Updated: August 14, 2009 at 12:00 am
PIKES PEAK, 1899 - Even the mule seemed to sense mining on Pikes Peak was a bad idea.
The animal, which the prospectors used to haul loose rock out of the Oil Creek Tunnel, refused to enter. A few hours later, a blast from a forgotten stick of dynamite blew off the top of one miner’s head, killing him instantly, and fractured the skull and tore out an eye of another.
It was the worst, but hardly the last, misfortune to plague this mine, thought to be the largest mining effort ever on Pikes Peak. After a few years, the miners walked away, leaving equipment strewn about this remote part of the peak and a gaping tunnel.
Until recently, hikers were free to explore this little-known piece of local history and walk 1,600 feet into the mountain.
Last summer, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety had the tunnel sealed with a metal grate, part of a long-running program to close and clean up the 23,000 historic mines that were abandoned before the age of environmental laws and reclamation requirements.
The agency has worked on 8,000, including 500 around Cripple Creek and Victor, but on the peak, it has identified and covered just a handful of small pits around the Halfway Picnic Ground on the Pikes Peak Highway. Oil Creek is the only mining tunnel on the peak the U.S. Forest Service knows of, a spokeswoman said.
From the first gold rush in 1859, when prospectors painted “Pike’s Peak or Bust” on their wagons and headed west – Colorado was then known as the "Pike's Peak" region – the mountain has been associated with the lust for precious metals that fueled the settlement of the Rockies.
But, as the story of Oil Creek shows, those who tried to scratch out something valuable from Pikes Peak’s unprofitable granite encountered failure, misery and even death.
Ranch hand Bob Womack struck gold in Cripple Creek in 1890, and the area west of Pikes Peak quickly swelled to 50,000 people. By 1910, more than 22,400,000 ounces of gold were extracted from 500 mines in the Cripple Creek Mining District.
Some speculated these veins originated under Pikes Peak itself, and that the mountain hid a bonanza. Some of the ‘59ers had failed to find gold on the peak, but that didn’t discourage a group of investors from the German National Bank of Cincinnati from trying. From the carriage road up Pikes Peak, they blazed a road 2 miles around the peak and down 600 feet into a gully and in March 1896 started digging.
They must have also packed in a lot of faith.
Said a 1901 article in the Fairplay Flume newspaper, “At that time, there was no ore in sight and nothing but a theory to warrant the expenditure of money.”
Contractor Scott Berry understands what it must have been like to haul mining gear to this remote spot.
“Now how the heck did they get that up here?” said Berry, on a tour of the site last week, marvelling at the massive iron boiler that remains at the tunnel mouth. “They were some tough old birds.”
He estimates it weighs at least 5 tons, and an iron compressor with pistons the miners brought in may be just as heavy. His generator and welder weighed only 160 pounds each when he carried them here last summer, through thunderstorms, rain, hail and even snow, and it was a back-breaking effort.
Too rough a trail for ATVs, too rugged for a helicopter, everything for the tunnel-sealing operation was hauled by hand. It took two weeks, much of that spent trudging up and down the trail.
The site was off the beaten track in the 1890s and remains so today. It’s 4.5 miles from Barr Trail, the main hiking route up Pikes Peak, and 2 miles from the Elk Park trail head and overlook, at 11,800 feet. The trail from the highway goes around a steep, eroded slope, descends rapidly into a gulch and then climbs up to the cliffs of the peak’s northeast side.
“Up here there’s nothing, nothing that looks like it would have gold or silver,” said Gary Curtiss, geologist and project manager with the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. “How this got started and why are good questions.”
Hardly the ideal site for a mine, but the prospectors kept digging.
The 1899 explosion took the life of 22-year-old Walter Johnson, who had a mother and a “sweetheart” in Buena Vista, the newspapers said, but it did not seem to slow the operation. Former miners, writing to The Gazette in the 1930s, claimed there were two accidents that killed four men, whose corpses were packed on burros to Cascade, where the coroner met them.
The miners, 12 to 14 working at any one time, appear to have questioned the wisdom of carrying on.
“As a reason for boring so far in solid granite without a lead or vein, or any mineral indications, they said they found some rich ‘float’ above on the surface and on the Oil Creek slope, and hoped to cut an ore deposit in the tunnel,” recalled Ed Armentrout to the newspaper in 1937.
Snow was a constant foe, since the north-facing slopes can hold a bonanza in powder, and in the winter supplies had to be brought in by pack trains along Severy Creek.
And then, in January 1901, success.
“A director of the company is confident that they have a regular bonanza,” said the Aspen Tribune newspaper Jan. 31, as reports went out across the state of the first-ever gold strike on Pikes Peak. Reports said the miners struck a gold vein more than 3 feet wide, with a value of $80 per ton of rock, after digging 900 feet into the peak.
The workers weren’t told of the size of the strike until the Cincinnati bankers had a chance to buy up all the surrounding land. The bankers then asked El Paso County commissioners to build a proper road to the mine, a request that was apparently denied.
“Men are at work night and day getting things into proper shape. The officers are satisfied that the values run deep and are preparing for deep mining,” wrote the Colorado Transcript newspaper in Golden.
But that was apparently all the peak had to offer. At some point, with $100,000 sunk into the venture and the tunnel sunk 1,600 feet into the granite, the backers gave up. They didn’t even remove their equipment. The furnace remains to this day, as do a few collapsed log cabins, while an iron compressor used to pump air into the tunnel for miners apparently fell onto the side of the road halfway out of the gulch.
It remains along the trail to this day.
In 1937, the Forest Service decided to turn the old road to the mine from the Elk Park overlook into a trail. A story in The Gazette incorrectly said the tunnel was the remains of an effort by Cripple Creek men to build a shortcut between Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek, which drew angry letters from old miners still around.
The Forest Service built the trail to encourage visits to the historical curiosity, and the tunnel has apparently been explored regularly over the years. But over time, attitudes about old mines that dot the high country changed.
The state in 1980 completed an inventory of old mine pits and openings and has been systematically closing them, with money from the federal government and revenue from coal, oil and gas production.
The Division of Mining, Reclamation and Safety says 18 people have died falling in abandoned mines since 1955.
The Oil Creek Mine was selected at the request of the Forest Service, to prevent possible injuries and protect a healthy bat population in it. It cost the state $10,000 to seal, more than such operations usually do, because of the time involved and remoteness of the site.
“That was kind of a bummer,” said Pikes Peak Marathon champion Matt Carpenter, who has explored the tunnel a half dozen times and created a Web site about it, www.skyrunner.com/story/oilcreek.htm.
While he understands the tunnel was sealed to prevent injuries, he said he sees it as safe.
“There’s a serious cave-in back there, and it’s downright scary, but my theory was it had lasted 100 years. What were the odds of (a collapse) happening on your day?” he said.
Curtiss acknowledged the disappointment.
“I’d just say, ‘Sorry I had to do it. Sorry I had to ruin your fun,’” he said. “Possibly you could be saving someone’s life. You’re protecting bats, protecting people.”
Even with the tunnel sealed, the site remains a well-preserved, remote and seldom-visited place on the peak, evidence of a time when people thought they could do the impossible, that human ingenuity would triumph over harsh nature.
Of course, there is always another possibility on why they mined here:
Said Curtiss: “There are guys who mine the pockets of investors, so this could have been one of those.”