Mining Boardinghouses in the San Juan Mountains
Historic Hikes and Historic Lodging
A Night in the Old One Hundred Boardinghouse
by Bill and Beth Sagstetter, authors of The Mining Camps Speak
It had sounded like a great idea: spending the night in one of the highest, most remote old mine boardinghouses in the American West. Staying overnight in the boardinghouse near Silverton, Colorado, would allow us more time to shoot pictures at different times and in different light. We also thought that sleeping in the Old Hundred Boardinghouse would be a magic experience. With us came our friends Steve and Donna.
After a long trek, we found a large, barn-like frame building clinging to the side of the mountain so far above timberline even eagles wouldn’t go there. We explored the relic and in the basement found a chilling sight. Our friend Steve happened to be a structural engineer and when he saw that the supports of the building had been chewed into an hour-glass shape he declared we couldn’t possibly stay there overnight. But it was too late, it was getting dark.
Nervously expecting the building to lose its toehold at any moment, we gingerly sat down at the long mess hall table. Steve and Donna sat across the table from Beth and me. About half way into our meal of dried out tortillas and cheese whiz, Steve suddenly stopped eating and stared over our heads, the whites of his eyes getting bigger. With the hair on the back of my neck standing straight up, I swiveled around to see what he was looking at, and all these little beady red eyes stared back at me. Pairs of little eyes lit by our lantern were lining up on the rafters and watching us. A sign of what was to come.
After deciding that Steve and Donna would sleep in one of the collapsed bunks, Beth and I chose to sleep on the dining hall table. We knew enough to put our shoes, socks and car keys in the bottom of the sleeping bags so they wouldn’t be carted off by curious packrats, and we dozed off. I don’t know how the little critters knew just the right time to explore all over your body, but they do. Just as I nodded off, I felt this slight touch of a cotton ball run by my cheek. So for the next several hours the moment we dozed off we would be awakened by little cotton ball critters jumping on and off our bags and whizzing by our faces.
This was going to be a long night. The moon finally came out and I could see it through the window. With the moon in sight, I finally dozed off for what seemed like most of the night. Only to wake up and find the moon had not moved! Just when we thought it could not get worse, about 2 or 3 a.m. all hell broke loose: Large sounding animals running ,jumping and climbing all over the collapsed boards, sliding down the metal roof panels that had fallen, and running under and over our table.
As dawn approached and we thought we were done, out came what sounded like chain saws. The whole building shook as marmots gnawed on the hourglass-shaped supports that held up the building and looked like they were ready to snap at any moment.
We thought it would never happen, but the sun eventually did come up. Exhausted, we gratefully started the long trek out. It wasn’t the magic experience we had expected, but it was memorable — in a Stephen King sort of way.
High in the San Juans of southwest Colorado, perched precariously on narrow mountain ledges or in tight glacial
valleys, rest boardinghouses that housed miners, dormitory style, close to the portals of hardrock mines where they
drilled rock. When the mines were in full operation and miners worked multiple shifts, boardinghouse beds never grew
cold. As soon as one miner got up to work another one, exhausted, would lie down in the same bunk. Now only a few
boardinghouses remain. Many of these log or wood frame structures succumbed to avalanches. Others were brought down
by fire, and at least one, the Kohler/Longfellow Boardinghouse atop Red Mountain Pass between Silverton and Ouray,
was bulldozed by its owner a few years ago in a childlike fit of anger.
The remaining boardinghouses are a unique remnant of the 19th and early 20th century gold and silver mining booms which made the San Juans an exciting place to live. Eastern capital flowed West to develop mines and immigrant laborers drifted up through mountain passes to seek their fortunes underground. One of the most famous of these boardinghouses is the Old One Hundred, perched high atop Galena Mountain above 12,000 feet.
Another is the Eureka Boardinghouse nestled in the pines near the old town site of Eureka just northeast of Silverton. With 30 bedrooms and 11,000 square feet of space, it qualified as a "miner's hotel," and now that is has been lovingly restored, the Eureka Boardinghouse will become prime summer lodging for jeepers and hikers driving the Alpine Loop. In the winter ice climbers will enjoy its proximity to major climbing routes along the headwaters of the Animas River.
This is a tale of two boardinghouses, one high up on a mountaintop reached only by a century-old un-maintained trail, and the other one easily accessible after being vacant and unfinished for seventy years.
