Windows in Time
Historic Preservation at the Idarado Mine
Part 7 in The Mine Next Door series
By Samantha Tisdel Wright
Master carpenter Loren Lew balanced on the steep, ramshackle roof of the old Lewis Mill, chainsaw in hand, on a summer morning in 2002. His mission: to stabilize this marmot high-rise at the head of Bridal Veil Basin, even as it was falling apart in slow motion all around him.
So little time, so many of these old mining relics worth preserving.
“Where do we start?” Lew wondered out loud. The time-varnished building popped and creaked its inscrutable response. There was no instruction manual for a project like this. No safety net to catch Lew if the beam he stood on collapsed from rot.
Beneath Lew, ancient dust danced in the latticed sunlight that sifted into the interior of the mill through broken windows and cracks in the walls.
Lew took a deep breath, surveying the mess of splayed timbers and rotten roof joists all around him. This was going to take major surgery. “Okay, I’m gonna cut a beam,” he said. “I’m gonna see what happens.”
The Idarado Mining Company inherited the Lewis Mill and dozens of other historic abandoned mine structures in the high country around Telluride when it bought out Telluride Mines in the 1950s.
In its heyday, the five-story timber-framed mill was part of a short-lived mining complex that sprang up in Bridal Veil Basin high above Telluride from 1910-1913, reviving an older mine that had been active there in the 1880s.
The key players in this scheme were none other than the notorious Smuggler-Union president and manager, Bulkeley Wells, and his brother-in-law, Thomas Livermore, Jr.
Historic records show the mill produced up to 12 tons of ore concentrates per day during the brief span of its operation, requiring anywhere from sixty-five to ninety mules to haul the sacks of concentrate from the mill down to the railroad at Pandora. The mill ran like clockwork, but the mining venture fizzled in 1913, and the property drifted aimlessly through the ensuing decades with just one brief revival, changing hands half-a-dozen or so times before Idarado eventually ended up with it.
Partnering on Preservation
The aging mill was in pretty poor shape by then, but Idarado had no interest in lavishing any resources on historic preservation at that time. The structure continued to slowly deteriorate until 1998, when Colorado Preservation Inc. deemed it to be at risk of “demolition by neglect” and placed it on the list of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places.
Spurred into action, the Colorado State Historical Fund, San Miguel County, the towns of Mountain Village and Telluride, and Idarado came together in 2001 and put some significant skin in the game ($367,000 in all) to preserve the picturesque ruin. Idarado conveyed ownership of the mill building to San Miguel County, and the county hired renowned restoration contractors Fritz Klinke and Loren Lew of Silverton, Colo. to do the job.
According to Lew, the Lewis Mill stabilization was one of the most extreme, logistically complex projects they ever undertook.
When they made their way up to the remote work site in the summer of 2002, nature was in the process of gnawing away at the old structure, one giant mouthful at a time. But the building had its ways of fighting back, as they discovered the first time they went inside.
“We go into the main room, and here is this keg sitting out in the middle of the floor and all these dead marmots – they had gotten into some lead concentrates and they all died,” Lew recalled.
Amidst the marmot carcasses were historic treasures – conveyor wheels and belts, crushers, boilers, jigs and classifiers, Wilfley concentrating tables and other pieces of equipment that marked a transition in milling technology between earlier stamp mills and later full chemical flotation.
One rotten beam and broken floor board at a time, Lew and his crew began gently shoring up the structure – tugging here, pulling there, putting the pieces back together again before it all collapsed like a pile of weathered, splintery pickup sticks.
“There was no logic behind it; it’s like an intuition,” Lew said. “You just pick a place, and start.”
A roofing crew from Summit Roofing came in on the tail end of the stabilization project and put a weather-tight lid on the mill, just as the first snows of autumn started to fly.
Other local contractors including Leopard Creek Timberframe, Inc. have continued to work on the structure in more recent years.
“There was a lot of death-defying stuff that got the building to where it is now,” said Linda Luther-Broderick, the retired San Miguel County Director of Parks & Open Space who administered the Lewis Mill preservation project once the property was transferred from Idarado to San Miguel County.
