part series, we will be mining the Idarado for its stories, by exploring the imprint it has made on the landscape; bringing to life the legacy that has shaped the nearby communities; celebrating its remediation milestones; and unearthing the challenges, changes, and opportunities that still lie ahead.

These stories will uncover the humanity in the people who work at the Idarado, and spotlight the complex forces that have combined to create the giant mine next door that is – and will always be – our neighbor.

Going Under

The only way to really get to know a hardrock mine like the Idarado is to go inside of it. And that’s what Mark Parker and I are about to do on a mild winter morning in early February.

Parker, a quiet, serious man in his late 50s, has been on the Idarado’s reclamation team for 25 years, working his way up from hay bale bucker to heavy equipment operator to Pandora site manager and worrier-in-chief.

He has been kind enough to let me borrow some gear for this occasion: a yellow reflective vest, a brand new hardhat and clear plastic safety glasses, knee-high waterproof muck boots, and a utility belt cinched around my waist with a heavy cylindrical self-rescue device attached to it that can convert carbon monoxide into breathable air.

He shows me how to strap the device to my face if we get into bad air underground, and talks me through a safety briefing and an Activity Hazard Analysis. Then we climb into his pickup truck for the short drive from the office up to the Mill Level Tunnel, one of the two main entrances into the Idarado Mine.   

The portal is tucked discretely into a forested hillside just above the Pandora Mill near Marshall Creek. Parker takes a couple brass tags off the tag-in board mounted to the portal’s concrete collar, and hands one of them to me to stick in my pocket. We’ll replace them when we come back out – a simple way to keep track of how many people are inside the mine at any given time.

Then he pulls back a green plastic tarp, checks in with the toplander to ensure someone knows we are under the mountain, and we enter the dark, wet underground world of the Idarado.

At 8 feet high by 10 feet wide, the tunnel is plenty wide enough for us to walk side by side along the old rail bed, even accounting for the drainage ditch that runs like a gutter along one side. Back when the mine was active, groundwater seeping into the tunnel from the workings up above would have been channeled into this ditch and out the portal, keeping the center reasonably dry. But now the whole floor of the tunnel (or sill, as miners call it) ripples with an ankle-deep sheet of icy water.

The daylight filtering in from the portal gradually fades as we wade into the darkness. My hardhat keeps tipping forward from the weight of the headlamp clipped to its crown, and I can’t quite figure out how to turn it on, so Parker reaches over and does it for me. Its yellow beam slices into the tunnel’s inky void.

From its portal at an elevation of 9,062 feet, the Mill Level Tunnel drives two-and-a-half miles into the base of Ajax Peak, intersecting with most of the mine’s important veins beneath all of the other workings.

Thousands of feet beyond that, via a maze of tunnels on 29 levels connected vertically by dormant skips or hoists, the mine opens up on its eastern side at the Treasury Tunnel on Red Mountain Pass. If we were to follow that route, we’d traverse merely a fraction of the Idarado’s entire network of underground workings.

It’s a slow, strangely disorienting journey traveling back into the mine – almost like we are walking in place through a rift in the space-time continuum – the dark, damp dimensions of the tunnel never changing.

Then pow!  A large manmade chasm suddenly opens to the left, with a silvery cascade of water gushing down from old workings above us.

Parker points his headlamp up into the chasm. “This is a really low flow right now,” he says. “In the spring, it’s actually kinda scary. It makes weird noises. There’s a column of water, and then it’s like it takes a big breath. And then another column of water, and a big breath. It’s like it’s breathing.”

“Like being inside of a body,” I say.

“Yeah,” Parker agrees without missing a beat. “Mother Earth.”

We continue on, and are swallowed up once again into the seemingly endless tube of raw wet rock. Another cavern opens to the left. Parker points to stacks of old barrels in its shadowy recesses, explains that they are filled with drinking water, ancient cans of food and other emergency supplies. This, it turns out, is a long-forgotten nuclear fallout shelter for the Town of Telluride – a remnant of Cold War disaster planning, still creepily relevant today.

A little further up, a tunnel breaks away into the darkness to the right, with yellow webs of “CAUTION” tape draped across its opening.