The history of the Old One Hundred Boardinghouse begins with the history of the Old One Hundred Mine in Cunningham
Basin and the original route into Silverton via Stony Pass or Cunningham Pass from Del Norte. After the Brunot Treaty
of 1874 which forced Ute Indians out of the vastness of the silvery San Juans, hundreds of miners began the trek
towards Baker's Park, now the town site of Silverton. With picks, pans, shovels, and endless optimism, prospectors
occasionally used dynamite to create "glory holes" in their search for high grade ore. Though other miners had filed
claims in Cunningham Gulch and on Galena Mountain, it was the Niegold brothers, Reinhard, Gustave, Otto, and their
half-brother Oscar who began to develop the Old One Hundred Mine, which is now an exciting daily mine tour during the
Visitors wear miners' yellow slickers, ride a perky little mine train, and head into the bowels of the earth to learn about the history of Silverton mining from actual Silverton miners who are not above a joke or two and love to tell colorful stories. High above the mine tour, on Seven level of the Old One Hundred Mine, sits the Old One Hundred Boardinghouse far above timberline on the exposed rocky slope of Galena Mountain. Beside the mine and running in a straight line up the slope, lie the remnants of the tram system which brought food and supplies up to the boardinghouse and returned drunken miners from their visits to Silverton brothels. Now the tram system is in shambles, but the remarkable boardinghouse has been restored by Silverton craftsmen who stabilized the structure and gave it a new roof and lease on life. To visit the boardinghouse hikers use 4WD vehicles to drive up a side road off Cunningham Gulch and then begin the hike on a trail and burro path pioneered by packers who brought in original materials for the boardinghouse and tram tower in 1904.
The Niegold Brothers loved fine wines and liquor, expensive Turkish tobacco, and music. In the remote San Juans they had a piano. Scott Fetchenhier in his definitive book Ghosts and Gold: The History of the Old Hundred Mine writes, "Imagine the surprise of exhausted travelers, after days or weeks of struggling over poorly built roads to hear faint wisps of piano music and opera excerpts reaching their ears as they came over rugged Stony Pass and saw the glowing lights of the Niegold cabins." Fetchenhier continues, "They were even more astonished in their search for a hot meal and a stiff drink, to be greeted at the door by the somewhat celebratory Niegold brothers, dressed in their finest opera costumes and wearing powdered white wigs!" Because the brothers loved to sing, the Old Hundred probably derived its name from the Bible's 100th Psalm which was set to music and used in 19th-century hymnals.
If the brothers liked to drink, smoke, and sing, they also liked to make money, but alas like so many gold and silver mines, the Old Hundred required as much in invested capital as it ever delivered to eager owners. The Niegold brothers sold their claims to eastern investors who organized the Old Hundred Mining Company and began to actively develop the "prospects" in 1904. With an infusion of capital, carpenters constructed the Seven level boardinghouse for miners of Cornish, German, Italian, Irish, and Swedish descent. The structure featured a complete kitchen with cabinets, wood stove, cutting blocks, counters, and dining room tables. On the first floor a large dining room, lit by electricity, was served by a cook, a baker, and busy waiters. On the second floor carpenters built 24 bunks into the walls with a separate private bedroom for the shift boss. Despite frigid San Juan winters and no insulation, only two pot-bellied stoves heated the building - one on either end. Off the dining area the boardinghouse has a west-facing porch with a magnificent view, but watch your step. As Scott Fetchenhier notes, "At an elevation of over 12,000 feet, a fall from the porch would have meant a 2,000-foot roll into the bottom of Cunningham Gulch." And you don't even want to think about losing your way coming back from the outhouse at night. Though much of the kitchen remains intact, marmots have been chewing their way through the cabinetry.
With the tram towers fallen down, today's only access to the boardinghouse is on the steep, winding trail built for $32,000 because of the substantial drilling and blasting it took to carve it out of the west side of Galena Mountain wide enough for horse and mule travel. The trail actually comes in above the boardinghouse and intrepid hikers, staring down at the structure's roof, have to gingerly work their way down 250 feet of loose scree to get to the stabilized boardinghouse and tram tower. The possibility of slipping and tumbling down the mountain is all too real. Added to the excitement that loose footing can create, avalanches close the trail in winter. In summer, afternoon thunderstorms of driving rain and lightning make the trail equally challenging.
And then there's the problem of drinking water. In high summer and early fall there is no water available on those rocky slopes, and there wasn't any fresh water for the thirteen miners who tried to sample the Old Hundred's Seven Level workings in late summer 1937 as they considered reopening the closed mine. Working in the shaft and staying in the boardinghouse, they developed a powerful thirst.
