Can an old mine become a work of art?

  • A photo illustration shows an idea for a temporary fix to help the mine’s fragile structures survive the next winter: a roof-covering tarp depicting miners.

    Bland Hoke
  • The Ute Ule Ore Mill.

    Grant Pound
  • Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Liz Francisco presents her findings to the Hardrock Revision Team.

    Anna Macleod
  • This photo collage includes inspiration for replacing a historically insignificant building with a learning center, and some of the elements that would be included.

    Linda Wysong
  • A photo illustration outlines a proposed plan to rebuild the aerial tramway, used for hauling ore and miners, with the added excitement of a zipline.

    Bland Hoke
  • Linda Wysong works on a 3-D model of the Ute-Ule mine and town site.

    Grant Pound
  • Kicking back at the Texan Resort's Moose Cabin, the Hardrock Revision team discusses community issues with T. Allan Comp, second from left, of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

    Bland Hoke
  • One idea involved turning the wooden water tank into a camera obscura, with wheelchair access provided by a ramp.

    Anna Macleod

Page 3

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.

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