Animas Forks

Case Study Name: Animas Forks

image: Anna MacLeod

Location: 12 miles north of Silverton on the alpine loop backcountry byway, San Juan County, Colorado, USA. Co-ordinates: 37°55′51″N 107°34′3″W

Initial Funding: Structures were stabilised in 1997 and 1998 with assistance from Colorado State Historical Fund Grants.

Ongoing Funding: No income; Animas Forks will be reliant on further grants, as necessary.

Organisations Involved: Managed by San Juan County and the Bureau of Land Management.

Description: Animas Forks is a popular, ghost mining town that sits on the Alpine Loop, a precipitous road that bumps between Lake City, Ouray and Silverton in the San Juan mountains in Colorado. The site is at around 11,000ft elevation, and is inaccessible in the winter.

The empty, wooden buildings have been preserved, and you can go inside them and see the structures. It is interesting to note the building styles. All personal traces of inhabitation are gone (I don’t know if they were removed deliberately), and the buildings feel clean. There is no glass in the windows, and since the site is not inhabited, I wonder if the glass has been removed for safety.

Visitors are welcome to make their own way around the site, and explore the buildings. When I went there I enjoyed the view of the town as we approached – but I wished there were more details to see once we had arrived. It is good that the site has been preserved for people to see, and it draws lots of people to visit.

By comparison the Ute Ulay has much more texture and detail to offer a visitor, as long as that can be made safely available. It could also be burdensome for the local Lake Citians to have to fundraise to keep the site open and safe – so the Ute Ulay should at least bring in enough revenue to pay for itself.


Future History

Last week I held a ‘coffee and conversation’ morning at the Mocha Moose, which is one of the two fine coffee shops in Lake City (the other being Mean Jean’s).

It was great to meet the people that came along to express their affection for the Ute Ulay site, and their hopes that it will be preserved for future generations. The Ute Ulay mine and mill site is fairly rare in that many of the structures and landform associated with the workings are still there, and many of those date from the 1880’s, with a smattering of additions from various periods, up to the present day.

There were lots of helpful suggestions. A feeling of urgency that something should be done before more of those structures are lost was in the air. Some people volunteered to help with the physical reconstructions, and there were some great ideas about how people might be engaged as development happens.

Historical preservation of the site seems to be uppermost in most peoples’ minds when they think about the Ute Ulay. It is the historical aspect of the place that intrigues people. The fact that it lies empty is intriguing in itself. J. B. Jackson says that ‘there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be that discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential… ruins provide the incentive for restoration and for a return to origins’ (Jackson, J.B. (1980) ‘The Necessity For Ruins’. Amherst: University of Massachussets. p102).

One of the attendees mentioned the town of Bodie in California. What struck me about the images of Bodie is the presence of many everyday objects which give the visitor a tangible and real flavour of what life was like in that place, across time. There is a similar opportunity to retain traces of working lives at the Ute Ulay.

On the official website it states that ‘Bodie State Historic Park is part of the California State Parks System. With the State of California’s budget crisis (for the past several years), State Parks have lost annual funding for many years in a row. Bodie has not been spared. These continued decreases in funding for Bodie by the State has led to fewer and fewer park aides and lack of interpretation for visitors.‘ (accessed 27th Feb 2012)

The future economic situation at the Ute Ulay (and in Lake City) is something that I am very aware of. The economy of Lake City is based around a narrow range of sectors, which is unsurprising due to the small population of the town (around 375). Tourism brings in the most money here, due to the small tax base and remoteness.

Click on the image to see details.

It seems to me that the gift of the Ute-Ulay would be greater if it was able to not only be self-funding, but to contribute to the breadth of economic activity in Lake City.

What if the Ute-Ulay was an economic resource? As well as attracting more visitors, it could lengthen the tourist season (or tempt second home owners to spend more time here). It might provide more jobs for Lake Citians, and over a longer time period. For now, it’s just an aim – but an important one.

Treats: Home and Away

Yesterday I drove back to Denver. I am here to pick up Lydia Moyer, who was one of the Hardrock residents; she is coming back to collaborate further on the project.