Scott Fetchenhier tells this story quoting from Walter Kimball: "That high on the mountain there was no drainage and hence no water, and what we had, had to be melted from ice. All day long every available pot was chuck full of ice and on the stove. And we didn't care about cleanliness. The ice at the mouth of the tunnel like all the rest had been sitting there for at least ten years . . . It was full of every sort of dirt and the packrats had run wild over it for heaven knows how long and left plenty of remnants. All we could do was strain it and be thankful that we had it and didn't have to pack it from the trail. It was a little brown, but mighty cool. Old Art (one of the miners) said, "I never drank rat shit before and found it so good."
In the 1970s, researchers Bill and Beth Sagstetter, authors of The Mining Camps Speak, hiked up to the boardinghouse and spent the night. They noticed packrats had been gnawing the floor joists. They ate a pleasant meal, and got out their sleeping bags, concerned about the creaking and moaning of the aged timbers and the constant flapping of loose metal siding, but those noises were nothing compared to what greeted them after dark. . . .(see sidebar).
After years of neglect and decay, and having been hammered by snow, sleet, and those winter storms affectionately known as "San Juaners," the Old One Hundred Boardinghouse, perched above the clouds, seemed destined to be blown off the mountain. But folks in Silverton are nothing if not resourceful and because the glint off the galvanized siding could be seen miles away in town, locals got the nutty idea that they should stabilize the building. Spurred on by Bev Rich, president of the San Juan County Historical Society, the Colorado Historical Society agreed to fund the costs and the Colorado Bureau of Mines offered to help with construction materials and a helicopter. In one of the most amazing stabilization/preservation projects in the Rockies above 12,000 feet, local carpenters set out to re-brace the walls, repair the porch, and put a new roof on the boardinghouse because the Old One Hundred was now a century old. The work crew included Loren Lew, Chris Nute, and others. A filmmaker documented their work and the final production of "Castle in the Clouds" is almost complete.
Of the many stories that came out of that summer's work, perhaps Loren Lew has the best. Straddling the ridgeline of the roof, pounding the last nails into the roofing tin, Lew felt secure with his safety line held by another team member. After pounding in the last nail, he took one final look at the glorious 270 degree view of Cunningham Gulch and all the mountains towards Silverton and beyond. Finished with his work he gave a yank on the rope only to find that no one was there to belay him. He had been crawling around on the slippery tin without a secure safety line. One slip and he would surely have died on the rocks below. All of a sudden someone owed him an awful lot of beer.
The Old One Hundred never made any serious money for its investors. The huge mill and boarding house in the gulch below, from the era of chauffeurs, Duesenburg automobiles and out of state financiers, was carried into the creek by avalanches. Fires also destroyed some of the mining structures. Almost nothing remains but a few broken tram towers. The Old Hundred Mining Tour, deep into the rock of Galena Mountain, is a great summer history lesson to share with family and friends, but if you really want to understand mining in the San Juans, and the absolute derring-do of immigrant miners, then hike the 1904 trail that comes in above the empty boardinghouse.
Scott Fetchenhier wrote in Ghosts and Gold, "By the end of 1908 miles of abandoned tunnels and raises were mute testament to the folly of man as rusting tram buckets swayed in the wind. The vacant tram-house and boardinghouse on Seven level set empty, their floors no longer hearing the tramp of miner's boots, only the wispy footsteps of ghosts left behind." If you want to feel the ghosts, take the hike, but be down the trail well before dark unless you seek a sleepless night with packrats. One last thing, take plenty of water.
Fixing up the Eureka Boardinghouse (www.eurekalodgecolorado.com, (970-618-3913) has been a long and difficult labor of love. Cleaning up the building involved coming down from Glenwood Springs, where Dr. Brokering works with his wife Terri as head nurse, to retrofit the structure on weekends. Terri reminisces, "One of the first weekends we were working we found our children (early teens) walking the 4-inch I-beam across the river (50-foot drop), so a deck on the metal bridge was the first order of business." Because construction ceased in the fall of 1929 at the start of the Great Depression, everything needed repaired or finished including electrical and plumbing work. Each private room was to have a sink for the miners but the sinks were never installed. Bathrooms are down the hall. Nik Kendziorksi explains, "The boardinghouse exists today as a three-story time capsule with 30 bedrooms. Even the pencil marks of the quality control inspector for the beautiful wainscoting still remain on the walls. Almost no interior painting, staining or plastering has ever occurred and the huge basement boiler was never utilized." He adds, "The bedrooms contain plumbing for sinks for each miner. Because the fixtures never arrived, the galvanized pipe is stubbed into the walls and plugged with wooden stoppers pounded in 75 years ago." And just like the Old One Hundred, over the decades packrats had moved in.
