The mining district of Gilman, Colorado, located at an elevation of 8950 feet on Battle Mountain, was a center of lead and zinc mining during the Colorado silver boom of the 1880s. However, in 1984, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the town a superfund site and decided to close the mining district due to concerns about toxic pollution. The town had already seen a serious decline due to mining becoming more and more unprofitable over the years, and in the end, the town was left abandoned.
When the EPA stepped in and ordered the mine to be closed, the town was left empty as residents moved away, and orders were made to clean up its toxic waste. Over nearly 100 years of operation, the mine had produced approximately eight million tons of waste. These wastes came from the mining process, where compounds like cyanide and sulphuric acid were used to separate minerals from ore. These chemicals can leak into groundwater or enter the water supply, if not treated properly. The EPA declared Gilman to be a health hazard and shut down the 235-acre town. The mining company was never able to fully clean up the mine, and to this day the area remains a ghost town.
So what happened with the town of Gilman over the more profitable and lively years? Let’s take a step back for a moment and walk through the town’s history. The town was first settled by silver miners in the 1880s. The town was named after Henry Gilman, the superintendent of the Iron Mask Mine. While the town had become a hub for lead and zinc mining, other materials would be mined here over later years. Gilman was first officially founded as a mining district in 1886.
Throughout the 1880s, mining operations in Gilman, Colorado, boomed, and the town’s population peaked. Located above the Eagle River Canyon, Gilman’s mines provided much of the raw materials for the area’s mills. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad reached the town’s base camp, Belden. Residents of Gilman had to climb down a long set of stairs or make use of a cable-powered funicular incline to reach the station.
Hundreds of employees at the time worked daily to extract Zinc from the mines. The town eventually became the largest mining district in Eagle County, and in 1889, about 300 people were living there. By this time the town had built a school, boarding house, and grocery store. They even had their newspaper called the Gilman Enterprise.
In 1899, half of the town was destroyed by a fire. It took out numerous buildings, including the Iron Mask Hotel. With the help of hundreds of residents working together, the town was rebuilt.
The town of Gilman had become one of the country’s biggest centers for mining zinc during the early 1900s. In 1912, the New Jersey Zinc Company entered the town and acquired all the principal mines. The mines produced zinc until 1931 when low zinc prices forced the company to convert to mining copper-silver ores. It wasn’t long after this that the company decided to cease mining in Gilman. However, limited production of copper and silver continued into the 1980s.
In 1941, zinc production resumed and the Gilman mines employed 375 people across numerous mining sites. While the community was not huge at the time, it was growing rapidly. Gilman had a school, grocery store, and even a bowling alley. The town had everything its residents needed, which made living in Gilman feel far more like a home to those who lived there.
By 1970, total production at the mines had reached 10 million tons of ore; 12,200 kg of gold, 2,100,000 kg of silver, 105,000 tons of copper, 148,000 tons of lead, and 858,000 tons of zinc.
In 1983, Glen Miller, a Canon City businessman purchased the land with plans for converting mine tailings into fertilizer, as well as building new homes for residential development, and even had the idea to develop a ski resort. However, only a year passed before he decided to sell the town to the Battle Mountain Corporation.
In 1984, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered the mines to be closed, citing toxic pollutants in the groundwater. Evacuation of the town’s residents began in 1985, and by 1986, everyone had left. In 1986, the EPA designated the area as a Superfund site, requiring the cleanup of eight million tons of mine waste. During the time of its abandonment, the town and its mining operations were owned by Viacom International. After decades of abandonment, the town fell into ruin.
It wasn’t until 2006 that a developer stepped in with plans to attempt to clean up and redevelop the town, building 150 homes atop Gilman. Plans also involved opening a private ski resort, golf course, and 1,700 homes on 5,400 acres of land surrounding Gilman on Battle Mountain. Of course, cleanup would be an incredibly lengthy and questionable effort, as there are so many contaminants that the Environmental Resource Management in Denver warns against ever inhabiting the land again. They noted that even if there were an attempt to clean up the land, enough contaminants would probably remain that, with long-term exposure, could still pose a serious concern for human health.
Gilman, Colorado is home to several old mining structures. One of these structures is the Gilman mine shaft house. There are numerous abandoned buildings in the town, many of which are decaying and strewn with graffiti from many years. Cracked chimneys and broken windows decorate many of the buildings. A train once ran through Gilman, but now the railroad tracks, just like many areas of the town, are rusty and choked with weeds. Even an old station wagon sits on the mountainside, rotting away with time. Over the years, the city has been a victim of heavy vandalism on top of its natural decay. Few windows remain intact throughout the entire town, and most buildings remain destroyed throughout their interiors. Still, many parts of the town remain almost the same as the day the mines were shut down. Ore cars remain in shaft elevators, and some vehicles remain in garages, just as they were when their owners left them. The town has become a place of interest for historians, urban explorers, and photographers.