Gold All Over These Floors

For the next month, Orion‘s Poetry Editor Hannah Fries will be in Lake City, Colorado, where she’ll work with the Colorado Art Ranch to envision a new life for an abandoned silver mine. Check back next week for another dispatch from Hannah.

“These walls, you could throw a cat through them,” quipped Matt Ingram, looking up at the light coming through the cracks of the inside of the mill at the Ute Ule mine. Matt was one of the last people to work at the mill, before it was shut down (again) in 1996. At that time, the Ute Ule was no longer being mined, but the owner, LKA International, used the mill there to process gold from the nearby Golden Wonder mine. Matt led our Hardrock Revision team through the dark, dusty building with obvious joy, as he explained how material was broken up in the ball mill with six-inch steel balls, how it was sifted and remilled until it came out a consistent size, how metals were separated through a flotation process, and filtered. Eventually you might come out with eleven ounces of gold per ton of material.

Matt told us about Steve “Doublejack” Jackson, who worked the crusher. When a big rock snuck through, he’d use a fifteen-pound hammer called a doublejack to smash it. On the opposite side of the mill, filling the engine room with its black iron hulk was “Buckeye,” a giant beast of a machine rumored to have come from a submarine. When asked how it got there, Matt replied “A man named Thilbert must’ve carried it up on his back.” When Buckeye blew, Matt had propped up a little sign that still stands:


1940s to 28 August 1995

Just Rest.

As we walked through the mill, Matt scuffed his foot in the dust. “There’s gold all over these floors,” he said with a slight smile. Most of us were wearing dust masks to avoid breathing zinc, asbestos, and who-knows-what-else. Someone picked up a yellowish rock and asked what it was. “Leave-’er-ite,” declared Matt with another smile.

As our team of artists considers how the Ute Ule mine site might be used and restored, Matt is just one of many people in the Lake City community we’ve been talking to and interviewing. Over the last week and a half, we’ve toured the site with a geologist, an archaeologist from the BLM, a hydrologist, a physicist, and an environmental engineer; we’ve met with the county commissioners, the Youth Corps, the Lake Fork Valley Conservancy, a schoolteacher, a local artist, the town historian and newspaper publisher, the director of Lake City Arts, the owners of The Texan Resort (where we are staying), and a variety of other people from the community, both formally and informally. A group called Lake City DIRT (Downtown Improvement and Revitalization Team) has been instrumental in getting us here in the first place and helping us make connections. We have a local group of advisors we meet with weekly, and a public survey is finding its way around town. From all of these people we have gathered various perspectives on Lake City, its uniqueness, its mining history, its pride, and its challenges.

When T. Allan Comp, founder of AMD & ART, visited us from the Department of the Interior, he told us this: “The more complicated the organizational chart, the more likely the plan is to succeed.” In other words, the wider the support, and the more constituencies we can get involved, the better. We’ve taken that advice to heart. After all, we’re only here a month (though the Colorado Art Ranch will be following up in various ways, over years to come)—it’s the community that must eventually take ownership of the project.

With that in mind, we have plunged into discussions about heritage and preservation, tourism and recreation, community identity, environment and ecology, economics, and aesthetics. The sculptors of the group have begun to build a model of the site; our historian is working on historical maps and timelines; our landscape architect is creating maps and drawings; and some of us, myself included, are doing an amateur botanical assessment of what is growing at the site and what could grow, as well as researching phytoremediation strategies (a plant called pennycress is especially adept at taking up zinc, lead, and cadmium, which happens to be exactly what is present at the mine).

And then there’s our group refrigerator, plastered with “Ridiculous Ideas.” Call it a pressure valve (we’ve had some long days and nights). Bungee jumping down the mine shaft, anyone?