Thanks to these efforts, the Lewis Mill still stands upright in Bridal Veil Basin as a wistful, whimsical monument to Telluride’s mining heyday. Because of its significance as a distinctive example of engineering and high-country milling technology, it earned a place on the Colorado State Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.
The project turned out to be a learning lab in many ways – for the craftsmen and carpenters who did work; for the State Historical Fund that provided the lion’s share of the funding; for San Miguel County staffers who administered the project; and for the Idarado Mining Company and its parent Newmont Mining Corporation, which learned the value of partnering on preservation.
A modest sign greets visitors who make their way up to the Lewis Mill today:
“Idarado Mining Company ensured the preservation of the Lewis Mill by conveying ownership of the building to San Miguel County and contributing $50,000 to its stabilization. Please help us protect this historic building and our remarkable heritage by taking only photographs and leaving only footprints. Entry by unauthorized persons is prohibited.”
Idarado employee David Swanson (aka “Swanney”) says, “We’re authorized,” opens the door of the mill, and ushers our small group into a world that resembles a steampunk version of M.C. Escher’s lithograph “Relativity”.
Sunlight streams in through once-broken windows, and wooden stairs, beams and chutes zig-zag their way throughout the airy interior space in a complicated maze, connecting the various levels of the mill, while giant pieces of machinery that were made for movement have long since settled into sullen stillness.
Swanson describes how an aerial tram once dumped thunderous loads of unprocessed ore into the ore bin above our heads, and how that ore then got broken down into smaller and smaller pieces on a gravity-powered journey from uppermost to the lowermost level of the mill.
Finally, a four-foot cylinder filled with hard, polished pebbles in the basement level of the mill would render the ground-up ore into a soupy slurry. This flowed out along a wooden chute to an elevator that then brought it back up a level or two, where it was further processed on the classifier/flotation floor.
“Remember that game, Mouse Trap?” Swanson asks. “Kind of like that."
The whole place has a “Frankenstein’s laboratory” vibe – especially on its lowest levels where a white-painted wooden flotation machine once churned with agitators, and a de-sliming cone separated wet fines from coarse ores before dumping the stuff onto Wilfley tables.
Swanson picks up the tattered remnants of an ore sack that says “Lewis” on it, points to a roughly hand-hewn chair nearby. “That’s called a ‘Miner’s La-Z-Boy,’” he quips, conjuring the image of a tired worker flopping down to take a breather while the Wilfley tables jittered away, mechanically separating heavy mineral particles from lighter gangue, and sending the heavy particles off the end of the table as concentrates of gold, silver and base metals.
Finally, we find our way to the very bottom of the mill, where ancient lightbulbs dangle above our heads and stray mill pebbles lurk in the mud at our feet. We behold an old coal-fired boiler that once kept this place humming when it wasn’t powered by electricity from the Bridal Veil Power House three miles downstream.
“A monster,” Swanson says, grinning at the behemoth of a boiler. “And that’s where they used to keep the donkeys,” he adds, nodding to a shed-like area nearby.
You can almost hear them braying.
Idarado hasn’t always been a poster child for historic preservation, as Telluride mining historian Rudy Davison recounts while gazing out over what’s left of the historic mining camp surrounding the Tomboy Mine that Harriet Fish Backus described so compellingly in her book, Tomboy Bride.
At its peak, the camp in Savage Basin – a glacial cirque just downhill from the crest of Imogene Pass – had a population of 900 rugged and adventurous souls, and boasted a bowling alley, tennis courts, a school and the loftiest YMCA in the world. Now, it looks as if the hand of God came down and smashed it all to bits, leaving only piles upon piles of debris behind.
In that debris is a story.
“When Idarado first acquired this property in 1952 or 1953, a lot more of these structures were still standing,” Davison recalls. Then, in 1964, local tourism boosters completed a Jeep road over the top of Imogene Pass, connecting Telluride to Ouray. Enthusiastic Jeepers soon swarmed the area. Inevitably, they’d stop to poke around the old Tomboy mining ruins and ghost town – which were on private property owned by the Idarado Mine.
“It was what attorneys called an attractive nuisance,” Davison explains. “And if somebody got hurt, they could sue the Idarado Mining Company.” To protect itself, Idarado bulldozed many of the remaining buildings. Over time, Mother Nature lent a helping hand to finish off the job.
