Since May 12, 2011, I have been trying to track down a relatively detailed/accurate survey (paper or digital) of the Ute Ulay. I am a resourceful type, but this task has proved beyond my capabilities.

To say it is frustrating, is somewhat of an understatement! But, after many, many weeks of asking politely, researching, cobbling together and ‘making do’, I am approaching something that I am confident will be useful.

A few days ago, I took my latest (6th version) plans and sections up to the site and went back to using hand-brain-eye co-ordination to draw on top of what I had been able to produce through (mostly) desktop research.

The levels on site are very complex, but also important. The narrative of this site is about earth moving. The ground itself is made of hard work. The lumps and bumps, and rocky expanses are as much historical features as any of the buildings, though people tend not to notice. Landscape is the quiet sibling of architecture. But for all that – it has such depths! The information and multiple histories of the landform tell subtle stories, if you take the time to look. Their rich textures, and chemical makeup flow around you – directing your view or supporting your weight.

By contrast, the buildings sit as discrete entities within the landscape. As humans, I think it is natural for us to focus on the object and not on the background. But imagine if that background changed drastically… would not the whole scene be fundamentally different? Proposals for ‘reclamation’ of the site include re-grading some of the oldest parts of the landform, and obliterating them. In mining, the landscape is a systemic entity, and the rock (waste or otherwise) is part of that. Making the site safe for humans, is not incompatible with using the site to tell the story of it’s own past.

My task of recording the landform and conditions currently on site, is my way of paying homage to their importance. I am not opposed to change, but change should be undertaken for positive reasons, and with respect and sensitivity. My own flawed survey will form the basis for my proposals.

The Old Dam

Whilst perusing the Bulletin – United States Geological Survey, Issue 478 I saw on page 86 a tantalising glimpse of Plat V. It showed the lower portion of the Ute Ulay mine site, near the river, and on it was marked the site of the old dam. This was news to me, so I ordered a reprint of the book (the original was published in 1911) and in it was a shrunken down version of the same plat.

Up at the mine I checked as well as I could along the bank, and thought I could make out the remains of a stone wall at roughly the location indicated on the plan. You may be able to make out the the old dam below.

The image above also shows the underground working of the mine which are very extensive. This makes sense of the huge amounts of waste rock which are historical landmarks in themselves.

As a working mine, everything at the Ute Ulay changed many times over. The buildings, landform, and access routes have existed in a fluid state; altering to suit the needs of whoever worked there at the time. For me, this utilitarian attitude to place is the main character of the mine site, and it is what makes it such an engaging place now. The quiet beauty of the atmosphere there seems magnified by the knowledge that it was once a bustling place, filled with people, steam, dust, diesel fumes and noise.

Yesterday, Grant Houston, editor of Lake City’s wonderful newspaper Silver World (which started on June 19, 1875), gave me access to a stash of photographs relating to the Ute Ulay mine. As a prominent local historian, Grant has amassed quite a collection of information about Lake City – including the Ute Ulay.

As I looked through the photos, I noticed something in one of them that caught my eye.

On the far left of this image, you can clearly see the old dam referred to on Plat V from the USGS bulletin 478. It was exciting to find evidence of something that may have been otherwise forgotten. It looks as though the dam was made of large timbers. The next time I’m on mine site, I’ll have another look.The image also shows the old mill, the flumehead, and some large waste rock piles – some of which still remain.

There are a number of structures which are made of in-situ cast concrete at the mine. Part of the blacksmith’s shop and the new dam are made in exactly the same way. Another photo that Grant has, shows the building of the ‘new’ dam (see below).

Today you can still see the imprint of the timbers used in the in-situ concrete being poured in the picture above. The new dam is mentioned in the 1911 book, so must date from earlier than that.

The picture above shows the ‘new’ dam today.

The Ute Ulay is the product of accretion, and I hope that whatever comes next follows in that spirit.

The Difference Between Rock and Rock

What’s the difference between the waste rock on the Ute Ulay site, and crumbling rocks on nearby parts of the Rocky Mountains?

