An Isolated Empire: A History of Northwest Colorado
BLM Cultural Resource Series (Colorado: No. 12)
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Chapter VIII:
mining operation

The western slope of Colorado experienced several mineral booms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These rushes were different than earlier ones, most of the minerals involved were not precious, as had been prevalent during the initial settlement of the state.

One of the bigger booms occurred in far western Colorado and in eastern Utah. The mineral, gilsonite, was discovered in the late 1870's by Samuel Gilson of Salt Lake City. Gilsonite is an oil and tar-based rock that can be processed into asphalt. At first the market was limited to industrial uses, such as lining beer barrels to make them waterproof. In 1889 Gilson, who had been mining the mineral since 1886 near Dragon, Utah, sold his holdings to the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company of St. Louis, who used gilsonite for beer barrels, and felt that it was better to own the source than to depend on a small operation such as Gilson's. In 1889 the Gilson Asphaltum Company was organized, and the Black Dragon Mine, near Dragon, Utah, was further developed. The major problem with gilsonite was that it was hard to ship; it was bulky and highly flammable. At first, mules carried the material to Salt Lake City; this proved too expensive and soon wagons were employed to haul it down to meet the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad near Mack, Colorado. [1]

With a change of hands in management, new money was pumped into the industry. In 1903 the Barber Asphalt Company, owned by General Asphalt of New Jersey, capitalized the construction of a rail line from Dragon, Utah to Mack, Colorado. The Uintah railroad was to be narrow gauge, and it would be built at a cost of $1.75 million, solely to haul gilsonite. The line which ran south from Dragon, over Baxter Pass and on to the Grand Valley, was finished by 1906. [2] In that same year, a toll road company was incorporated at Dragon to build roads to Vernal, Utah, and Rangely, Colorado, in order to provide stage service. [3] It was hoped that the Uintah Railroad would be extended to both of these places later. In 1913 a survey was made for an extension to Meeker, Colorado, but nothing came of the effort. [4]

The Uintah Railway System as of 1935. From: Bender, The Uintah Railway: The Gilsonite Route (click on map for an enlargement in a new window)

The rail line, sixty-two miles long, used especially built Shay locomotives to pull flatcars of gilsonite over the long and steep Baxter Pass route. Along the right of way little towns and settlements sprang up, including places like Urado, East Vac, Columbine, Carbonera, Clarkton and Mack. [5] The line ran from Watson, Utah, to Mack, Colorado, using the twisting Baxter Pass route. Hundreds of thousands of tons of the mineral were hauled out and then processed. The asphalt was used not only for industrial purposes, but much of it went into streets across the nation when the age of highway building came in the 1920's. [6]

The Uintah Railway was unique in that it was built for one product, and gilsonite supported it. The railway also ran passenger service from Watson to Mack on a regular schedule. This was the first rail transportation on a north-south basis in western Colorado.

Transporting gilsonite was tricky; it was so flammable that wet canvas sacks had to be used to keep the engine's sparks from setting it afire. In addition, wrecks from runaways, bad track, and the like were common. During the 1920's and 1930's the advent of better roads and heavy trucks made the railroad obsolete, and it was finally abandoned in 1938; the old roadbed has been converted into a jeep road and is still in use. [7] In 1957 a slurry pipeline was built from Watson, Utah to Mack, Colorado, and the gilsonite industry continued to be a major factor in far western Colorado's economy. [8]

Mining in North Park was revitalized in the late 1890's. Gold mining had taken place on Independence Mountain since the 1870's but it was never a paying proposition. However, a few miners worked the area and tried to make a living. While prospecting this region, copper was found in the far northwest corner of the Park. A boom ensued and the town of Pearl, Colorado was built. This copper boom was not long lasting; it was over by 1915, but it did much to stimulate growth in North Park. Copper was also discovered in the Centennial Valley (Wyoming and Colorado), and a minor rush occurred there too. [9]

The other major mineral discovery in North Park occurred in 1890, when the Riach Brothers discovered coal near Coalmont, Colorado. Large quantities of this fuel were to be found in North Park, but development had to wait until transportation for it could be built. The coal was used only locally until about 1911, when the Laramie, Hahn's Peak and Pacific Railroad was built from Laramie, Wyoming to Walden, Colorado. The Laramie Hahn's Peak was projected to go down the Elk River Valley to Steamboat Springs, on to Craig, then to Meeker, down the White River to Utah, and on into Salt Lake City. The road was actually built south to the Centennial Valley, reaching that area in 1906. [10] It was extended to Walden by 1911, and finally the line reached Coalmont in that same year. The coal reserves were thus tapped and the railroad brought cheap transportation to North Park.

