Newcomers to Colorado Springs often think the crumbling hill on the west side above U.S. Highway 24 is part of the landscape, carved by the same patient forces that made Garden of the Gods or Pikes Peak.
It is not. It’s a man-made badlands — 14 million tons of gold mine tailings from the Golden Cycle Mill that is as much a foundation of Colorado Springs as the concrete beneath City Hall. In fact, the land for City Hall was paid for with this dirt. So was the old courthouse. So were many of the mansions on Wood Avenue. So was The Broadmoor hotel. Gold from the ore that made these tailings now covers the state capitol dome. For all the riches the mound brought the city, it has also been a stubborn problem. For almost 50 years it has sat as a no-man’s land in the center of the city, so full of toxic metals and shifting dust that no one could develop it. That’s about to change. The 210-acre mill site, an area the size of Memorial Park, is slated to become a cluster of houses, apartments, shops and offices called the Gold Hill Mesa neighborhood. In February, bulldozers will fill in the gullies, and the history of this odd-looking landmark will be covered over. ‘THE SLIMES’ GET THEIR START The mound’s story starts in 1890 when a hard-luck prospector named Bob Womack walked into a west-side bar and showed off a few bits of gold ore he had found on the back side of Pikes Peak. The metal-laden rocks set off the Cripple Creek gold rush that soon had thousands of miners digging in the earth. To get the gold out of the rock, ore needed to be roasted. Cripple Creek had no coal deposits to fire the furnaces, but Colorado Springs did. “It didn’t take long to figure out that it was cheaper to bring the ore down than to haul the coal up,” said west-side historian Dave Hughes. By 1906, four mills (The Portland, The Telluride, The Standard and The Philadelphia) were extracting gold on the west side. The Golden Cycle opened that year to put them out of business. “This was the greatest, most efficient mill of them all. None could compete,” said Hughes. The Golden Cycle was the largest mill in the country, able to process 800 tons of ore a day and recover more gold per ton than any competitor. The rock came down Ute Pass on the Midland Railroad. Giant crushers, pounding day and night, ground the ore to dust. Then roasters baked it over coal to break down mineral compounds that trapped the precious metal. The roasted dust was mixed with water and cyanide to remove the gold from the rock. Zinc was then added to cause the gold to sink to the bottom of the solution. The other muck splashed out a pipe to a pool called “the slimes.” The pipe ran almost constantly for 40 years, dumping mud onto a gentle hillside. As the slimes piled up, mill workers built a crescent-shaped gravel dam to hold the silt. By 1949, the dam rose more than 12 stories —taller than any building in town. The loose gravel dam eroded naturally over time. It is now the wrinkled face of the tailings people see from the highway. The 14 million tons of waste produced more than 483,441 pounds of gold — a stack of gold bricks taller than the Sears Tower. GLORY DAYS FOR GOLDEN CYCLE After the gold was separated from the rock, the money went to wealthy mine owners, including Spencer Penrose and Winfield Scott Stratton. Its influence is still seen in many of the region’s most consequential institutions. Penrose used his gold earnings to invest in copper mining, which made him a fortune and bankrolled his growing Broadmoor Casino and Hotel and the El Pomar Foundation, which gives about $20 million annually in grants to the community. Stratton donated the land on which City Hall is built. He fronted much of the money for the grand, columned downtown post office and the equally dignified courthouse (now the Pioneers Museum) just down the street. “Gold turned Colorado Springs from a polite resort town into a city. It gave opportunity to many,” said Hughes. And not just for rich men. The Golden Cycle was the largest employer on the west side. Ira Current, 95, watched the 200 workers trudge up 21st Street toward the black smoke plumes rising from the mill’s many stacks when he was a kid. “A lot of boys I knew had fathers who worked there. It was considered a good job,” he said. Sometimes, he’d sneak up to the mill with other boys. “There were signs that said ‘no trespassing’ but we didn’t pay any attention,” he said. Some kids would sled on the sand piles. Some would fish in the tailings