Above is waste-rock at the Ute Ulay. Waste rock is a by-product of lode mining. The miners follow a vein through the inside of the mountain, searching for a rich ore that can then be processed and sold. After the rock has been drilled, and blasted with dynamite, the resulting material is mucked out (shovelled up and taken away). Next, the ore is sorted; the workers look for particular colours and types of rock that they know are mineral-rich. Those are set aside to be crushed, etc. and sold. The rest is waste rock.

Above are some naturally crumbly bits of the Rocky Mountains. The Rockies are geologically young, which means they are steep, and lots of bits of crumbly rock are still falling off them. It struck me that these crumbly rocks had come from the same mountains as the waste rock, were about the same size as the waste rock, and are heading into the rivers in the same manner that the waste rock does.

So what is the difference? The reason it matters, is that according to current practice here, waste rock requires remediation, whereas naturally crumbly mountain does not. If waste rock is part of the same mountain, and is the same shape and size as other crumbly bits of mountain rock, why are we not either:

a/ just ignoring it.

b/ remediating the entire mountain?

The reasons are twofold. Firstly, the waste rock has been taken from specifically mineral rich areas, and therefore has a higher mineral (potential pollutant) content. Secondly, the crumbly mountain rock has been subject to weathering forces which gradually erode it. So the waste rock is leaching out more minerals, at a faster rate than the naturally crumbling rock. That creates the potential for risks to human health, amongst other things.

There is lots of waste rock up at the Ute Ulay. Part of the process of developing the Ute Ulay site will be to keep people’s contact with the metals present there (lead mostly) to a minimum. After a meeting this morning with representatives from CDPHEDRMS, and Colorado Brownfields Foundation, I have a few things to ruminate on regarding the future shape of the Ute Ulay.The remediation strategies proposed for the Ute Ulay would drastically alter some of the historically important landform.

There is no doubt that the landscape will change significantly. But this is just another stage in the history of this place. It is also an opportunity.

As a landscape architect I am regularly (partly) responsible for changing places. I remember the first site visit I ever went on. It was to a run-down victorian seaside resort called Rhyl in north Wales, and I felt the weight of people’s memories weighing down on me. Who was I to propose any changes?! But it’s part of the job to develop the confidence to alter places – you just hope that you can make it better for most people.

A year after the park in Rhyl was completed, I went back to check on the planting and overheard people telling each other how much they liked the place. It meant more than any award ever could.

Going Underground

A couple of days ago I went underground. Literally.

It all started with a drive to Ouray, which is 19.4 miles away from Lake City as the crow flies. But because (at least in the winter) you have to drive around lots of mountains, Ouray was actually 136.5 miles away.

Once there we got to a road which reminded me of the Alpine Loop. The sign on the locked gate was a little ominous.

But our business was further up that road – so we continued on. Past evidence that the sign was accurate…

…until we reached a mine that is being readied for working again after a long period of inactivity. The price of precious metals is currently very high (March 2012). In times of uncertain economies, gold and silver tend to do very well on the markets. I suppose they seem somehow timeless, secure investments. So, it is currently worth re-investing in mines which had previously been un-economic to run.

The history of mining is a constant iteration of boom and bust cycles. I imagine all this activity means that we’re currently in a boom. It was possible to see old mining buildings, still on the site from one of the previous mining booms.

Once up there, we donned the requisite safety equipment and headed down (actually up – though it felt like down) into the mine. It was a little bit muddy, but not unpleasant. The hissing of water and air pipes accompanied us. Many mines rely on air being pumped into them, but this one has natural ventilation, which will be helped along by fans in certain places, as the mine develops.

The miners who were giving me the tour (I will call them Luckies No. 2 & 3) showed me where some fellow miners were drilling into the wall of the mine to make a drill station. From the drill station they will sample the rock to find out the location and size of the vein that they will be mining.

To extract metals, the miners drill into the rock face, and then load it with dynamite to blast out the rock so that they can take the ore to be milled. There is an art to everything; the number of holes you drill, the direction they point in, and the timing of your explosives can all make an important difference.