Just over the ridge line in Marshall Basin, however, it’s a different story. “Thankfully, over there, they left things alone,” Davison says.
Marshall Basin was a beehive of activity back when Idarado’s Remedial Action Plan was under way. But few people find their way up there now. Unlike the high-country highway cutting through Savage Basin, Idarado keeps the road into Marshall Basin gated and locked, with no public access except by foot.
Davison likes it that way.
For him, Marshall Basin is a sacred site – a temple to Telluride’s mining past – that is best left untouched. This is the place where it all started, full of its own stations of the cross: the upper terminal of the Tomboy aerial tram; the Pioneer Leasing Company stamp mill; a lonesome ore bin from the Little Mary Mine; an ore chute sitting to one side of the Sheridan Mine dump; the last upright remains of the Sheridan Boarding House, where part of an end wall with a window and the line of the pitched roof are still visible; a rusty old motor that once pulled ore cars through the Mendota Mine.
Left to its own devices, Marshall Basin will eventually return to nature like so many other abandoned mining sites in the high San Juans, as other chapters of Idarado’s far-flung preservation story continue to unfold on both sides of the mountains.
The Elephant in the Room
Colorado Ski Hall of Famer and former Telluride Ski Resort Chief Operating Officer Johnnie Stevens has a particular soft spot in his heart for the hulking gray leviathan at the end of the Telluride valley known as the Pandora Mill.
The mill was built by the Smuggler-Union Mining Company in 1920 and updated by Idarado in the ‘50s. That’s when Stevens’ father became mill superintendent. Stevens and his brother Larry grew up in Pandora, and used to walk right through the mill on their way to and from school.
“The mill was like the front room of our house,” Stevens said. “We were literally raised in it.”
The steel-clad structure made an outsized impression on the boys. It towered 100 feet, and was well lit back in those days, with plenty of natural light from all of the windows. There was a lot of machinery inside – 69 float cells, two ball mills, a rod mill, and a rake classifier that looked like a giant grasshopper.
The mill workers and miners (whose dry room/ changing area was in the rafters of the mill) were like their cantankerous uncles – throwing snowballs at the boys when the school bus dropped them off at the mill after school, listening and clapping when Stevens’ mom sent him outside to practice his accordion.
Telluride old-timer Jack Pera may have been among them. He worked in the warehouse portion of the mill for a few years, and remembers the chemical stench of the reagents that were used in the milling process.
"Xanthates were the worst of the lot by far,” he said. “When I got home from work my wife would immediately say ‘Change your clothes – they stink!’”
The mill was noisy, too. “One could have a conversation easy enough, but there was a constant roar,” Pera said. “And anytime the mill wasn't operating, the silence in the building was deafening.”
The sturdy steel structure was built to last, even surviving the white fury of the Ajax snow slide on more than one occasion.
Jerry Albin was working inside the mill when the Ajax ran in 1968. “All of a sudden the mill started shaking, and there was broken glass and flying dust everywhere,” he said.
The avalanche was so powerful, “It lifted the whole roof off like a sardine can lid, and the muck train was draped over the crushing plant,” Albin said.
The sound of silence has hung heavy around the Pandora Mill now for 40 years, ever since the Idarado Mine shut down in 1978. The mill is largely gutted, its windows boarded over. Much of the machinery was sold at auction in 1986, and a hazmat team came in several years ago to strip the mill of its asbestos insulation. In the winter, snow now piles up thickly on top of the steep, cold, uninsulated roof, creating its own dangerous mini-avalanches in the Pandora yard.
The century-old structure that seemed like it would last forever now faces an uncertain fate.
Idarado is obligated to demolish the building under the current terms of its State reclamation permit. But mine representatives have been working with various public and private local stakeholders to try to figure out a way to keep the building standing – at least as a historical landmark with interpretative signage.
The scope of this potential preservation project has turned out to be as enormous and complex as the 57,000 square-foot mill building itself – riddled with unanswered questions about what the structure’s end use should be if it is preserved, and who should pay for its preservation. The fact that the mill sits in the middle of an active mine remediation site makes things even more challenging.