“It’s a dead end,” Parker explains. “You don’t want to go back in there. The air’s no good. You can walk back there 10 feet, and it’s a totally different atmosphere. It’s dead. When that happens, it’s not a good place to be.”

Parker learned about bad air the hard way after getting caught a couple times in blasting smoke as a young man mining in uranium country. The first time it happened, he survived by tearing a hole in a vent bag and sticking his head inside.

Mine remediation is a tamer gig than that, though just as challenging in its own way. “I call it reverse mining,” Parker says. “You mess it up, and now you gotta fix it.”

We’ve been walking along for over an hour and are a mile and a half inside the mine when all of a sudden, there’s light up ahead. We move toward it like moths toward flame, the void around us echoing now with the sound of men’s voices and metal clinking on metal.

The tunnel opens up to twice its former width as another passageway branches off to the left toward the Montana vein – bringing with it a fresh air breeze from some mysterious place even deeper inside the mine.

We arrive at a work area where we meet four contract miners wearing diggers and hardhats. They have been hired by Newmont to do some tunnel rehab work to protect the mine’s access to its innermost artery, the Treasury Tunnel raise, and prepare for a future project scheduled for next year.

“The old timbering here was all dry rotted, and when it fell off, that let the rock loose,” Parker explains as we look around.

Now, the caved-in area has been mucked out, and it feels super-solid with newly installed steel sets ready to catch the dead-weight of any rock that may continue to collapse.

The work crew has just wrapped up for the morning, and they’re about to head outside for lunch in their battery-powered trammer. They offer us a ride, so we climb aboard and slowly roll back down the tunnel, a tiny speck of daylight appearing in the distance, growing larger and brighter as we approach the portal.

Suddenly we are there. All that infinite darkness is behind us. We grind to a halt, the motor quiets down, and we stroll out into the impossibly bright winter day. The sunlight stabs my eyeballs and I suck in lungfuls of fresh air, feeling my chest expand with relief to be back outside.

Pandora’s Box

Just below us sits the Pandora Mill. Constructed in the 1920s by the Smuggler-Union Mining Company, this was the heart of Idarado Mining Company’s milling operation from 1953 to 1978. The hulking structure still dominates the eastern terminus of Telluride’s valley floor like a shipwreck marooned in time, surrounded by piles of cribbing and old metal pipes.

The mill building is gutted now, its equipment sold at auction for pennies on the dollar in the early ‘80s. “It’s pretty much now just a big old shell,” says Parker, squinting down at the mill’s boarded-up dormer windows and steep-angled acres of rusty roof. “It’s just there. It’s the king of the valley.”

Hunkering in the mill’s shadow, a shop building shelters a motley assemblage of heavy equipment and an aging unplugged Pepsi machine that still says 35 cents. The two-story mine office also sits nearby, clad in the same rusty metal armor as the mill. It’s a fairly sleepy place these days, but still retains a faint whiff of the time when it was a nerve center of a multi-million-dollar mining operation.

Much of what goes on at the Pandora site today has to do with controlling and cleaning up the water that flows out of the Mill Level Tunnel, through an infiltration ditch and interactive system of infiltration lagoons.

And it seems to be working. The Idarado’s water sampling regimen shows that it has met the State of Colorado’s zinc concentration compliance objective in the San Miguel River for 12 of the past 13 years. (Cleaning up the water on the other side of the mine in Red Mountain Creek has been more problematic; but that’s a future story.)

“We’re pretty happy – when you consider a mine site the size of this one,” Parker says, as we stroll over to take a closer look at the infiltration lagoons. “Everything is staying where it should. I’ve looked at a lot of reclamation sites all over, and I think we have one of the best.”

But a lot of Telluridians aren’t so sure. Parker and his colleagues see evidence of this uncertainty all the time, lurking beneath jokes on Facebook about the mine’s “unsettling ponds”, or within worried looks from passers-by who think the mine is dumping chemicals in the water.

“A lot of locals do think that we are the big bad mining company,” Parker acknowledges. “I would hope they would realize that we are helping. We are trying to make things good.”

Tunnel Vision

It’s springtime now, and a frigid San Juan-er has blown in overnight, turning Red Mountain Pass into a sheet of ice. But inside the Treasury Tunnel, the weather is the same as always: cold with a (very good) chance of dark.