It was another beautiful drive, and despite my experiments in cryogenics, Seamus the Sat Nav was up and ready to guide me (note to self: don’t leave a Sat Nav in the car at -30 C).

I love Lake City because it is quiet, friendly, and because you can see the stars from everywhere at night. However, as I reached Denver, I found myself looking at all the cars, and shops and neon lights with palpable excitement. Look at all the THINGS!

In an extremely unscientific survey, I have been asking Lake City residents which treats will motivate them to travel, and to where.

Some say that humans’ ability to connect so quickly with the rest of the world via technology, has rendered the terms rural and urban obsolete. It is certainly possible to have almost anything delivered to you in Lake City (- in fact if the delivery man sees your car, he’ll just pop the parcel in there). However, when it comes to experiential treats, you might just have to be there in person.

Click on the image for details of my unscientific results.


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.

Itsy Bitsy

I was thinking about how you can almost drive forever from Lake City to get to any other town, and how you can drive the same distance from Manchester and be unable to count how many towns you drive through. American cars are bigger, the wilderness is bigger, the  food portions are bigger…. is everything bigger?

Well, when I compared the size of the entire United Kingdom (and don’t forget people, that is 4 countries!) to the size of Colorado (only 1 out of the lower 48 states!) it’s fair to say that I was somewhat bamboozled. Was I reading correctly? I checked – not just wikipedia – and checked again – and it seems that Colorado is bigger than the   e n t i r e   U K ! (!)

Click on this picture for more details.

Don’t get me wrong… size isn’t everything. I mean – small is beautiful. It makes sense of my 5.5 hour drive from Denver though.

So having a remote inactive silver mine site, out here in remote Colorado, is really very remote. In fact, Hinsdale County (home of the Ute Ulay mine site) is the county with the most ‘roadless space’ in the conterminous United States according to a paper in Science Magazine (full article). It’s the place to come if you want space to breathe, a little solitude, or a reminder of how itsy bitsy each human really is.


The Ute Ulay Mine is in Hinsdale County. The long, rectangular Ute and Ulay mine claims are laid over the rugged terrain and represent private ownership, as do all the mining claims in the county. Land ownership in Hinsdale County is unusual in that it is mostly public land.

Public land makes up 95.3% of all land in Hinsdale County; and of that, 49% is wilderness area. Public land is governmentally owned, is managed by federal agencies, and is not taxable.

There are varied restrictions as to what activities are allowed in different parcels of public land. Generally recreational activities of some sort are allowed, though the regulations differ in different types of public land; as you drive along any road, you see signs letting you know that you have just passed from one designation to another. I find it fairly confusing – activities such as camping, horse riding, mountain biking are allowed in some areas – whereas only hiking is allowed in others (wilderness areas).

If you look at private land ownership in Hinsdale County, you can see some patterns:

Of the 4.7% of privately-owned land, there are many square parcels that have been claimed around water (a precious resource here), there are other square parcels that make up ranches – these are often close to roads (but I’m not sure which came first, the ranch or the road), and the long, thin, rectangular strips are mining claims – just like the Ute and Ulay.

In Hinsdale County these mining claims exist mainly around a geological feature called a ‘caldera‘. This is  a feature left by a volcano, where a large pocket of larva has erupted, leaving an empty space below that the land falls into. The surrounding fractures in the rock are just the right type of place for mineralisation to occur. Mineralisation in this location often means silver, gold, lead etc. Hence the many claims.

Some things are only really visible to us from the ground; the steep terrain and outline of the horizon, but others only show up when we plot them on a map.

A State of Flux


Hinsdale County is a beautiful and remote location. Many people are drawn to come here to Lake City on holiday, and many of those people buy second homes. During the month I was here last summer with the Hardrock Revision residency, it became apparent that the population of Lake City fluctuates wildly during the year. This has a big impact on businesses and the economy here. Now that I’m back, in the depths of winter, I can certainly see the difference.

A dig around the US Census and other reports brought some numbers to light.