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Know the West

Can an old mine become a work of art?


As I wander past a scrawled "NO TRESSPASSING: SHOTGUN ENFORCED" sign, I can't help but recoil and glance around. I am, after all, on private property, and instinct is instinct.  My safety at this particular mining site, however, is assured: I'm with a bunch of internationally acclaimed artists and a slew of locals. Even the sheriff's deputy is here, leaning against his truck in his cowboy hat, watching us scramble around abandoned buildings and peer into old mineshafts and adits.

But the safety of the old site itself, high in the San Juan Mountains, is far from certain -- some of the structures may not survive this winter's snowfall. In a larger sense, though, its future is rather -- and excitedly -- uncertain. This old silver mine and its nearby ghost town are on the cusp of cleanup -- and possibly a remarkable renewal.

Which is why, after all, we're here.

This mine hasn't seen this many people in a long time -- and probably never this kind of mix. There's a poet from Massachusetts. An Irish sculptor. A historian from Montreal. A landscape architect from England. The seven folks on the creative team are herding big groups of onlookers on a tour of the site in mid-August, just a few miles from the small Colorado mountain town of Lake City. We walk past the old trusses, the bunkhouse, the wooden flume, the four-seater outhouse, and the colorful mound of rocks that is the tailings pile.

It looks exactly the way one imagines an old mining site should look, but what's happening here is unprecedented. The site's owner has offered to donate the mine to Hinsdale County. Unsure whether to accept the gift, the county invited an arts organization to help it decide, and it, in turn, brought in an interdisciplinary team of artists and a pack of technical experts. Now, they're working with the locals to come up with a way to not only reclaim this decaying site, but turn it into a work of art that reflects both Old West and New.

What strikes me most, at first, is what this project is not. It is not about out-of-town artists coming in and "decorating" the site -- perhaps putting up a bronze statue of a gold-panning miner. It's also not about just cleaning up the toxic mess in the tailings pile, planting some grass on top and calling it good. Rather, this group of artists has been working 12-hour days for a month to come up with real solutions -- ones that are deeply creative and environmentally efficient.

They've got plenty of ideas, some way out of the box and others near the edges, but none, they hope, out of the realm of possibility. What about, for example, turning the old miners' quarters into a hostel and doing a "deep-energy retrofit" -- retaining the buildings' historical nature but retrofitting them to current standards?

What about installing Aeolian harps, played by the wind, at the lower shaft -- thus turning part of the mine into a very large musical instrument?

How about turning the old tram, which once transported ore and miners, into a zip line? Or making the tailings pit into an ice skating rink, which would sit right next to a waterfall that delights ice climbers in the winter?

How about phyto-remediation? Foliage could be planted to absorb high levels of pollutants from mine tailings, and it's less expensive than traditional remediation.

And my favorite idea: How about turning the ancient round water tank, a giant redwood barrel, into a "camera obscura"? Popular in Victorian times, such structures position mirrors and lenses to project images of the surrounding landscape. Very few of them exist anymore, but there's even a local photographer who specializes in making them.

In addition to the creative ideas, practical possibilities abound: building interpretative trails, a gathering space and picnic areas, creating an audio tour, using the area for art and education, turning the cabins into living spaces, and simply providing a new stop for drivers on the popular Alpine Loop.

Whatever the final decision, the group firmly believes that this mine should be a habitable public space that is educational, environmentally conscious and historically sensitive.

Complex situations are naturally confusing, and this is one of those that, according to every artist I interview, "is a bit difficult to wrap one's head around," as artist Linda Wysong puts it. The Ute and Ule veins were discovered in 1871 ("Ule" -- "Ulay" -- is a mispronunciation of Ouray, the famous Ute chief), and since then, the mine has gone through many owners, both local and international. A hundred miles of tunnel were dug, the river was dammed, flumes were built, the (mainly Italian) miners went on strike and were fired, nearby Lake City boomed to a population of 6,000 in 1876 and then shrank to its current population of about 400.

At least $10 million worth of silver and lead was extracted between 1874 and 1900. The site's current owner, Washington-based LKA International, a natural resources development company, has never mined here, although it did use the mill for a short while, after buying it in 1983 as part of a package with another gold mine still operating in the area.

