Impatient gazes cast down the side of the hill, what, six hours of sun left? About a thousand feet to descend to the Belden Mills and Iron Mask Mine?
The comrades made their cautious way to the edge of a retaining wall, knowing its interlocking boards were placed more than a century before that afternoon, and peered down the cliff face and treacherous tramway that clung to its face.
Down on Darwin
The tram was built between the now-buckling retaining walls to move supplies from the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad station across the Eagle River below to the ghost town above. Our mission was to climb down the tram’s old frame and see what sort of history was rusting away both below and under Battle Mountain.
“No wonder its nickname is ‘Darwin’s Ladder,’” I thought out loud, as the first wooden cross beam, bracing the narrow gauge tracks in place, snapped loudly under a fraction of my weight. A tenth of the way down already, there was no choice to turn around, so I continued my crab crawl down the rickety incline railroad track.
“Not since elementary school have I used this move,” my brain said as I imagined my hands around the rails as clamps. “If the rails heave or the cross-brace snaps, I have to hold on tight.” After about half an hour I was at the receiving terminal for the former tram. We trooped through an open door into the mountain—it was the way forward and deeper.
On Top of the World, Underground
By the year the ghost town above was founded this mine was already 1,200 feet into the earth, longer than all the others below the mining camps on the cliff face and above the mills at river level. I’ve been in a dozen respectable caves—many hardly worthy of the title ‘crevice’—but to be standing on the threshold of one of the biggest abandoned mines of its type in the world, I was simply excited to share in the experience of the place.
Some of the mine cars, still full of their takings, blocked the deadly dumping holes that funneled falling ore to lower levels, though more deadly portals gaped silently in the absolute dark. But we had flashlights, cameras, tripods and enough experience (we assured ourselves) to make sure we all got back to the ghost town at the end of the day for a cold mountain sleep. Relative safety was the key. Now, though it was dark beyond the throw of our hand torches, we couldn’t sleep… the mud was too sticky and the air much too humid and heavy.
The mineral pocket around the tunnel we were in was discovered in 1879, and later, because there was no space in the river valley for such a thing, a manmade cave was drilled and blasted below the mountain to accommodate an underground ore mill that would crush, roast and magnetically separate the zinc from zinc ore. That mill had its own gravity tram of sorts, although the essential hardware was missing—nobody was at the office at the bottom to tell me where the tour started, so we took our own, discovering freight elevators, rust-locked equipment and rail-mounted toilet cars.
Navigating our way through the main tunnel away from the mill, a point of light guided us to an old air vent that overlooked the cliff and mills below whose history isn’t altogether clear to me. Although they’re most contemporarily labeled “Eagle Mills” and originally “Iron Mask Mine Mills,” I’ll call this area “Belden” after the mining camp that was there before the mill. Looking along the canyon at the smokestacks’ shadows, like giant sundials, it was clear we had spent a bit more time in the mine proper than originally intended.
We reemerged from Iron Mask’s chilly embrace into the dry Eagle Gulch were a set of modern steel stairs led us between the mills and lowest mine level. The mills are where ore was carted and conveyed out of the mountain into railroad cars and processing buildings like water from a spout. A heavily reinforced building across the river kept the lights on underground and motors moving in the factories nearby, although much of that factory is without a roof, thanks to falling rocks and heavy snowfall.
Back Up that Damn Tram
Wind blowing through the valley made the sheet metal walls flap, creaking a farewell wave, we moved up the staircase and tramway frame back to Gilman, tabling the mine for the moment and turning our attention to the abandoned community whose labor worked the inside of Battle Mountain inside-out.
After sunrise the next day and consequential exploration of the ghost town, our attention once again turned to Eagle mine. My comrades and I hiked down the town-apart streets and through the woods out to the modern shaft house and offices that was the center of activity for the Eagle mine in its final decades.
The well-worn walking paths and staircases between Gilman and Eagle Mine were inefficient and cumbersome for the company’s vision and its workers safety, therefore New Jersey Zinc, the owner of both the town and surrounding mineshafts, built a new, totally modern shaft house.
A hoist room, with its large electric motors, rotated spindles of cable that led down to the lowest levels of the mine below; now workers, ore and machinery could be easily lifted and lowered between the main street of the town and mine. I would speculate as to how the town’s personality would change with its central building becoming the access point for the mine below it, but it’s doubtful that the two could be more interconnected.
Gilman: It’s Like a Part II
Old cages where men were packed and dropped into the darkness lined up with narrow gauge mine rails with a few carts still lined up, ready to go.
Where the lockers lined the walls, fishing hooks hung from chains and cages where sweat-soaked shirts and helmets dried overnight. There’s a small green room with papers along the floor with the sign, “Mine Office,” nailed above the door, I wondered silently whether every office in the town wasn’t a mine office. Hiking to the car, waiting above us on what used to be the Kelly Toll Road, I count my experience inside and around the old Iron Mask Mine and Belden among my favorites.