The Landscapes and Legacies of Hard Rock Mines

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What happens when tourism economies replace industrial economies? What is erased, what is sanitized, and what is preserved? This summer, I spent four weeks in Lake City, Colorado at a collaborative artist and scholar residency, exploring these questions as they played out in a small Western community.
Hinsdale County, a vast swath of land in the San Juan Mountains of southeastern Colorado, has only one town: tiny Lake City, population 400. When the owner of a local silver mine, out of use since 1995, proposed a public donation of the Ute Ulay mine site, the community began the process of taking the mine on as a potential tourist attraction. At a loss for what to do with the crumbling site, the community engaged the Colorado Art Ranch, an arts organization with a social and environmental mission, to bring artists and scholars into the planning process early on. The task of our team of seven, including two sculptors, a mixed media artist, a videographer, a poet, a landscape architect, and myself, a historian, was to design a vision for new uses of the Ute Ulay mine site, balancing the community’s economic concerns, environmental remediation, and the historic integrity of the mine site. During our month of work in Lake City, we engaged with many of the larger issues of the post-industrial West – reconciling opposed narratives of history, confronting nostalgia, and acknowledging change – all on the micro-scale of a tiny chunk of the Western mining landscape.

The Ute Ulay veins of silver were discovered in 1871, just a few miles up Henson Creek from Lake City, but the claim wasn’t formally located until 1874, after the Brunot Treaty removed the Ute Indians from eastern Colorado. Like most hardrock mines, mining expansion and Indian displacement occurred in tandem. Between 1874 and 1900, the mine produced $12 million worth of silver and lead, and this wealth brought settlement. The town of Henson sprung up directly around the mine, and its abandoned miners’ lodgings are crumbling artifacts today. But while Henson was a typical mining community, crowded and transient, characterized by poor sanitation and violence, Lake City, the larger town a few miles down from the mine, invested its mineral wealth in architecture and town planning. Lake City’s towering double rows of cottonwood street trees still gesture to the town’s genteel Victorian aspirations.

The Ute Ulay mine went through the typical, frequent cycles of boom and bust subject to environmental, economic, and political factors: booming with the discovery of ore and the construction of a railroad line, and busting when Henson Creek froze over, the railroad pulled out, or when the federal government changed the value of silver.

In the 20th century, the Ute Ulay struggled to stay open, as owner after owner, believing they could extract wealth from the same locations that previous management failed to find silver, took on the site and made improvements to the facilities. The site’s silver-processing mill was modified several times, and often processed ore from other, more fruitful mines in the area. In the meantime, the infrastructure – housing, a hydro-power dam, flume, and waterwheels, and an old head-frame – fell into deeper, and finally unsustainable disrepair, while mounds of tailings slurry, contaminated with zinc, cadmium, and chemicals, piled up at the edge of Henson Creek.

Parallel to the demise of mining in the 20th century has been the rise of the tourist economy in the San Juans, with the first visitors arriving from Texas in the 1920s to build summer cabins. Lake City developed a summer resort culture early on, and more recently, a recreational and cultural heritage economy, mirroring larger changes in the West’s economic transition from resource extraction to lifestyle and amenity tourism. While a few local mines are still in operation, most Lake City residents work in the service economy during the short, high-altitude summer tourist season.

Hinsdale County’s tourist economy has placed the county in a tough position: their major source of revenue is based on the expectation that coming to Lake City is like “going back in time,” as more than one visitor explained in our series of community interviews this summer. It is very hard to make changes, or even embrace the changes that inevitably come, when there’s an expectation that a place remain an isolated, static holdout.

It’s also unclear exactly when “back in time” is located. “Western heritage” and “mining heritage” came up in our interviews frequently, and using “heritage” rather than “history” seems to allow for a certain nostalgic latitude. In Lake City, the “past” seems to be an imagined version of the 1880s, Hinsdale County’s mining heyday. Like in many Western towns, the realities of mining life – rough, violent, dangerous – are dealt with through jokingly fond and sanitized recollections of sex work, violent feuds, and epidemics. The pressures to present the past as static mask the turbulent changes that mining communities experienced.

While present-day Lake City is profoundly clean and safe, the Ute Ulay mine site is in an epic state of decay, full of snarls of metal, piles of contaminated tailings, structures twisting into cubist shapes, and gaping shafts. The site is a foil to Lake City’s manicured history, presenting the alternate mining narrative to the colorful, debaucherous human story. The site’s landscape tells a tale of resource extraction, environmental degradation, decay, and abandonment.

The Federal Bureau of Land Management has done a preliminary cleanup of one section of mine tailings contaminated with metals and chemicals. Yet the goal of that remediation project seemed to be to restore that section to a pre-mining landscape, all traces of tailings erased. Old binaries that oppose pristine nature with industrial corruption still hold sway in Lake City, even though mining has long been part of a working landscape.

Like many Western mines, the Ute Ulay has left Hinsdale County with an uneven, legacy. It is responsible for the region’s economic growth, and the current tourist economy is built around mining heritage. At the same time, it caused serious environmental problems, and helped to create an unstable, singular economy. It is neither a symbol of destruction, nor one of prospector heroism. It cannot merely be left to decay, but neither can it be restored to a pristine, pre-industrial site.

Our team developed a guiding vision for the Ute Ulay mine site that attempted to navigate these tensions, not by resolving them one way or the other, but by representing mining’s history in its complexity. Our proposal centered on a self-sustaining, low impact revenue source: a backpacker and ice-climber hostel with expanded summer camping, echoing the remaining buildings initial uses as boardinghouses. The site’s major historic attraction would be the silver mill, a rambling collection of buildings that dramatize the Ute Ulay’s booms and busts through their long modified, patchwork appearance. To begin to tackle remediation, we advocated for capping a huge waste-rock pile to prevent harmful runoff, but leaving it as a grand, ambivalent monument to the immense, human undertaking of hard rock mining, and its major environmental consequences.

We deliberately used our role as outsiders and artists to propose playful ideas that could open up the community’s imaginative scope. One recommendation was to wallpaper the outside of the miners’ boardinghouse-turned-hostel, to make visible the hidden domesticity of mining camp life. Other suggestions included sound or video installations inside mineshafts, allowing access to areas now too dangerous for the public to enter.

While we had many other specific suggestions, we also offered a guiding statement of vision, which emphasized that preservation need not be static or sanitized, remediation does not have to make the industrial past disappear, and new uses can reflect or riff on prior uses of the site. Mining can be memorialized, and even honored, while allowing for its deep inconsistencies and inherent conflicts to remain.

As a historian accustomed to working with language, I was struck by the potential of a physical site to represent a large and multi-layered history by synthesizing these conflicts within the sweep of one landscape. As communities all over the West confront the thousands of small abandoned hard rock mines in their midst, the redevelopment of the Ute Ulay mine site could serve as a model that liberates mining history from the rigid options of static preservation or attempted erasure.

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Julia Lewandoski

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