Flume fever: a monument to gold mining history is reconstructed

A hanging flume, attached to a canyon wall, captures the imagination of locals and heritage tourists alike.

  • Reconstruction workers scale the canyon walls above the Hanging Flume.

    Kent Diebolt, Vertical Access LLC
  • Water flowing in Hanging Flume, early summer 1891.

    Interpretive Association of Western Colorado
 

MONTROSE COUNTY, COLO.

Picture a manmade water channel 10 miles long, able to carry up to 80 million gallons of water a day. Then consider what it would take to affix the lion's share of that wood and iron structure to the side of serpentine, vertical canyon walls, 100 feet off the ground, weaving through the desert in a remote part of southwestern Colorado -- a landscape as rugged as it is beautiful. Finally, imagine constructing that flume without motorized vehicles, power tools or modern climbing gear. That's what the ambitious -- and "gold fever" afflicted -- founders of the Montrose Placer Mining Company (MPMC) accomplished when they built what's known as the Hanging Flume to facilitate mining along the Dolores and San Miguel rivers.

Completed in 1891, the Hanging Flume powered hydraulic cannons, which blasted pressurized water to expose gold-bearing gravels and sluice out valuable metals. While it's unclear how much gold the company found, the flume's estimated $169,000 price tag drained its coffers, forcing it to abandon the structure a few years later. Yet today, despite scavenging and exposure to the elements, its remains still prompt almost everyone who sees them to ask: What is this? And how was it built? That is the first symptom of what aficionados refer to as "flume fever."

If there's a poster boy for flume fever, it's Jerald Reid, 73, a retired machinist from Kannah Creek, Colo., who has spent more than two decades researching the Hanging Flume. His first contact came when he and his wife, Margaret, took a scenic drive through the still-wild, isolated area through which the flume winds. Both were captivated, so they went to their local library, only to learn, as Reid says, that "there's no book on it."

After that, he says, "We spent two years -- every Friday, Saturday and Sunday almost -- hiking either in, above, or below the flume and photographing all aspects of it. And we spent literally hundreds of hours in the library going through microfilm and reading newspaper articles from the period (when it was built)."

Before long, Reid -- who has a full head of gray hair, a beard and a no-nonsense manner -- was conducting slide presentations and taking tourists on seven-hour walking tours –– even traveling to East St. Louis, Ill., in search of MPMC's incorporation papers, which he later discovered in Springfield, Ill. "I can honestly say that my wife and I are the world's leading experts on the Hanging Flume. That and $2 will get you a cup of coffee," he quips, in a rare humorous aside.

The couple's dedication inspired wood scientist Ron Anthony of Anthony & Associates in Fort Collins, Colo., to assemble a team of historians, structural engineers, geologists and archaeologists who have been studying the flume for the past decade. In April 2012, Ithaca, N.Y.-based Vertical Access, a company that, according to its website, specializes in unique "architectural investigation," sent a group of carpenters and "industrial rope access experts" to rebuild part of it atop the existing framework. The new 48-foot segment (visible from Road Y11, off Highway 141) permits passersby to appreciate the size and appearance of the original and allowed the reconstruction team to glimpse the challenges of its assembly.

The men who built the flume logged and milled 1.8 million board-feet of ponderosa pine -- enough for several hundred three-bedroom homes -- then hauled it to the area via horse-drawn wagon; lowered heavy, unwieldy wood beams over the edge of overhanging canyon walls to workers dangling on bosun's chairs below them; and hand-drilled thousands of holes in the sandstone to fit iron support rods custom-forged at nearby staging areas. Somehow, the workers maintained a steady pitch: The flume drops only 90 vertical feet over its length.

Donn Hewes, a Vertical Access technician who worked on the reconstruction, says that at first, he was fascinated only by the flume's mechanics. "But after a week of dangling for eight hours a day at the end of a rope, it was more about: What was it like for the guys who were camping out here for three years?"

"We had a whole team of people out there with modern tools and equipment and we spent a week rebuilding a 48-foot section," adds Vertical Access' Keith Luscinski. "Those guys built miles and miles of  flume. Men were men in those days."

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