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Colorful Colorado: The toxic town with a mixed legacy

January 6, 2018 Updated: January 8, 2018 at 8:29 am
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photo - Vacant homes line the hill below Highway 24 north of Red Cliff Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, where the mining town of Gilman once stood. The New Jersey Zinc. Co. operated the town from 1912 to 1977. In 1986, Gilman was declared a Superfund site.    (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Vacant homes line the hill below Highway 24 north of Red Cliff Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, where the mining town of Gilman once stood. The New Jersey Zinc. Co. operated the town from 1912 to 1977. In 1986, Gilman was declared a Superfund site. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

EAGLE COUNTY - This winter, maybe on their way to ski resorts off Interstate 70, people will drive west on U.S. 24, passing Leadville and the turn for little Red Cliff to the stretch of road that bends around Battle Mountain.

Maybe they'll pay no attention to the ghost town to the left, seen there at the edge of a cliff, hanging on.

That's Gilman. The highway's paved shoulders give one space to park, to step out and see the homes and buildings of last century's bustling scene gone silent.

There's the shaft house, still standing tall and emblematic of the glory years in which America depended on this place for much of its zinc.

There's the sign by the road, alerting trespassers of "HIDDEN AND VISIBLE DANGERS" and the "RISK OF INJURY OR DEATH" - the warning issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1986, when Gilman was declared a Superfund site a decade after mining stopped. Toxic substances had been left to float in the air and orange sludge to seep into the Eagle River below.

There's an obvious footpath near the sign, taken by people whose curiosity bests their cooperation.

There's the hospital, where some of those people found X-rays scattered about, as seen in pictures posted to their blogs.

There's the New Jersey Zinc Co.'s office building, which, judging by those same blogs, still keeps dusty records in drawers.

The company rented out the homes, which reportedly still contain furniture and appliances - adding to the impression that something like Chernobyl happened here, or something like a simple yet devastating announcement for families to pack and leave now. Reserves had been taxed. Production was cheaper overseas. And business was over here.

The New Jersey Zinc Co. ruled the town from 1912 to 1977. It owned the post office. It built the clubhouse for workers and their families to enjoy until the Great Depression, when it closed for a while before reopening with a dance hall and bowling alley. That was during World War II, when zinc's demand was high again, and higher through the '50s, as the booming auto industry needed it.

There's the rusty swing set and the slide in the old schoolyard, which journalist Walter W. Phippeny visited in 1921, observing an American flag and feeling inspired to write: "It is the symbol that typifies the aggressiveness of true Americans."

There are abandoned vehicles. And from his home in Red Cliff, Bill Squires can see them still rumbling on those dirt roads he knew - "'57 Chevy dump truck, '65 Chevy station wagon," he says. He knew their owners, too, but he regrets to say they've been dead for so long that the names escape him.

"Nah," he mutters, a thick Irish accent behind his silver goatee. "Not too many of us left."

A rusty swing set stands outside the old school in the ghost town of Gilman, Colo., Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Only sweet memories

No, not many are around to tell of the Gilman that was. Having spent decades in the mines like his father before him, Squires remembers the good pay, the good union work, the homes of hardwood and yards of gardens, the happy, simple times in the clubhouse.

He has fond memories, as do the others still around.

Says Theresa Arguello, who grew up in Gilman with nine siblings through the '60s: "Every time we (drive) by, our hearts just warm up, and every time we talk about it, we just feel we were very blessed."

She describes a "small but entirely complete community," as Gilman was referred to in a university thesis provided by the Eagle County Historical Society, which considers it one of the definitive accounts of the town's history.

Arguello's family lived in "the poorer part" or "lower level" of town, and she remembers "midtown" and "uptown, where we always went trick-or-treating for the best candy." That's where the company's higher-ups lived - "the big shots," as some former residents knew them, with big, maple desks.

Though their reflections depict stratification, they are quick to gloss it over. "We were never really treated badly. I don't recall that anyway," says Arguello, whose memory is more filled with the raspberries she and other kids picked by the bushel down by the river.

But in his thesis, University of Colorado at Denver student Gregory Brill found that "class division in Gilman was a real problem that lurked underneath the image of an ideal company town." In many ways, the thesis says, the town was never far from its 1880s beginnings, when immigrants under American order "risked their lives, and sacrificed their sanity in a reckless and feverish race to dig deeper."

In the next century, executives recruited men from Mexico to struggle with less pay and harder work while "it was commonplace for Gilman's white workers to move up the corporate ladder," the thesis says.

That seemed clear from company records and other anecdotes. But that's not the story told by former residents today. They only sound proud to have been part of this very Western history. They hardly accept Gilman's toxic legacy, despite the visible, orange proof during the government's cleanup through the '90s.

For Kathy Heicher, president of the Eagle County Historical Society, this much is obvious from her conversations over 45 years with people who called Gilman home: "They are extremely loyal to it."

Gilman, now a ghost town and designated Superfund site, was once a bustling scene of mining until the end of the 1970s. Cars here are parked by the shaft house, the structure to the far right. Courtesy: Eagle County Historical Society, Eagle Valley Library District 

'Progress' prompts change

So they would hate to see a resort take over the hillside - as intended for thousands of acres around Battle Mountain.

"For the Gilman site itself, no development plans at this time," says Tim McGuire, a spokesman for Battle Mountain Development Co.

From the highway, Gilman's loyalists see graffiti, crumbling walls and cracked chimneys. "It's pretty sad to see it in the shape it is now," says Ella Burnett, who worked at the hospital for 30 years and now lives in nearby Minturn. "It was thriving at one time. It's really hurtful to see it now. But that's progress, you know."

Progress came with a new kind of bonanza in the valley: the ski industry. Out from the underground, Squires found his place in that machine, working for less pay at a resort. It was cushier work, sure, not at all like the mines that mangled hands and filled lungs with smoke - as it was for his father, who died young, when Squires was a sophomore in high school.

"He didn't get a settlement or anything like that," Squires says. "He really didn't ever get anything."

The son got memories, mostly romantic. And he got some keepsakes: a bowling ball and a pin, a couple of carts with rusted wheels and a crank phone that workers used in the tunnels, as they communicated by the old bell system.

The phone is on the wall by Squires' front door. And now and then, he'll give the lever a pull to hear the ring so sweet and clear.

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