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BATTLE MOUNTAINS: TREASURE VAULT

Above: Assay Office constructed by the Silverwave Mining Company in about 1882. It was said that the reason it was built on the edge of the cliff was so that men working at the assay office could signal to the loading station on the railroad in the canyon below

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In 1879, Battle Mountain, the massive land formation south of Vail Resort’s famed back bowls, was literally a treasure vault. Miners drifting down the Eagle River Valley from the bustling Leadville silver camp immediately recognized the ore-bearing potential of the quartzite veins, iron-stained outcroppings and limestone rocks. Gold initiated the mining excitement, but silver proved to be the “pay dirt.” By 1873 the mines on Battle Mountain produced over $1 million of silver ore.

In 1879, Battle Mountain, the massive land formation south of Vail Resort’s famed back bowls, was literally a treasure vault. Miners drifting down the Eagle River Valley from the bustling Leadville silver camp immediately recognized the ore-bearing potential of the quartzite veins, iron-stained outcroppings and limestone rocks. Gold initiated the mining excitement, but silver proved to be the “pay dirt.” By 1873 the mines on Battle Mountain produced over $1 million of silver ore.

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At the time, Red Cliff was akin to another mining town that writer Mark Twain described in Roughing It, a book based on his travels West. “Virginia, Nevada, had grown to be the ‘livest’ town, for its age and population, that America had ever produced. The sidewalks swarmed with people …. The streets themselves were just as crowded with quartz wagons, freight teams and other vehicles. The procession was endless …. Joy sat on every countenance, and there was a glad, almost fierce intensity in every eye, that told of the money-getting schemes that were seething in every brain and the high hope that held sway in every heart.”

Photo postcard of Gilman with Belden at the bottom of the Eagle River Canyon. Ore cars are lined up on the tracks and the surface tram is clearly visible.
Photo postcard of Gilman with Belden at the bottom of the Eagle River Canyon. Ore cars are lined up on the tracks and the surface tram is clearly visible.

Life was not any calmer in Gilman, which was located three miles down the mountain from Red Cliff. Built on the side of a mountain so steep that buildings seemed constantly in danger of tumbling down into deep canyon, Gilman was the mining center of the county. A cluster of mines adjacent to the town were among the earliest to pay significant returns.

The riches of the hillsides surrounding Gilman were so great that miners sunk test holes everywhere, which was noted in 1899, by in an article titled, “A Descriptive History of a Great County.“… Gilman is built on mining claims which have produced millions and whose subterranean acres hold many millions more. Ore bodies come to surface in the main street, where numerous ten-foot holes have been sunk, each and every one producing ore.”

Members of the mine rescue team for the New Jersey Zinc Co. at Gilman, Colorado
Members of the mine rescue team for the New Jersey Zinc Co. at Gilman, Colorado

Life in the mining camps could turn wild at any moment, and the local newspapers reported everything, with plenty of editorial opinion laced into the news reports, including one in the Eagle County Times on January 1, 1887. “Bad whiskey and bad feelings were the cause of a general fight in Clinton [Gilman’s original name] last Saturday. During the fight Charley Russel brought a knife into play in order to defend himself and carved Pat Kennedy in several places, although not very dangerously. From what we can learn, the cutting was justified. There is a gang of toughs on the mountain who try to run the place, and anyone who gains their enmity is sure to have trouble sooner or later. A few lessons such as Russel gave them will probably do a great deal of good.”

Gilman, Colorado, December 25, 1948, taken from the "U" turn on Hwy. 24.
Gilman, Colorado, December 25, 1948, taken from the “U” turn on Hwy. 24.

In the outlying mining camps, life posed even greater challenges. At Holy Cross City, 12 miles from Red Cliff on French Mountain, ambitious miners attempted to dig their fortunes while living and working at an elevation of 11,335 feet. Gold was first discovered in the mountain in July 1880, and within a month, a series of mining boom camps sprang up, with Holy Cross City and Gold Park the most prominent. By 1883, Holy Cross City had 300 people, a hotel, post office, two general stores, saloons and an assay office. Winters were brutal, with snow depths averaging seven feet or more. Travel was nearly impossible and mail delivery was sporadic. When medical issues arose, it could take the Red Cliff based doctor several days to maneuver his horse-drawn sleigh to the camp.