And thus sits an old mine, abandoned tailings and all.

And that's where things get messy. When water flows over the exposed mineral-laden rock in and around the mines, it dissolves zinc, cadmium, lead and other metals, creating acid. The contaminated water then dumps into nearby streams. So-called acid mine drainage, most of it from abandoned boom-time relics, pollutes an estimated 12,000 miles of streams throughout the West. The federal Bureau of Land Management and the state are studying various options for cleaning up the Ute-Ule property; the timing, cost and responsibility for cleanup are all yet to be determined. The BLM and the state did a $1.2 million cleanup of tailings piles on adjacent land in 2009, but the main site remains toxic. The environmental study on one half of the area (the "town section") reveals some lead and arsenic, but overall it's pretty clean, and probably only about $70,000 of remediation will be required. The other section (the "mill section"), however, is another story entirely -- the tailings pile and pit hold 150 years of accumulated pollutants. Last winter, an avalanche backed up the creek flowing through the mill section, which got alarmingly close to the tailings pile.

Meanwhile, LKA International offered to donate both mine and ghost town to the county, some 180 acres of land. It's a gift that, understandably, the county has been reluctant to accept without first coming up with an affordable plan for mine restoration and stabilization. As Hinsdale County Commissioner Stan Whinnery says, "We want to know what fleas come with the dog."

Besides hiring an engineer to tackle the problem, the county started a collaboration with Colorado Art Ranch, which can be briefly described as a nomadic interdisciplinary arts organization dedicated to fostering creative problem solving. The county's act was as risky as mining itself -- an act of hope and trust, and a leap of faith. The nonprofit Art Ranch, which was formed in 2005 and has hosted public forums and artist residencies in various Colorado towns, assembled the "Hardrock Revision Team" -- seven artists who came to Lake City for a month. It provided food and housing; grants and donations paid for some of the artists' time and for the many specialists the group hired: an archaeologist, a biologist, an engineer, a geologist, a hydrologist and a mediator.

The artists met with the specialists, they researched, they brainstormed, they gathered in large and small groups. They made posters, a slideshow, diagrams, and a five-foot-wide model of the mine site, constructed from old cardboard boxes and local scrap. When someone suggested a wind harp, they researched harps; when someone suggested phyto-remediation, they got in touch with a lot of experts; and when hydropower came up, the artists looked into whether it was feasible. (It is, and they're recommending it.) Grant Pound, the Art Ranch's executive director, notes that they didn't get weekends off as promised.

This project is emphatically not about outsiders coming in and telling a small town what to do. Collaboration is the only way to go, Pound says: "Frankly, it would be stupid to not include the community; all this would feel like a frivolous exercise."

Lake City, like many small mountain towns, is a mix of old-timers and newcomers, lefties and righties, artists and miners, some with a foot in both worlds. "Involving the community helped direct the artists to focus on things that are possible," says Pound, "and forced them to consider certain parameters -- for example, the heritage, rural economic development, tourism, aesthetics, community, and safety." That's one reason he and the rest of the Hardrock Revision team met with a cross-section of the community once a week -- a business owner, a rancher, a miner, a community developer, a long-term resident, a short-term resident, and so on. The group conducted informal interviews, too, at coffeehouses, bars, and on the sidewalk.

They even salvaged an old Servel refrigerator door from the site itself and plunked it into the meeting room, where it accumulated (as fridge doors tend to do) ideas and miscellany from the community, scribbled on taped-on bits of paper:

Family trees of immigrants
that worked in mine
Bat sanctuary!
Grow mushrooms in open adits
Project bad movies down the mineshaft so that they disappear into oblivion
Create Scientist-in-Residence Program
Pika Research!

Every local I spoke to was in favor of Hardrock Revision's ideas -- from Marian Hollingsworth, the president of the Downtown Improvement and Revitalization Team (DIRT) to George Hurd, who has served as the mine's caretaker for 40-some years, and owns and operates the tourist attraction Hardtack Mine right down the road. "In a few years, that place is gonna be completely rotted out," he tells me. "If you let that place go, you can't replace it. If someone's gonna save it, now is the time."

As I stand at the old mine site, near Henson Creek, surrounded by mountains, I shiver from the chill. A nearby shaft spits spooky-cool air from deep inside the earth at me while the intense late-summer sun beats down.