Terri Brokering remembers, "The first two years we spent just cleaning out the piles of debris and putting on doors to keep out the creatures. Marmots and Pine Ferrets (pack rats) had taken up residence." On weekends Dr. and Mrs. Brokering put on white biohazard suits and respirators and removed wooden ceilings to pull down pack rat nests. Terri says, "We replaced the ceilings, one board at a time, because when the ceilings were removed the boards had to be cleaned individually of years of accumulated stain, grime and animal droppings." She adds, "This was a very time consuming and nasty job."
Making the building habitable, and putting in-floor heat and R-30 crawl space insulation in an 11,000 square foot un-insulated building, has given the couple time to think. They've also gotten closer as they learned to use a commercial belt sander to sand all the wooden floors. Over the years plenty of ice climbers on their way to Stairway to Heaven have asked to stay in the boardinghouse, but the Brokerings weren't quite ready for guests. A new septic system had to be installed, the water supply had to work, and then there was the matter of doors. They had 30 bedrooms but no doors or doorknobs. The south-facing front porch was never finished and Dr. Brokering hopes to replace it soon.
Set in a mix of spruce and fir trees with low shrubs, the structure is one of the few large boardinghouses positioned out of an avalanche path. In winter access is by snowmobiles or skis. A few years ago the Brokerings had their family up at the Eureka Boardinghouse and avalanches crossed their driveway and also closed the road to Silverton. Snug in their 11,000 square foot structure with its full basement they thought they had everything they needed-wine, beer, liquor, food, warm clothes - until they ran out of toilet paper. Now they plan better, and one of their long range plans will benefit us all.
The Brokerings have listed the Martin Mining Complex on the National Register of Historic Places. They wrote to the San Juan County Commissioners, "Our intent is to preserve the local history of the San Juans. We feel listing this property will insure that future generations will be able to appreciate the significant contributions mining in the San Juans made to our state and national history." They have also given a permanent conservation easement to the Animas Conservancy Land Stewardship Program which will protect forested land and the Animas River which bisects their 43 acres. This is one of the first conservation easements on historic mining claims in the San Juans providing habitat protection for a Federally endangered Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly, the Canada lynx, and Forest Service sensitive grasses. Because a river runs through it providing surface water, the easement will also provide wildlife habitat for black bear, red fox, bobcat, mule deer and elk. Jeanne Trupiano of the Animas Conservancy explains, "The Brokering Conservation Easement protecting the Eureka Boarding House and the Martin Mining Complex is a major contribution and sets a precedent for the protection of the Animas River-from the headwaters to the confluence with the San Juan. The easement will protect in perpetuity the beauty of the land, as well as, provide for limits on any future development. No additional buildings can be constructed." She adds, "With the Brokerings as stewards of this land, the public enjoys the benefits of retaining a significant natural and cultural resource, knowing that these landowners will be overseeing and maintaining the resources for future generations."
Having conserved their mining landscape in perpetuity, the Brokerings plan to make the Eureka Boardinghouse, now known as the Eureka Lodge, available to the public with 24 bedrooms, six bathrooms and a large group kitchen. Terri explains, "The plan is to open the lodge for a retreat for families, corporations, friends, reunions and weddings." Dr. Brokering has also set up Saturday clinics in Silverton which has no fulltime physician. After all those years of working on the property and putting protections in place, Terri admits, "We are finding it hard to let go and allow others to occupy the space we have put so much into, but their appreciation of the lodge makes it easier to do so."
High up on Galena Mountain local Silverton carpentry crews stabilized the Old One Hundred Boardinghouse so that dedicated hikers could experience Silverton's mining history and marvel at where men mined. Down in the valley below, but still at almost 10,000 feet in elevation, the Brokerings have restored a mining boardinghouse and taken the additional step of conserving the land. Historian Nik Kendziorski states, "The Martin Boardinghouse and Mining Complex are excellent intact elements representing late 19th and early 20th century mining in San Juan County. Even though the boarding house was never used for its original intent, it is representative not only of the mining architecture found in the area, but also the great risks that the mining industry posed to those daring enough to put together such a large operation."
So take a hike this summer and visit an historic San Juan boardinghouse. Learn a little about gold and silver mining and think about those lonely male miners so far from home spending their days in the dust and dark of mines, breathing in dangerous gasses and getting rock dust in their lungs. Working long hours in cold tunnels, miners enjoyed their time in the sunlight, and they reveled in the companionship found in boardinghouses. You can, too.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and History at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at email@example.com.