Mining has certainly come a long way in the past 150 years. So have the communities that grew with the gold rush and endured when it was over.
Many of the historic mining sites in the county have been preserved and modified to meet current needs. The days when an individual could quickly and easily strike it rich may be history, but Clear Creek County will always be a place where people dream of gold.
The old Edgar Mine in Idaho Springs, operated by the Colorado School of Mines since 1921 and now named the Colorado School of Mines’ Experimental Mine, is an underground laboratory for future engineers, providing valuable experience for those who are being trained to find, develop and process the world’s natural resources. It also serves as a training site for mine rescue teams.
The Phoenix Mine, just outside Idaho Springs, holds one of the best lodes in the county and is happily operated by the oldest continuous gold mining family in Colorado. The newest section of this working and tourist mine, the Resurrection Vein, is very rich by mining standards, carrying over two ounces of gold per ton with occasional pockets of pure gold.
The Henderson Mine, west of Empire, is one of the county’s largest employers. In fact, most of the miners in Clear Creek County today work at Henderson. The world’s largest molybdenum mine is also the county’s largest single taxpayer, making the county’s economy directly dependent for years on fluctuations in the molybdenum market. Active production at Henderson is estimated to continue another 10 to 15 years.
According to the Colorado Mining Association, the present-day mining industry extracts minerals worth about $1 billion per year. When direct and indirect benefits of mining are considered, the industry in Colorado contributes about $8 billion to the state’s economy. Many of these mines will continue producing gold and other minerals for years to come.
The future of placer mining is virtually non-existent. Nearly all of the mineral placer deposits are under claim or in private ownership. And, with water rights such a hot topic here in the West, placer mining has stiff public opposition.
The future of lode mining may be better with new techniques. Even mine tailings are a potential treasure. Most mine dumps have been worked and reworked two or three times. However, with constant improvements in reduction processes, ore that was once considered worthless might now bring good returns.
There is some encouraging local news. It has been reported the Poor Man Mine silver mine above Idaho Springs was reopened this spring with hopes to begin operations as soon as the shaft is safely reconstructed. Another silver mine near Georgetown has also been re-opened as a tourist mine by Silver Queen Mining and Milling LLC. We have also read about at least one local “prospector” who pans local creeks regularly and continues to have some success. A series of news stories described the recent sale of the Stanley Mine outside Idaho Springs to a mining enterprise that plans to be in operation within the year.
Plans for the Stanley include a flotation mill and smelter, newer and cleaner methods that use no chemicals, and plans to mine the waste dump on the site. The new owner plans to “put the town back on the map as far as mining is concerned.”
There are other ways to profit from our area’s rich mining heritage. Much of the industry associated with mining in Colorado today is tourism-based.
The Argo Gold Mill has been open for tours since the late 1970s, along with the Phoenix Gold Mine around the same time.
The Lebanon Silver Mine, along the route of the Georgetown Loop Railroad, has been open for tours since the 1980s and continues to be a favorite side trip on a Loop ride.
With the growth of heritage tourism, generally defined as traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present, historic mining communities like those here in Clear Creek County are experiencing increased tourism. Museums, historic districts and similar-themed properties are becoming more popular, and visitor numbers continue to rise. Tourism is key to keeping the history of mining alive in Colorado.
So, what does the future hold for gold mining in Clear Creek County? With gold at an all-time high, will a new generation of “59ers” bring a new gold rush to the Colorado high country? The old miners always swore that no one ever found the real mother lode, so she must still be out there hiding in one of those mountains.