Matt Ingram, one of the last workers here when operations finally shut down in 1995, walks up and hands me a long wand of white rock, a core sample taken from the nearby mountains. Then he sneaks me into the engine room, where my breath is taken away, not only by the packrat smell, but by the enormous diesel engine that once powered a ship and was lugged across the country to this mine. Ingram pats it like an old friend and points to a cardboard sign he carefully hand-lettered:

28 Aug 95
Just Rest

I examine the rock sample, just as others did long ago, and it occurs to me that people have been dreaming here for a long time. And they're still at it.

The artists want any future changes to reflect the site's many incarnations and complex stories. If one is to "preserve" it, or "restore it to its original condition," you have to consider what that means. As Wysong tells me, "Which era in time is someone supposed to pick? 1870s? 1910s? 1980s?" The team is determined to resist mythologizing. Take the huge tailings pile, for instance. "We could flatten it out, cap it, and plant stuff on it," poet Hannah Fries says. "But why pretend it wasn't here? Let's come up with a way to make it safe, but also do something with it that acknowledges its existence." They want some version of the tailings pile to remain -- to remind visitors that mining had its negative consequences, and to prove that humans can clean up our mess, if we want to.

And, finally, while no one wants to sanitize the past, neither should the positives of mining be ignored. As Julia Lewandoski, the Quebec historian, notes, there's a lot to celebrate here. Even though the mine failed repeatedly, and new buyers were consequently disappointed, people kept trying. "You can poke fun at mining or call it greedy or whatever," she said. "But I think it's hope. What I've been struck by is that mining is one of the most wildly hopeful things that people can do."

As is preserving an old mine. Everyone acknowledges that there is a lot of hard work ahead, and many unknown challenges -- legal, financial, bureaucratic. Kristie Borchers, executive director of DIRT (downtown revitalization), sums it up: "The artists are leaving, but our work is really just beginning."

Some environmental studies have just been completed, and some are in process -- one assessing the possible presence of hazardous substances has yet to be finished, for example. Borchers says, "The study recommendations so far seem doable, and aren't scary. Or at least not super scary. We can do this."

The next step will be the transfer of the property -- or at least some of it. In October, the Hinsdale County commissioners sent a letter of intent to LKA for assuming ownership of the town site. Next, LKA will go through a subdivision process so that the site can be transferred to the county. But the county is waiting for further environmental study to be done before taking on the other half, the mill site. Then they'll start looking for money. Hinsdale County is 96 percent public land, so the tax base isn't going to cut it. Money will probably come from several sources, including the BLM (abandoned mine remediation), the state mine division (closing adits and shafts and other safety concerns), tourism and individuals.

Pound hopes that the Art Ranch will stay involved, to ensure that any remediation fits the community's goals and the artists' visions. He adds that this isn't just about one particular silver mine, or even mines in general. In fact, the Colorado Art Ranch would "like to create a model where we can use a process like this, using arts with science and community, to solve or create a vision for any kind of problem in the West, whether it be a social or land use issue. What about closed sugar beet factories? Abandoned big-box stores? Those things, if you ask me, are as bad as any abandoned mine."

Thus Hardrock Revision, in many ways, has been an experiment to test the effectiveness of art-science collaborations in identifying new solutions to thorny problems. Not every town can bring in seven creative thinkers to envision the future of old mine sites, but Lake City's efforts provide an unusual window on the possibilities. While the road ahead may be unclear, one thing is certain: the Ute-Ule Mine's layered and fascinating history isn't yet over. This is, after all, a site founded on big dreams and hard labor.

As I leave the mine, I feel a pang of hope, and I pause to consider it the way a miner might examine a vein in rock for clues as to what lies ahead. The locals seem to see the place with renewed clarity, too. As Hinsdale County Commissioner Cindy Dozier notes, "This international and national team of scientists and artists helps us see our community and this mine with new eyes." And whether that involves using a camera obscura or listening to an Aeolian harp and the sound of the earth itself, it's exciting to know that the old Ute-Ule is at the verge of being ushered into its next life.

Laura Pritchett is a freelance writer living in northern Colorado. Her newest book, Great Colorado Bear Stories, is due out in March.