Snowstorm Gold Dredge
Fairplay, CO

The Colorado Rockies are hiding a mountaintop shipwreck, The Snowstorm.

All around us were snow-capped peaks… Bald Hill (11,500 feet), Palmer Peak (12,500 feet) and Pennsylvania Mountain (13,000 feet). We were going to do a bit of hiking that day, but not for a 12-er view and bragging rights at REI. A floating gold mill, intact by neglect and preserved by remoteness, waited atop an mostly forgotten placer gold mine, like a sleeping dragon guarding its, well, its gold…

How it Works

The first step of the filtering process is being spun through this tube.

Gold dredges work by sorting through the gravel and rocks under them to find pieces of gold. There are ruins of many of them in Montana and Alaska, both of which I knew about long before I heard of Snowstorm. They all work about the same way.

A heavy bucket chain, since scrapped, would scrape the bottom and sides of the dredge pond, slowly making it wider and deeper as it removed whatever gold was in the mix. The material would be dumped into a hopper next to the boat where the sorting process would begin. Gravel, sand, and rocks would slowly be poured into a big rotating steel tube called a trommel, which would start to screen out the larger junk rocks. All of the unwanted material, called tailings, would land on the end of a conveyor belt—the other end of which is at the top of a 150-foot boom. As the dredge moved, it would slowly turn over the side of the mountain, filling in the pond as it moved in the search for gold.

…a better view of the huge tailings boom stretching outside of the tailings pond.

Remnants from the trommel had a higher chance of containing gold, so it went on to the sluice rooms, which flanked the rotating tube. The gravel would be floated on a slant over rows and rows of ribbed boards. This is a clever (and very old) way to organize things by mass. Heavier material would sink faster, so bits of rock with greater mass would sink after the first few rows, while the lightest bits might make it across the whole sluice room without sinking. If all went to plan, somewhere after the densest material would be a few small yellow flecks. Pay dirt.

Gold, which has a relatively high mass, would drop through the slats of the sluice boxes as the water flowed over them. Around the dredge were a half dozen radiator pipes to keep the water flowing through the machines.

When the dredge was position over the part of the placer set for mining, a long ‘foot’ would be lowered through the middle of it into the bottom of the placer, allowing the boat to pivot in place. Its daily capacity was 600 tons of gravel.

Though it’s a little unclear what control station controlled what function, these levers seemed to relate to some of the bigger equipment inside the dredge, such as the trommel.

How it Got There

The Snowstorm was built in pieces between 1939 and 1941 in San Francisco by Bodinson Manufacturing and was assembled at its present location. It was owned and operated by Timberline Dredging which owned another dredge, though the Snowstorm was the bigger of the two by far. In fact, the Snowstorm (or, Dredge #2, as they called it) was the second largest of its type in the world, being 50 feet wide and almost 90 feet long, not including the boom. It was specifically designed to mine and mill the placer gold around where it sits today.

Snowstorm. 1940s. William Ballenger via Jane Galsinger

Placer gold is embedded in sand and gravel, rather than trapped in other large deposits of hard rock. Accordingly, placer gold is usually mined with water power, as opposed to manual power like in underground mines at the time. The Snowstorm placer was discovered in 1870 and as early as 1902 there was a Snowstorm Hydraulic Company, but it did not provide drinking water, as the name may suggest today. Using seven-inch nozzles, miners used high-pressure sprays to wash away the sides of their mines into ditches and sluices built from wood and railroad ties. You can think of it as “mining by mudslide”, only it was slow, controlled, and even profitable sometimes. Much of the gold mined in those early days was sold directly to the United States Mint in Denver, after being concentrated of course.

By the time the dredge was built above the placer, almost all of the surrounding mines had closed. Because the work relied totally on the power of flowing water, operations in the mountains could only hope to begin in May and run through September.

The outbreak of World War II shuttered almost all gold mining operations nationwide, as it was seen as a waste of effort and materials that could be going toward the war. Dredging at the placer stopped then after only operating for 16 months, and it did not restart until 1975 when it was used as a stationary gold mill. It operated one year more before shutting down for good. Snowstorm is certainly one of the most intact gold dredges in the country, so why is it abandoned, and not a museum?

Preservation Efforts

Preservation seemed certain until the present owners raised the price from $65,000 to $2 million, killing a 5-year effort to move the vessel into an interpretive area near South Park (yes the ‘real’ South Park, Colorado) or next to the nearby highway. Unless something dramatically changes, the dredge has no future. I hope my unorthodox virtual tour helps to bring more awareness to this special piece of history.

The tailings boom is the first and last thing you see when approaching the mountaintop shipwreck.