However, those pioneer miners were often ingenious. One man managed to mine throughout the winter by building a two-room cabin over his mine shaft. He lived in one room, and mined out of the second room, apparently heaving the broken rock that he extracted out the back door.

Despite the optimism that drove miners, the hard life could be discouraging, as evidenced by the note one young Holy Cross City miner penned to his family on March 7, 1885, as noted in Early Days on the Eagle, “Fred went down to Gold Park today after our washing [laundry]. He sent it to Red Cliff about the middle of January. The weather has been so rough that we could not get it before. I wish I was through with this blasted country.”

The ore vein at Holy Cross City proved to be as shallow as the snow was deep. By 1884, the mining camp was nearly abandoned. The only fellow credited with making a clear profit from his mining claim knew full well that the ore value decreased notably as the vein went deeper. When some East Coast investors showed an interest in the mine, he dug several shallow holes along the more promising ore at the top of the vein, and scattered gold ore about. Impressed, the investors offered the miner $50,000 for the mine, paying half of the money up front. The miner took his $25,000 and disappeared.

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Benjamin Hart, c. 1980

On nearby Cross Creek, a different group of East Coast capitalists found trouble when they sent one investor’s son out to manage the mine they had purchased. When the revenues lagged, an inspection of the books revealed that the young man had been captivated by the exciting nightlife in nearby Leadville. He spent the mine’s profits on women and champagne while listing it in the account book as the purchase of miner’s candles.

Mining camps had their share of scoundrels, but there were also many dedicated miners who appreciated the wealth, but were also invested in the welfare of the community. Benjamin Hart was 14 years old in 1886 when his father moved the family from Iowa to Bell’s Camp, a boomtown located on Battle Mountain between Red Cliff and Gilman. Ben and his older brother followed their father into the mining business and developed reputations for hard work. Starting out as underground laborers, they literally learned the business from the ground up. Eventually, Hart owned and operated some of the most productive mines on the mountain, including the Ground Hog, the Black Iron and the Percy Chester. Some years the value of the silver and gold pulled from those mines ran into the six figures. He split his time between the Battle Mountain mines and business district of Denver, where he recruited investors.

At one point, Hart sent a small amount of silver from his mines to the famous Tiffany & Company back East. The jeweler crafted the silver into a couple of bracelets and six spoons that were given to the Hart children. Hart, like so many of the pioneers of his time, was not just pulling riches from the mountain. He was building up the community. Although financially comfortable, he was not a rich man, as noted in his obituary in the Eagle Valley Enterprise on November 6, 1931. “As with most men of that day and business, wealth only meant the means which to develop more ground, and when the last pay streak refused to yield further, Mr. Hart had not retained any of the considerable amount of riches obtained from the mountains. He had spent most of it developing the region that others might reap the harvest.”

Soon other ores contained in the rock walls of Battle Mountain proved to be more essential than silver and gold. By the 1920s, a large, out-of-state mining corporation bought up most of the smaller mines on Battle Mountain. Industrial mining became more significant than the precious metal mining, as the changing world demanded more zinc, which conducts electricity, and molybdenum for strengthening steel.

The Hart mining camp, "Poverty Flats," east of Gilman, Colorado, and just below Bell's Camp on Battle Mountain. A group of adults appear to be playing tennis while children in the background are swinging. Two children are sitting on a pony at far right. At far left, people are seated under a shelter. Buildings are visible in the background
The Hart mining camp, “Poverty Flats,” east of Gilman, Colorado, and just below Bell’s Camp on Battle Mountain. A group of adults appear to be playing tennis while children in the background are swinging. Two children are sitting on a pony at far right. At far left, people are seated under a shelter. Buildings are visible in the background

Between 1879 and 1970, ten million tons of ore were produced in the Battle Mountain Mines: 393 ounces of gold; 66 million ounces of silver; 105,000 tons of copper; 148,000 tons of lead; 858,000 tons of zinc. Mining continued on Battle Mountain until the late 1970s, when the New Jersey Zinc mine closed.