“No pun intended, but it is opening Pandora’s Box,” said Janet Kask, director of San Miguel County Parks and Open Space. “There is a lot involved – future potential plans for the Pandora Mill will dictate the level of clean-up and the associated costs. It is not as clearcut as you would think.”
Larry Fiske, Newmont’s directory of legacy sites, has been working on the issue pretty hard since 2013. “So far it’s been a lot of dead ends,” he said. “We have an obligation to the State under the reclamation permit and we need to do something soon, but preservation and long-term care of a facility this size is not something Idarado can do on its own. It’s going to take community commitment as well.”
The Pandora Mill has such an imposing physical and energetic presence, it’s hard for Idarado – and most locals – to contemplate its potential demise.
“So much history of the valley is embodied by that structure,” said Luther-Broderick. “To lose it would be a great loss.”
Little Houses in the Big Woods
On the Red Mountain side of the mine, Idarado faces a whole other world of preservation challenges.
Here, an enormous old arched steel warehouse dating back to the early 1950s collapsed under snow load in 2010 when Red Mountain Pass shut down for a few days during a snowstorm and no one could get up there to shovel off the roof. An equally enormous shop building still standing there is scheduled to be demolished in 2019. It’s just too expensive to keep it heated through the San Juan winters, and Idarado’s skeleton maintenance crew doesn’t need that much space.
But Idarado is doing what it can to preserve other historic structures on the site, including the soulful, sturdy old wooden trestle along Highway 550 overlooking the Red Mountain Mining District across the valley to the east.
And across the highway to the west, near an interpretive turn-out and rest area Idarado helped construct, four shabby sentinels of the past still cling tenaciously to the present.
These are all that’s left of the 10 company houses that Idarado moved from the abandoned mining camp of Eureka in San Juan County to the Treasury Tunnel site in the late 1940s to serve as employee housing.
An ever-shifting parade of Idarado mining personnel resided in those houses from 1948-1978.
Bob Fhuere got to live in one of them for a few years as a young man in the early 1950s, when he took a job at the Treasury warehouse for $350/month – quite a step up from his former job as a grocery clerk at Duckett’s Market in Ouray. “Nothing fancy, but I cleaned it up, and it was really nice,” he said. “I could look out the bedroom window to the highway and the tailings pond.”
Fhuere didn’t have a car. “Sometimes I’d run to town – it was just 12 miles – and the mailman would give me a ride back up,” he said.
As tough as it could be to get through the winters at 10,600 feet, there was a rare magic to living up at the Idarado camp.
“In the winter, they would put powder boxes on the back of these long sleds and put us in and we would go sledding all the way from Idarado to Ironton,” said Mary Unger Fulton, who lived up at the camp from 1950-1956, until she finished sixth grade. Her father, Richard Wilson Unger, was a metallurgist at the mill.
“The road was perfect, with all these switchbacks,” she said. “On moonlit nights people would get together, build a bonfire and a whole bunch of us would sled down and roast marshmallows, then they pulled us back up behind the cars.”
The last time any stabilization work was done on these Idarado houses was 17 years ago. That effort, headed by the Ouray County Historical Society, eventually stalled and the houses have deteriorated quite a bit since then. Their peeling white-painted siding and broken-out windows with aqua trim speak of too many winters and too little care.
Now, a fresh effort is afoot to preserve them. The Trust for Land Restoration (TLR) has been leading this charge, and is collaborating with Idarado/Newmont and a number of other stakeholders to find a way to clean up the asbestos and lead paint inside the houses and stabilize them before it’s too late.
There are a lot of moving pieces to this particular preservation puzzle, but recent breakthroughs give TLR Executive Director Pat Willits hope that stabilization could take place in the near future.
Ultimately, he hopes to see the houses cleaned up and stripped to bare wood inside. The doors won’t have locks on them, so people can wander through and discover for themselves the stories these houses have to tell.
And the windows? They’ll have plexiglass where the broken glass used to be, offering views of the wild, mineral-rich ridges and mountains that Idarado used to mine. Windows in time, framing the next chapter in Idarado’s rich and complex history – in which much of that landscape returned to the public.
A Legacy of Land
…And Other Perks of Having a Mining Giant In Your Back Yard