pond. There was a cyanide pool beside the mill with a plank running across it. “We used to dare each other across the plank,” he said. It was a popular game and a few boys didn’t make it. According to The Gazette Telegraph, on a spring afternoon in 1926 the pond “claimed another victim when 8-year-old William Jackson was drowned.” Still, the ore cars kept coming down Ute Pass — 20 every day — and the slimes kept piling up. “Those tailings used to drive my mother nuts,” said Current, who now lives in New York. “When the wind was blowing, the air would fill with a fine, white dust that would cover everything in the house.” By the 1940s, the mill was grinding to a halt. In 1942, the federal government forced all gold mines to close so the miners could go after more useful materials, such as copper, for the war effort. Mining resumed in 1945 but the Golden Cycle never recovered. Changes in gold processing eliminated the need for Colorado Springs coal. The mill owners decided it made more sense to process ore near the mines. In 1949, the mill closed. One of the last shipments was one of the richest, worth more than a dollar a pound. TAILINGS LANGUISH For decades the mill site sat empty, slowly crumbling like a massive sand castle. Old-timers knew gold remained in that mound. The old milling process had captured about 91 percent of the gold. A few calculations showed the sand still held about 285,000 ounces of gold and 1.2 million ounces of silver — about $305 million worth at today’s prices. New extraction processes made it recoverable. The first group to take a crack at the fortune included historian Dave Hughes. “I went up to the tailings with a sort of ‘home gold test’ and stuck it in the hill. The damned thing turned purple. It was full of gold,” he said. In 1975, he teamed up with local real estate investors Bill Wiley and a young, sideburned, paisley-tie-wearing Steve Schuck, and others, in an ambitious plan to reprocess the tailings, take the gold, make the leftover sand into “beautiful glass swans and nostalgic toothpick holders,” according to Hughes, sell the swans and toothpick holders to people touring the site, then, after the gold was gone, grade the whole area and build thousands of houses, a movie museum and a monorail. “I was able to convince the City Council to allow mining in the city limits by explaining that if we leveled the whole hill out we could have one hell of a golf course,” Hughes said. Needless to say, it didn’t happen. Nor did it happen 15 years later when an Australian firm, Australian Pacific Minerals, tried to recover the gold. The potential payoff was huge, but so were the up-front costs and work. Investors got spooked. Partners demanded their money back. The 14 million-ton heap just sat there. PARTY CITY In the 1980s, young adults found the site a good place to meet for underage beer bashes. The kids called it “The Ruins” because the foundations of the mill held rows of ancient-looking columns and dark basements that looked, to them, like a sort of concrete Karnac. The Ruins hosted parties almost every weekend and became covered in graffiti. “Everybody partied there, my kids did,” said Bob Willard, the site’s newest developer. “In general, a lot of hell gets raised down there,” a now defunct west-side newspaper called The Bull Sheet wrote in 1989 to sum up the place. William Laven, who taught photography at the Colorado Springs School then, started photographing the old mill. “What fascinated me was how it stood as a symbol of a community that had pinned all its hopes on one thing — gold — and what happens when that thing runs dry. There was a sad beauty to it. “And on this old tableau, these kids who were mostly ignorant of the history were creating their own stories and myths.” Tableau or not, the city wanted to get rid of The Ruins. It was a center of underage drinking and drug use. The police thought eventually they’d have to pull a body out of the ruins. Then cops started reporting dead dogs and cats and “satanic” symbols in the old mill. In 1992, the city condemned the mill site and the property owner, Richard Hadley, tore down most of the concrete foundation and buried the rest. At the urging of the Old Colorado City Historical Society, the mill’s 185-foot smokestack was left standing. Apart from the stack and the drunken memories of a few hundred Generation Xers, the only reminder of the Golden Cycle was the deep gullies running down from the slimes. TURNING THE PAGE “You don’t realize