The railroad had hoped that the Centennial and Pearl copper booms and the Coalmont coal fields would provide revenue for operation. As it turned out, none of these sources except the coal fields proved to be of lasting worth; if there was a single major source of revenue, it was cattle and freight. The Laramie Hahn's Peak and Pacific suffered from chronic financial troubles, and went through several name changes. In 1907 it became the Laramie and Routt County Railway; in 1914 it was called the Colorado, Wyoming, and Eastern Railroad; and in 1924 the name was changed to the Northern Colorado and Eastern Railroad. That same year it was re-incorporated into the Laramie, North Park and Western, which it remained until 1951 when the Union Pacific mercifully bought it out. The line remains today as the Union Pacific and still serves North Park. [11]

North Park was provided with rail service rather late; the only real benefit enjoyed by North Parkers was that freight service was improved. The population of the area grew to a point that in 1912 the Park was made into a separate county. Jackson county was carved out of Grand County and the seat was designated as Walden. A courthouse was built in 1912, and Walden became the leading town in the Park. Smaller towns such as Cowdrey and Pinkhampton, were originally ranches that became post offices, while towns like Coalmont and Pearl were mining towns that acted as service centers. North Park's development after 1915 was primarily agricultural, with cattle and hay being the most important products. Coal production was marginal, but the discovery and tapping of this resource was significant in that it marked potential development in other areas of western Colorado.

coal mine
The coal mines of the Yampa Valley produced into the 1920's. This mine, at Oak Creek, was closed down in the late '20s. Colorado State Historical Society.

The far northwest corner of Colorado mineral potential remained undeveloped except for a few minor booms. At Blue Mountain copper and some gold deposits were found, but they were far too small to provide the stimulus for a rush. Equally, gold placers along the Little Snake River and Fortification Creek were nearly worthless. Only Hahn's Peak continued as a viable mining area, and by 1900 even it was rapidly fading. However, the turn of the century saw a great interest in other reserves developing. Hayden in 1876 had noted the existence of coal, oil and oil shale; due to the lack of need and/or transportation, these fields were not tapped. By 1900 the demand for coal had risen to the point that the western slope was being re-evaluated. Local residents had long used coal from the Streeter Canyon area, and some mining of oil shales had taken place around Meeker where the locals used it for fuel. Coal was also being mined in this region; however, large scale mining had not taken place. [12]

In 1906 the United States Geological Survey took a look at the Yampa Valley coal fields for the first time. It was known that coal existed, but the extent and the quality were still in question. A survey of the valley showed that major seams of coal were to be found in the areas of Oak Creek, Trout Creek, Twenty Mile Park, Wolf Creek, Sage Creek, Dry Creek, the Williams Fork area, Wollihan, Pilot Knob, and on the Flat Top Mountains. [13] It was noted that only one tenth of the area was in agricultural use, and therefore mining would not interfere with other industries. But the big problem was that there was no way to remove the coal cheaply. The surveyor, William Weston, noted that: "Without a railroad, no shipments of hay, grain, vegetables, or fruit can be made any more than can the coals." [14]

Later reports of the USGS in the area confirmed that the same problem existed; there were minerals in abundance but removing them would be hard without transportation.

A 1906 USGS survey of the Yampa Valley by Nevin Fenneman concluded that high grade bituminous coal was readily available, but that a railroad would be needed to remove it. [15] The same old story; no transportation.

Northwestern Colorado in 1900 suffered from a total lack of cheap and easy transportation. Freight wagons and stagecoaches provided the only means of moving about the region, and the more isolated spots such as Rangely often had only semi-regular service. As has been noted, most of the roads ran to the Rio Grande Railroad, terminating at Wolcott, which was a large terminus for wagons and stages. North Park was served until 1913 by stage and freight wagons, while places like Craig and Steamboat Springs were provided with horse-drawn service. Craig, Lay, Maybell, Baggs, Dixon, Meeker, Axial, Rangely, and Vernal were all inter-connected with stage routes. This was slow and costly transport.

The promise of a new day came in 1903 when a new railroad was proposed. It would begin in Denver, run through Middle Park, across the Gore Range, up the Yampa Valley and to Steamboat Springs; from there the line would go to Craig, then on to Vernal, Utah and finally terminate in Salt Lake City. When word of the route got out; all of northwestern Colorado was excited. Businessmen, cattlemen, miners, everyone saw the coming of a railroad as the answer to all of their problems. [16]

Map 8. Later Mining and Transportation, 1890-1920 (click on map for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 31-Oct-2008