Summitville tours planned for June 29 and 30

SUMMITVILE — The second annual guided tours of the Summitville area will be held Friday, June 29 and Saturday June 30.  Each day the tours will start at 10 a.m. and last until 3 p.m. 

“We had excellent attendance at last year’s event,” said Mark Rudolph from Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, “that we wanted to do it again. We want to inform and educate the general public about the current operations of the Summitville Mine Site.” 

This is a collaborative sponsored event between Rio Grande County, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and EPA.   

“We encourage everyone to come and visit the site as exciting things are happening in the area,” said Rio Grande County Commissioner Karla Shriver. “The county is really proud of the picnic shelter and four interruptive signs that were put in the over-look parking lot. The area is heavily used, and we believe this to be a great attraction and rest stop for those in the area.”

Shriver added, “You are responsible for your safety while participating in the tours.  At the “’old’ town site, there will be rocks, plants, uneven ground, and other materials that might be tripping hazards. You could potentially get hurt by coming into contact with old nails, wood, tin, and other materials. It is advisable to wear hiking shoes or boots with good soles (sandals and flip flops not recommended), bring a hat and rain jacket, and applying sunscreen should be considered. Bring a sack lunch and enjoy a beautiful area.”

There are two ways to access the area, one from County Road 14 just outside of Del Norte, and the second is Forest Road 380 or other wise known as Park Creek Road.  Because of the extremely dry conditions, caution and extreme care is recommended for fire safety reasons. Elevation at the wastewater treatment site is 11,500’ more or less above sea level.

Summitville has a long Rio Grande County history. This was one of Colorado’s largest and richest gold mining sites. Gold was discovered in 1870 in small amounts.  The miners did not stay in the area as it was still considered Ute territory, and the winters were extreme at 11,500-12,000 feet high-altitude site. As the development of mining started in surrounding mountains, the Brunot Treaty of 1872-1873, removed the Utes from the mountain area.

There were some small groups of miners who mined in the area in the early 1870’s.  These were underground, near-surface mining type of activities for gold. Then on September 13, 1873, P.J. Peterson and his partner, F.H. Brandt discovered the Little Annie and the Margaretta Mines. The Little Annie was named for Peterson’s daughter, Annie, who would have been 4 or 5 years old at the time the mine was discovered. The Margaretta was named for a relative of Mr. Brandt’s. The Little Annie is still the most famous and richest mine in the Summit District, and at one time was the third richest gold mine in the State of Colorado. Annie’s mine was high in the mountains, and a tram was built to take ore down to the processing site. P.J. Peterson paid nine Swedes $1.50/ft to build the tram in 60 days.  The tram started operation July 8, 1876.

Soon after the discovery of the Little Annie and Margaretta mines, a settlement of 14 saloons, a newspaper (Summitville Nugget), two general stores, a post office, a signal station, an assay office, five eating houses, a bakery, a butcher shop, a feed store, a lumber yard, three blacksmiths, a shoemaker, and nine mills served the population of 600 miners. At one time, the population was 1,500 residents with nine mills in operation.  By 1883, the town was deserted and almost destroyed by a forest fire. By 1885, there were more than 250 individual claims in operation. The site was soon mined out, and by 1893, the Summitville area was deserted again.

During the next 25 years, operations came and went in the area. A second Summitville gold rush began after miner Jack Picken and partner Judge Jessie Wiley established a lease on the Little Annie mine. Pickens had discovered another incredibly rich vein of gold at the site in 1902 and kept silent for 24 years until he could find a way to obtain a lease for the Little Annie mine in 1926.

The town was revived in 1934 when some of the mines were reopened. Deeper, underground mining found lower grade gold ore. Through 1949, total gold produced reached 257,000 ounces from approximately 270,000 metric tons of ore from the underground mines. There were 70 homes for miners and their families as well as a bathhouse, bunkhouse, mess hall, post office, amusement hall, and a two-room school house. An integrated water system was installed throughout.  Summitville’s population grew to 700 residents in less than a year and it became the largest mining camp in the state. By 1938, Summitville had two operating mills, two stores, a school, and 60-70 occupied residences as well as a large boarding house with 300 men. The population grew to as much as 1,500 residents with over 900 men on the payroll.

During the 1940’s, copper was being mined as well as gold. The town produced a lot of copper during the World War II era. By 1956, the population was only 12 miners. The town was abandoned, but mining continued into the 1990s.

In 1984, an area of 1,230 acres in Summitville area was acquired by the Canadian-based Galactic Resources Ltd., a subsidiary Summitville Consolidated Mining Company, Inc. (SCMCI). They began a new large-scale open pit operation covering 550 acres. New techniques were used to extract gold from otherwise uneconomic ore. A cyanide spill leaked chemicals into the Alamosa River.  The mining operations were finished in October 1991 with the leaching continuing until March 1992, when Galactic Resources filed for bankruptcy. Gold and silver were the minerals mined.  SCMCI then closed the site and converted on-site equipment for the detoxification process, with around 160 million U.S. gallons of stored water needing treatment.

After the company insolvency proceedings were completed in a British Columbia court, the US Government declared the site a Superfund cleanup site in 1994 and spent $155,000,000 of public funds cleaning up the site. The main problem was the contaminated water held in an inadequate pond system. Another source of contamination was water leaking from older underground workings.

Rocks in the Summitville area were millions of years ago subjected to acid-sulfate alteration, which causes the streams that drain the area to be naturally acidic and high in metals. The very names of nearby creeks are evidence of poor natural water quality: Iron Creek, Alum Creek, and Bitter Creek. Mining at Summitville, by exposing more rock surface to weathering, increased acidity and concentrations of dissolved metals in runoff from the mine area. The degradation in Summitville runoff water quality has its origin in both decades-old mining structures, such as the Reynold’s adit, and the open-pit mining of 1985-1992.

In 2014, a collaborative partnership evolved between Rio Grande County, the Rio Grande National Forest, the Rio Grande Watershed Emergency Action Response Team (RWEACT), the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A vision evolved to promote heritage tourism in the area. Funding from the County, RWEACT, the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), CDPHE, and EPA constructed a park shelter, picnic tables, and included four interpretive signs.

Caption: Visitors look at interpretive signs at Summitville during the 2017 tours. Tours are scheduled again this year for June 29-30./Courtesy photo

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