I was at the mouth of the mine when this particular round went off (far away, and around a corner mum, don’t worry). I felt my lungs compress as the series of explosions took place. The corrugated tin building shook, and I screamed, ducked, and tried to cover my head and my ears at the same time. I am very tough. Luckies No. 2 & 3 thought so.

What all of this mining is about, is extracting metals for stockbrokers to trade, for us to wear, and to use in medical, digital, and transport applications (amongst many, many others). We all use this stuff. It’s in the computer you’re using now. And the amazing part is that it was created through the interaction of water and heat and rock – a process called mineralisation. These minerals form in a crack or void that was already present in the rock, and that shows up as a vein.

Some are very skinny, others are wider, and some are fractured. This one is a real corker, each colour represents a different substance, some of which we value very highly. The white is quartz, the yellows are various stages in oxidisation of minerals.

When wandering around the Ute Ulay I often see pretty coloured rocks on the ground and I want to pick them up. I wonder if the very first miners were inspired by pretty rocks too.

Lightning Striker & The Maid of Henson

In a previous post I was writing about the mining claims along Henson Creek near Lake City; where the Ute Ulay sits. I was given a map showing the Ute Ulay site and the overlapping mine claims that comprise it.

Apart from the interesting geometry, these mine claims provide a very personal, cultural link with the people who claimed, and named them.

The names Ute and Ulay both have aboriginal American roots. The Ute People had summer hunting grounds on the land where the Ute and Ulay claims lie, at the time the claims were made. Chief Ouray was a powerful chief at that time, it seems that the Ulay (or sometimes Ule’) was (mis-)named after him. Perhaps these names were an attempt to appease the Utes and Chief Ouray. The appeasement did not include any financial gain for the Utes though, and soon after the land was officially taken from the Utes.

Chief Ouray & Chipeta

The other names at the Ute Ulay site are sometimes puns (Lightning Striker, Free Lance), or dedications to people – imaginary or otherwise (Maid of Henson, Mayor of Leadville, Yankee Doodle). They speak to us of the miners’ hopeful and confident attitudes (Winner, Hard to Beat, Hidden Treasure, Invincible), or refer to places which are well known for mineral riches (California, Leadville) – though perhaps they are so-named because of a personal connection with the miner. There are also some which are simply named after the man who claimed them (Mc Carthy, Mc Combe). Looking again at the plan of names, I keep wondering… what happened to Mc Carthy No. 2?

Mother Lode

A mining claim is the right to explore for and extract minerals from a portion of land. Under the General Mining Act of 1872 (still in place today), ‘all citizens of the United States of America 18 years or older have the right… to locate a lode (hard rock) or placer (gravel) mining claim on federal lands open to mineral entry. These claims may be located once a discovery of a locatable mineral is made. Locatable minerals include but are not limited to platinum, gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, uranium and tungsten’. 1

So in theory, any American can prospect and mine on any of the public land in Hinsdale County, excepting wilderness areas which are exempt from this law. In reality, setting up a mine is an expensive, and risky business. The histories of almost all the mines in the vicinity of Lake City are tales of boom and bust, and this is a pattern that repeats itself across the world.

Before 1872, although legal under state and territorial law, mining in the west was illegal under federal legislation. In 1865, it was proposed that an army be sent to the West (Arizona, Colorado and California) to expel all the miners and to protect the Government’s mineral rights, and that the government itself should work the mines.

However, representatives of the West counter-argued that miners were doing useful work by settling new lands and helping commerce. And so a series of laws were passed that protected the miners’ claims.

Today many people have mining claims. The plans of these claims show rectangular strips overlaid onto dense contours, but the interaction of plan and 3D geometries has some interesting consequences.

The surface area of the claim is much greater than it appears from a plan (top-down) perspective, since the rectangular claim is draped over some very steep terrain. See this animation from Spike Productions of mining claims along the alpine loop (including the Ute Ulay).

At first sight the mountains and claims make for a very odd combination. However, when you consider that the actual mineral extraction is happening underground, it ceases to matter what the surface topography is. As a miner you can continue drilling and blasting and hoping in your rectangular cuboid space (with an irregular lid) under the mountains.