In 1865, President Lincoln informed the miners in the West: “I will promote mining interests to the best of my ability, because their prosperity is the prosperity of the nation.”
These were sage words spoken by a great leader. Shortly thereafter the President was dead. The people, however, listened.
After the Civil War, many Americans lost their homes as well as their jobs, and the President’s words and lure of riches buried in the mountains of the West called to them. The rush began in Leadville, Colorado, with the discovery of gold; and then, again, with the silver boom of 1877.
Thousands flocked to the town to dig for their fortunes, however, many of these prospective silver barons arrived after the best mines had been claimed, so they filtered down Tennessee Pass, traveling over Ute Indian trails. Soon, strikes in the Battle Mountain District were discovered, first in Red Cliff and next on a sloping mountainside plunging some 600 feet to the canyon below. The ore occurred in sulfide replacement deposits, and this treasure vault would soon become the richest and most successful in Eagle County. One day this place would become a town called Gilman.
Those from Red Cliff who found the three-mile jaunt too difficult, began to build groups of scattered miners cabins on the sloping mountainside. And, each encampment had its own name – Rock Creek, Bells Camp, Cleveland – and, finally, Gilman, a new town established in 1886; that, at an elevation of 8950-feet above sea level, sat on a dramatic 600-foot cliff above the Eagle River on the flank of Battle Mountain.
The growing settlement of log cabins and tents, which were located on the side of the steep hill, as well as nearby mining operations, were developed in the 1880s by John Clinton, a prospector, judge and speculator from nearby Red Cliff.
Clinton had acquired the profitable Iron Mask Mine, noted for its numerous caverns with crystal formations. The town, which Clinton developed in order to keep miners at the site, was initially named for him. Soon, financiers and business men sniffed out the scent of profitable investments, and followed in Clinton’s footsteps. Denver real estate developers Walter S. Cheeseman, George W. Clayton and Judge D.D. Belden purchased the Cleveland Group that included another mine, a lode so famous that the entire subterranean activity below Clinton became known simply as “Belden”.
These men also enhanced the mining capabilities by constructing a stamp mill and smelter to refine silver ore. So, below what would become Gilman, were a myriad of mines including Ida May, Little Duke, Ground Hog, Belden, Iron Mask, May Queen, Kingfisher, Little Chief, Crown Point and Little Ollie.
At the time that ore deposits were discovered in Leadville and Clinton area, the mountains were in a completely primitive state. Only simple Ute Indian trails were used to get to these areas. The early trail over Battle Mountai nand Tennessee Pass went nearly straight up the mountain. As more adventurers swarmed towards Clinton, the trail was widened to allow teams of mules or oxen. However, the route remained treacherous and was aptly named “Battle” for a reason. The original route from Red Cliff to Clinton curved around the top of the cliffs, overchanging the eagle river from dizzying heights. The elevation change between Red Cliff and Clinton was 300 feet, but the road required the traveler to climb over 1,000 feet to scale the cliffs. The route included several passages of 18-percent grade. With a rock wall on one side, and a plunging descent to the canyon below, the crude road was frightening ordeal, especially after a heavy rain or snow storm.
Records show that a group of buildings called Astor City was located at the base of Battle Mountain included a sloon called Baxter’s Saint’s Rest. (Supposedly, travelers on the old Battle Mountain road needed a stiff drink whether going up or coming down the road.). As well, several companies including the Eagle River Road Company and Kelly’s created toll roads which were maintained until 1882 when the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built its railroad through the canyon below the mining claims.
Clinton continued to grow and people moved into the town. In November 1886, the entire area became part of the new Eagle County; and in doing so, had to not only register an official name, but maintain a post office, as well.
After it was discovered that the name “Clinton” had been claimed by a town in California, the place was renamed Gilman, inspired by Henry M. Gilman, the superintendent of the Iron Mask Mine. Gilman soon turned from a primitive mining camp into a village; where, supplied by the railroad at Belden, families prospered. The town boasted a theater where traveling dramatic troupes performed. There were hotels like Iron Mask, boarding houses, schools, a hospital, and even a newspaper named The Gilman Enterprise.
In 1912 New Jersey Zinc bought all the mines around Gilman, including the land; and soon, the days of independent miners came to an end. By 1919, the Iron Mask Mine was renamed “Eagle 1” and “Eagle 2”, and continued to supply zinc under Battle Mountain.
Eventually, the mine boasted 62 miles of tunnels beneath the mountain. Due to the precarious route over Battle Mountain to reach Gilman and Red Cliff, and after hundreds of accidents, in January 1923, a new road over Battle Mountain was completed. The job took two years and required the removal of 75,000 cubic yards of rock.
Despite the new road, several years of severe winters kept the route closed. Cars in Gilman were put on blocks, radiators drained, and batteries were removed and taken to the assay lab where a charger was kept to maintain the batteries throughout the winter. It wasn’t until the winter of 1929-30, that the road was able to stay open.
In 1936, yet another new road was built over Battle Mountain and in 1940, the Red Cliff Bridge was completed just east of Gilman, one of only two steel arch bridges within the entire state. Today, the bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After surviving town fires in 1885 and 1899, Gilman continued to grow; and now, a company town, boasted a fine grade school which provided housing for its teachers. It also supported a general store and a staff house, which was the company’s version of a hotel. The mining company provided houses for employees; and while the houses had no central heat, each had a kitchen, living/dining room, two 12 x 12 foot bedrooms, a bathroom with wash basin, a claw-foot tub and a commode. The company also operated a mess hall and a dormitory which could accommodate sixty men.
Gilman also had a clubhouse where food could be prepared for banquets. The main floor served as a basketball court, gym and dance hall, which was later remodeled into two bowling lanes. Upstairs in the clubhouse was a library. The town employed as many as 375 people in the middle 1940s. For many years, the mine remained profitable and hired more employees than any other business in Eagle County. In fact, during WWII, miners were exempt from the military draft, because the zinc they mined was vital to the country’s war effort.
However, years of zinc production created toxic pollutants; and, in 1984, the mine was shut down, flooded and abandoned by order of the Environmental Protection Agency. At the time, the mining operations were owned by Viacom International. Cleanup of the mine began in 1988 with the relocation of mine wastes and capping of the main tailings pile. Today, the cleanup has been declared a success.
New developers have arrived on the scene and since departed, but Gilman was eventually annexed by the town of Minturn. Still, the town sleeps quietly, as if waiting for the prince to kiss it into livelihood. Gilman , once king of the hill in Eagle County before Vail arrived, now is deserted. Buildings are empty and windows broken. “No Trespassing” signs hang on the closed gates. However, no place is more picturesque than Gilman in the fall. From Highway 24, one can see the gold leaves of the aspen trees, while the remnant of a once thriving mining town snuggles amid the forest. And one can’t not wonder what it was like to have lived in this storied town in its hey day.
The footsteps of the early prospectors who were summoned by dreams of easy living, created twisted paths down Battle Mountain. The ranchers and merchants followed. To those prospectors, who followed President Lincoln’s directive, we owe a debt of gratitude for the settling of the Eagle River Valley and much of Colorado.