San Juan Mountains are treaded lightly once more. Where the Utes used to hunt game, tourists are chasing ghosts. And while in Europe ghosts inhabit castles and are result of unhappy aristocratic marriages, American ghosts are signs of a once new era reminding us of failed capitalist ventures. Remnants of towns and mines mark brief interlude of commercial exploitation of these beautiful but harsh mountains.
Naivete really is a mother of stupidity. And it applies both to gold seekers and to us. Gently coached by a tourist map we give jeeping one more chance hoping against reason that the road will become easier as we go. It takes us nearly a full day to drive 30 miles from Silverton to Lake City over 12,800 ft (3,900 m) Engineer Pass. We should have known better. It’s clear that engineers honored here preferred hardware to software. There are tons of the former laying around: collapsed shafts, abandoned mines, piled tailings, blown out dams, railroad trestles, tramway towers. Maybe 30 years of boom at the turn of the (previous) century fueled by precious and base metals. What’s left is contaminated water and eroded slopes slowly undergoing the process of reclamation.
The drive turns into a lesson of greed. In Old Hundred Gold Mine the gold was initially mined on the mountain surface followed by a tunnel that was uncompleted when mine closed in 1908. In 1967 a Texas oil company presented with a rock specimen of a questionable origin decided to drill the tunnel further. Having spent 6 million dollars and never finding any gold the mine was closed for good in 1972. Allowing tourist to visit the mine - very educational by the way - is a painfully slow way to recover the investment.
The owners of Ute-Ulay Mine weren’t happy with the profits so they required all workers without family to live in a company boardinghouse for a steep charge. The men, mostly Italian immigrants, rebelled and went on strike. The National Guard was called to remove the miners and the company forced all Italians to leave the area. The mine while defunct sports multiple No Trespassing signs. The National Guard is more interested in Mexicans than Italians nowadays.
And my favorite story - told by David, whom we met in Silverton’s Handlebars Saloon and who talked us into taking this trip (although we did misunderstand his directions) - is about a ghost lake. Emma Lake no longer exists. It had a misfortune of being located on top of the rich deposits of precious metals. The owners of the Sunnyside Mine nearby did not stop mining even once the crack seeping water appeared. One Sunday in 1978 the nature took its revenge and the lake flushed through the mine destroying shafts and taking with it every piece of hardware. Incredibly enough the mine reopened 2 years later but never regained profitability and closed for good in 1991 - the last one to close in this area. The water around is still contaminated and the reclamation project is underway. It will probably cost more then all the profits the mine ever generated.
According to our guidebook to Colorado you can still feel the Native American presence throughout the San Juans in the colorful place names even though Ute tribes that once roamed the area greater then Colorado are relegated to reservations in northern New Mexico and southern Utah. But that’s how we like them best - in spirit, making space for the Western Empire (according to The Denver Times 1879) to destroy and exploit with impunity.
Some of the ghost towns fared quite well: Telluride with its luxury ski resort, Ouray with its hot springs, Durango and Silverton with the last vestiges of a once dense network of narrow gauge railroad continue to do business by attracting tourists. Others decay silently by hiking trails and jeeping roads. There are efforts to preserve structures, some simply far away like Animas Forks ghost town, others completely inaccessible like the Old One Hundred Boardinghouse perched high on the cliff.
Tourism by the way takes all the possible forms. We see retirees with hammers (yeah it is a strangely disquieting sight) wandering around defunct Eureka mine. Clearly the recession is more serious than I thought if they try to supplement their pensions prospecting for gold. I can totally see some of the mines reopened just to give people an opportunity to blast off some rocks.
Living through the recent dot-com and real estate bubbles I am hard pressed to see any upside of the boom and bust cycle. Unless of course you are a fan of piles of dead code or suburban eyesores. I wonder if we’ll try to lovingly restore anything in a hundred years time the way Colorado is restoring its ghosts towns. Maybe I should have preserves my cubicle to donate it to a museum in a due course?