Red Mountain tries to hang on to history

Locals want to put an abandoned mining district in public hands

  • The Sheridan Junction on the Silverton Railroad was thebackdrop for this 1891 photo.

    W.J. Carpenter
  • CLEANING UP THE CHECKERBOARD: Bob Risch points to thesagging roof on one of the few remaining houses in Ironton,Colo.

    Kayley Mendenhall

IRONTON, Colo. - Broken-down houses still stand here, remnants of a town that in the late 1800s was at least a mile long and housed more than 500 people. The only road to the ghost town is an avalanche-prone stretch of two-lane state highway, its hairpin curves winding through the iron-rich walls of the Red Mountains. Local folklore says this Million Dollar Highway was named either for its cost, its million-dollar views or the valuable silver and gold ores found on both sides of Red Mountain Pass, one of the highest in Colorado at 11,075 feet.

Ironton didn't survive the end of the mining boom, but nearby Ouray made the transition to tourism and still sustains a small community. Bob Risch grew up in Ouray before leaving for college and later becoming a teacher near Denver. When he and his wife retired five years ago, they moved back to Ouray, Risch says, because he has learned to appreciate the history of his home town. His father was a silver miner, always searching for a fortune in gold. He never found it. But Risch, like many locals, doesn't want to see his family history sacrificed to the construction of second homes.

So Risch and other residents of Ouray and Silverton created the Red Mountain Task Force. Risch, the chairman, says the nonprofit group is dedicated to preserving Red Mountain's historic sites by turning them into public lands within two national forests.

"There is tremendous support for this idea," Risch says. "There is regret from some of the miners, who hate to see a way of life ending. But it is unlikely this will ever get mined again."

Bev Rich, Risch's fellow task force member and chair of the San Juan County Historical Society, says life for the miners near the turn of the century wasn't as harsh as most might think. The Silverton Railroad brought in material goods while shipping out ores. Several towns, including Ironton, Howardsville, Ouray and Silverton, boomed in the area from the 1870s to the early 1900s. Each grew into a sustained community with churches, schools, bars and brothels.

"The second group of people in after the miners were the prostitutes," Rich says.

As the towns grew, men's reading rooms became popular along with lodges including the Elks, Masons and Oddfellows. Unions came in toward the end of the 19th century, Rich says, and they were as much about social cohesion as about improving labor standards. Unions sponsored dances and baseball games between teams of miners.

Allies abound

These days, when driving the scenic route from Silverton to Ouray over Red Mountain Pass, everything seems to be vacant public land. Many people cross-country ski and hike in the area without realizing it is a checkerboard of privately owned mining claims, thanks to the powerful 1872 Mining Law.

Mining seems finished on Red Mountain, but a new threat is creeping up the highway, says Eric Love of the private Trust for Public Land. He fears development - the second-home industry booming near the ski-resort town of Telluride. "It hasn't turned the corner ... up into this valley yet," Love says, "and hopefully this (task force) project will serve to protect that area."

The area is vulnerable because nearly 10,500 acres of high-altitude mining claims are owned by more than 60 individuals. Love says that makes the land a management disaster, with bits and pieces of the Uncompahgre and San Juan national forests woven among private inholdings.

Task force members first asked the Trust for Public Land to help the Forest Service secure a deal with the largest land owner in the area, Idarado Mining Co. a subsidiary of Newmont Mining Corp. This turned out to be easy: Richard River, vice president of Idarado, said mining on Red Mountain is no longer economically viable due to environmental constraints. The company gladly agreed to sell 3,200 acres.

"We're writing the final chapter for Idarado mining," River says. "We bought the land, we mined it, we reclaimed it and we're selling it back to public hands."

Since shutting down the mines two decades ago, Idarado has been reclaiming tailings piles and water-drainage systems as required by the state. Tim Sutton of the Forest Service says the lands Idarado is working to reclaim are not part of the proposed deal, since the Forest Service doesn't want to acquire land that could be an environmental burden for taxpayers.

The obstacle course

While some individual owners of land on Red Mountain are willing to sell, others are dragging their feet. Frank Baumgartner, the second-largest landowner in the area, has hired real-estate broker Tom Chapman to market his property. Chapman is well known for buying land in or near national forests and wilderness areas, then threatening to develop unless the government buys them (HCN, 5/2/94: The Forest Service sells out). "It's kind of a difficult thing to deal with," Risch says. He fears that Chapman's presence may make it harder for the project to gain congressional support.

Risch says Baumgartner's land contains interesting historic buildings, including the shaft headframe of the Yankee Girl mine and the Joker Boarding House, which once housed 20 miners at a time. So far, Baumgartner has allowed the Ouray and San Juan County Historical Societies to stabilize some buildings on his land, although, in an angry letter about "socialism" in the Ouray newspaper, he later threatened to tear them down. A grant from the State Historical Fund for $47,000 has helped the nonprofit historical societies restore five buildings.

Risch says the goal is restoration through stabilization; the group adds support to roofing and maintains building foundations, but doesn't attempt to return the houses to their original state. It may become harder for Baumgartner to resist the task force since Red Mountain has gained publicity lately. It was designated one of 11 endangered historical sites by the National Trust for Historic Preservation June 26.

"Like it or not, we are creating around (Baumgartner) a mining history district," Risch says. "We're creating something very important ... In the future he'll become famous no matter what he does."

While the task force, the Forest Service and the Trust for Public Land make plans, the area's fate lies in the hands of Congress. The key to restoration is money.

Rep. Scott McInnis , R-Colo., is in favor of the project and has written a letter requesting $7.5 million from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. This appropriation would seal the deal between the Forest Service and Idarado, whose lands are being appraised. If all goes as planned, the sale will close by March 2001, paving the way for the remaining 7,300 acres - a large chunk of which belongs to Baumgartner.

Kayley Mendenhall is an HCN intern.

You can contact ...

  • Bob Risch at P.O. Box 151, Ouray, CO 81427, (970/325-4205); [email protected];
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