The Purple Mountains’ Fading Majesty

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The mountain railroads were no better off than the Depression-harried stockmen. All the lines had emerged from the First World War in debt; some were in receivership. The wretched physical condition of Colorado’s principal mountain road, the Denver Sc. Rio Grande Western, led jokesters to scoff that its initials really meant Dangerous & Rapidly Growing Worse.

The matter was no joke to the Rio Grande, however, or to its Ridgway-Telluride-Durango subsidiary, the Rio Grande Southern. The company earnestly wanted to abandon the profitless, snow-heaped, flood-tormented narrow-gauge branches and concentrate on improving and shortening its main line between Denver and Salt Lake City. Heeding the howls of local businessmen who preferred a poor road to none, the Interstate Commerce Commission refused permission. Wretched compromises resulted. Although livestock and ore trains still ran into Telluride and on to Durango more or less as needed, passengers and mail were relegated to a hybrid called the Galloping Goose, a truck body mounted on railroad wheels. There were seats up front for five or six passengers (if that many should ever appear), a van-type body behind for miscellaneous freight, a cowcatcher for nostalgia, and gasoline for power. This unnatural offspring of an efficiency expert’s mating with a balance sheet careened along the rusty rails until 1951, when the D. & R.G.W. at last began to abandon its narrow-gauges.

Strangely enough, the Depression that was suffocating the stockmen and the railroads brought a flutter back to the mining industry. Most of the large gold and silver properties in the mountains were controlled by absentee corporations whose directors seldom had either the opportunity or the inclination to sniff around the edges of the cold workings in quest of crumbs. But local men did. Wages were down, materials were cheap, and they hoped that they could dismantle the old mill and mine buildings and make a precarious profit by wringing gold dust out of the tons of debris that had accumulated during the years. For this privilege they paid the owners a royalty, so that no one lost too much in case of failure. Other men, backed by slightly more capital, poked inside the hollowed mountains, found pillars of ore that had not been removed by owners intent on bigger game, and secured royalty leases on those.

These clean-up operations were quickened in 1934 by President Roosevelt’s abrupt devaluation of the dollar. Overnight the price of an ounce of gold leaped from $20.67 to $35. Lessees promptly intensified their work, building modern little mills to take advantage of newly developed techniques for removing metal from refractory chemical combinations. Relief agencies even conducted classes in gold panning, and here and there, during summers, one saw families camped beside streams while the husbands sought to eke out a dollar or two a day washing gravel as it had been washed seventy-five years earlier by the first stampeders.

It was no true revival, however. The bonanza ores were gone, and the essential smallness of the operations was underscored by the giant bones among which they pawed. Still, such operations provided a living for a few people—until the Second World War. Instantly the gold mines were denied priorities for materials. Shortages closed them down—soaring costs would soon have had the same effect, anyway—and eight decades of often overblown romance, wherein the tail seemed frequently to be wagging the dog, came to an end.

Mining, of course, did not stop; emphasis merely shifted—to the copper of Butte, Montana, and Bingham Canyon, Utah; to the lead that accompanied the silver of the Coeur d’Alêne in Idaho; to zinc in the narrow canyon of the Eagle River below Colorado’s Tennessee Pass; to molybdenum at Climax, high above Leadville; and, very mysteriously at the time, to the carnotite ores pocketed in the plateau country bordering the San Miguel River a few dozen miles below Telluride. Carnotite yields both vanadium oxide (red cake) and uranium oxide (yellow cake). When the carnotite mines reopened late in the thirties we assumed that the goal was vanadium oxide, to be used in hardening steel. We were wrong. Under impenetrable secrecy, yellow cake began moving to an ultramodern research complex at a place called Los Alamos in the Jemez Mountains north of Santa Fe. Years later, when the bomb went off at Hiroshima, we knew.

War-born improvements in technology turned the surviving metal mines into giants. By the mid-1960’s Bingham Canyon, Utah, was turning out upwards of 80,000 tons of copper ore each day —more ore per twenty-four hours than the narrow-gauge railroad had hauled away from Red Mountain in four full years!