Eric Schoenebaum’s reflective company-issued jacket glows in the beam of my headlamp as I walk gingerly behind him, entering the Idarado’s innards now from its eastern side at an elevation of 10,600 feet. Schoenebaum, the Red Mountain site manager for the Idarado Mine, saunters along with an ease that reflects the countless times he’s journeyed into the Treasury Tunnel over the past 25 years. But it’s my first time.

The tunnel has held up surprisingly well in the 70-odd years since its completion – especially considering that US 550 now runs right over the top of the portal. It’s older and colder, higher and dryer, and much narrower than the Mill Level Tunnel.

From time to time the small amount of water that the Treasury Tunnel generates is pumped through a pipeline all the way through the mine and out the Meldrum Tunnel portal near the Bridal Veil Power House above Telluride. From there, it flows into a jumbled field of boulders and soaks into the porous ground.

One of Schoenebaum’s daily tasks is to check on that pump and make sure it’s still running. But on this day, we’re heading a little further back to look at another rehab project that has recently gotten underway.

Some of the contract miners on this Treasury Tunnel job are the same ones I encountered in the Mill Level Tunnel a month or so before. They are all professionals, committed to getting their job done as safely as possible. But still, the work they are doing is challenging – mucking out collapsed portions of the tunnel, cutting heavy lengths of steel and lifting them into place.

Schoenebaum and I inspect their progress – the new steel sets fit perfectly together like very heavy puzzle pieces to hold back any rock that still may want to crumble – and chat with the work crew for a few minutes before making the short walk back out to the portal.

As I trudge along in the darkness behind Schoenebaum (the Treasury Tunnel’s not wide enough to walk side by side) I’m thinking about what Newmont’s emergency response coordinator Dorsey Manson said at a safety meeting earlier in the morning before we went underground.

A human being is the softest thing inside a mine. If it comes to a contest between a miner and a piece of steel or machinery or rock, the miner is not going to win.

That’s why a fully loaded mine rescue trailer is parked just outside the tunnel, equipped with rebreather units that trained mine rescuers can wear for up to three hours in a smoke-filled tunnel; and an empty stretcher has been staged in the shop building nearby – just in case – with custom-designed wheels that can maneuver through the narrow contours of these old mine tunnels.

Ghost Mine

Back outside, a spiteful spring wind spits tiny snowflakes in our faces. But we take a few minutes anyway to poke around the yard.

There’s actually not much left to look at besides the stunning scenery – Trico Peak rising up above the Treasury Tunnel to the west, the Red Mountains rolling across the horizon to the east. The mill, warehouse, company general offices, boarding house and other structures that used to be here at the Treasury Tunnel site have long since burned down or collapsed under snow, and been hauled off as part of the cleanup effort.

All that’s left standing now is an old metal shop dating back to the 1930s, the iconic wooden trestle that leads away from the portal toward an old waste rock dump, a reclaimed tailings pile, the concrete stumps of the mill’s foundation, and a handful of century-old company houses across the highway.

Pretty soon, the shop, whose old foundations are slowly slipping away down the hill after more than 80 years of faithful service, will be gone too. It is slated to be scraped and replaced with a modern, much smaller building in 2020 that will be more energy efficient, with indoor plumbing.

In the meantime, a small heated corner of the cavernous structure serves as Schoenebaum’s office. His most frequent visitor (besides Idarado’s water compliance and safety officer, Joe Smart, who comes up once a week to sample the water in Red Mountain Creek) is a wily pine martin that breaks into the shop most nights and gets into everything, leaving behind a trail of chaos and muddy paw prints.

“It’s like having a pet monkey,” Schoenebaum sighs.

It’s hard to fathom how busy and industrious this place once was, with its legions of miners arriving by the busload every morning and heading underground, and its warehouse workers and mechanics and carpenters and shift bosses and accountants and managers and everyone else that it took to run this mine.

All that’s left now is the business of cleaning it up.

But deep inside the earth, the Idarado still thrums to its own pulse. The water still flows, and the wind still blows, from the Treasury Tunnel all the way through to Pandora.

Meet your mine.