how big these things are until you are standing right in them,” said Willard, manager of the Gold Mesa Joint Venture LLC, as he walked into the deepest of the gullies on a recent morning. Willard, a financial planner by training, became the developer of the mill site when the land was repossessed from the Australians in 1992. “I needed to find a way to recover the value of the property for the investors. The only way was to build on it,” he said. “People were scared to death to build on this site, but it turns out not to be that hard. The tailings are actually fairly stable.” He reached out to touch both walls of the narrow, twisting canyon. The gravel walls rising 30 feet above his head showed layers eroded over decades, like the delicate graded bedding of Garden of the Gods sandstone. “The rills,” as he calls them, have been washing sludge full of arsenic and lead into Fountain Creek for a century. Many of the trees directly downstream are dead or dying. In the next few weeks, bulldozers will smooth the rills. Workers will build a pond at the base to catch the sediment. That’s part of a deal developers struck with the Colorado Department of Health and Environment and the city to get permission to build on the last large piece of open land on Colorado Springs’ west side. “Cap the tailings, that’s always been the solution,” he said. “But for years people were so scared of this site they wouldn’t do anything with it.” The developers also have to dig a three-foot deep basin for each house’s yard, lay down a plastic liner and fill it with topsoil to keep future residents separate from the heavy metals and arsenic of the past. Because of the metals, residents will not be allowed to have vegetable gardens. A number of articles about the arsenic and lead have not poisoned interest in the project. A billboard put up on U.S. Highway 24 last year pictures a man and woman standing in front of a turn-of the-century bungalow holding a sign that reads “we want this, but new.” With no other advertising, the stillunbuilt Gold Hill neighborhood has attracted 350 people to its interest list. The neo-traditional neighborhood is designed to look like neighborhoods in Old Colorado City, with traditional houses and pedestrian-friendly layouts. The streets will be named after the mines that provided the tailings on which they are laid out. Willard has a stack of mine stock certificates from abandoned mines in Cripple Creek he plans to give to new homeowners. The tall, white smokestack of the old mill will stand as a monument in the neighborhood’s central park. “This is the west side. Mining is a key part of the history,” Willard said. “We wanted to be true to that. But things have changed. Now the gold is on top of the hill, not in the hill.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0223 or email@example.com GOLD HILL TIMELINE 1906 Golden Cycle Mill opens as world’s largest gold mill. 1907 Coal dust explosion destroys large part of the mill. 1908 Mill reopens bigger and better. 1914 Mill processes ore from the Cresson Vug — a gold crystal-lined cave that produced $18 million worth of gold, at today’s prices, in one month. 1942 Mill pours its 10,000th gold brick. In all, 483,441 pounds of gold have been shipped. 1949 Mill closes. Golden Cycle company opens a new mill near Victor two years later. 1975 Gold Hill Recycle Project attempts to recover remaining gold from tailings. Partnership falls apart within a year. 1988 City grows uneasy over increasing use of mill ruins by partying teenagers and “Satanists.” 1989 Australian Pacific Minerals buys mill site for $13.5 million to attempt to recover remaining gold. 1992 Australian Pacific can’t pay its bills; land is returned to previous owner, Fountain Creek Corp. City condemns property, owner razes remaining foundations of mill, leaving original smokestack as a historical landmark. 1993 Environmental Protection Agency lists toxic tailings pile as a possi- ble Superfund site, but the tailings are never officially listed. 1997 Gold Hill Mesa Joint Venture unveils a plan to mine the tailings, then develop the site as a neighborhood. 1999 Study by private engineering consultants hired by developers shows site can be built on without removing tailings. 2004 Gold Hill Mesa gets city approval to build 1,400 houses and 700,000 square feet of office and retail space on tailings. 2005 Ground is broken in March. First homes expected to be completed by late summer 2006. DAVE PHILIPPS, THE GAZETTE