Welcome to the Gulch, a Family Place
“Throughout most of its history,” an article reads, “Gilman as been a company town… a family town.” As I stumbled, gasping for breath on the side of Battle Mountain, on a trail behind my endeavoring comrades I found it hard to believe anyone ever living in such a place; the phrase “mining camp” seemed more plausible as I saw through the trees a real-life ghost town, rotting 9,000 feet above sea level and 1,000 feet above the Eagle River below, carving its way through Eagle Gulch.
Gulch… I never thought I’d get to use that word in my historical writing,but then I hadn’t imagined finding that there was a famously town village just a few hours’ drive from Denver, Colorado. Trooping in a row through the trees on that steep hiking path below the highway, we stepped broadly over the washouts and unidentifiable wreckage that punctuated the otherwise smooth, downward slope. Stopping for a few minutes to rub our sore shoulders and peek into the forced-air mine vent, ubiquitously self-labeled ‘Belden Fan.’ It quickly became clear that adventuring in the footsteps of Minnesota’s history could be summed up as “a mean hike in the woods” compared to the extreme landscape of the Rocky Mountains.
These paths down the mountain were the same twisted trails that were used by the early miners who, upon being summoned by dreams of easy living by the promise of the Colorado Silver Boom, streamed in by the thousands to the area, below the peak overhead: Battle Mountain. Some of these early mining camps, around which the hard men worked mostly dry prospects, became established towns after a time. While most of these camps-turned-settlements were below the mines where their workers slept, Gilman took the opposite route, instead sitting above the mine entrances and later the big ore mills that processed the local mines’ raw materials.
Below what would become Gilman were a myriad of mines: Ida May, Little Duke, Ground Hog, Belden, Iron Mask, May Queen, Kingfisher, Little Chief, Crown Point, and Little Ollie, the oldest dating back to 1878. On May 5, 1879, a Judge by the name of D. D. Belden discovered what would become Belden Mine, a lode so famous that the whole strip of subterranean activity below Battle Mountain and Gilman along Eagle Gulch would later become known simply as “Belden.” Later that year, a local newsman discovered what would be developed into Iron Mask Mine, the principal producer of lead and zinc within Colorado for decades.
In 1882, when it became clear to investors that the Belden area was destined to be a major mineral supplier, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built a new spur at the base of the cliff below what would be Gilman. The next year, the “Battle Mountain Mining Districts” became part of the new Eagle County, and, on November 3, 1886 the town that would become Gilman was founded: Clinton. After it was found out that the name ‘Clinton’ had a claim by another town in California the official name was finalized to what it remains today. The name comes from Henry M. Gilman, a local miner who, according to an old article, “represented eastern money,” an object of desire for a struggling mountain town at the time.
Touring the Town, 19th-Century Style
Soon, the mining town evolved far beyond a primitive mining camp on the side of a mountain to a village where families could prosper, supplied by the railroad below and Kelly Toll Road, now US Highway #24, above. There was a theater where traveling dramatic troupes would perform, hotels like Iron Mask, boarding houses, schools, and even a newspaper named “The Gilman Enterprise.”
The little town grew with a few setbacks, including an 1899 fire that destroyed half of the town.
But the miners rebuilt and soon afterward were again weaving down the slippery trails and wooden stairs to the mines and mills along the gulch. More and more, however, the strong hands were scratching the earth for zinc, and not silver, as evidenced by the 1905 installation of a roaster and magnetic separator.
In 1912, the company that would come to own the town, New Jersey Zinc, began buying all the mines around Gilman and the very land the town was on—times were changing. Iron Mask Mine was renamed “Eagle 1” and “Eagle 2” by 1919, and continued to mine zinc under Battle Mountain. But in 1931 zinc prices plunged and forced New Jersey Zinc to extract copper-silver ores instead. A decade later, though, zinc was again the focus, raking in $12,000,000 for the company in 1951 alone—an apex from which the market fell out from below the company, town and mine.
Bad for the Bosses Means Bad for Me
By 1984, rock-bottom zinc prices coerced the company to leave Gilman and Eagle mine for more profitable enterprises. Eagle Mine, after producing almost 13,000,000 tons of ore was allowed to flood while the town, its corporate sponsor missing in action, was forcibly evacuated by the Environmental Protection Agency because of extreme pollution.
And here I was gasping because of the thin air; I guess I should have been glad that it’s been a while since toxic clouds drifted out of the Eagle River mills.
Today, fish can actually live in the river.
I remember, taking the last break in the line of trees before we had to make a beeline for the ridge that surrounds the old side of town, ticking off the superfund sites I had been at before… four or five of them, I figured. “This one’s probably the worst of them all, though,” I surmised, seeing it wasn’t fit for human life, strictly speaking. “Hardcore history,” I thought, “hope I remembered to charge my camera.” My pack felt too heavy to take off for the sake of checking my photography gear; I wouldn’t want to shoulder again if I took a break.
As far as my lungs were concerned, Minnesota was underwater and I was in space.
Finally, half running and half jogging into town, walking past the railroad supply tram that adventurers have named, “Darwin’s Ladder,” I followed a local comrade into a cinder block shack. It seemed to be in a lot better condition than its neighbors; these were mostly 50-year-old wooden houses that haven’t had a new coat of paint since before I was born. They probably won’t get any attention, either, until maybe a wrecking ball knocks politely on their front doors. The white picket fences have seen better days, too, I wager, considering how they have crumpled between the unruly pines that reached high enough to shatter second-story windows.
“The owners of these places are probably still alive, too,” someone said to me as I stared around, “That’s the weird part, I think; they’re still somewhere out there, but just got up and left this place one day; told they can’t stay and gotta go.” I nodded, acknowledging the unsaid irony of industrialization: to make a living, one sometimes has to destroy the environment they go home to. When the dirt you turn over poisons the water you drink, do you starve, unemployed, or accept the inevitability of chronic illness?
Such is the story I often find myself telling: driving from factory to factory, the story is that the work of building a life, family or country is hard and dirty and dangerous, but, “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
Americans like to call this ‘the American Spirit,’ but I would suggest that, in fact, it’s an urge to survive today for tomorrow’s sake, no matter the cost… in dollars, hours and blood.
It’s the miner’s story, and it always has a sad ending, for those who remember how it goes.