The first time I saw the Old One Hundred boardinghouse near Silverton I had been scanning Galena Mountain with binoculars. I was about to give up, and then, I found it. Who could possibly have built that structure so high on a steep mountain?
Dropping the field glasses to my chest and squinting, I tried to take in one of the most dramatic structures in the silvery San Juans, and one of the most difficult to preserve. I vowed someday to find the century-old burro trail and hike into the stabilized boardinghouse and tram tower.
I just wasn’t sure what I’d do when the trail ended and I had to cross the loose, sliding scree field of sharp, jutting rocks with the 2,000-foot drop into Cunningham Gulch. No wonder the Old One Hundred was named after a religious hymn and ancient biblical psalm. It took a while to find the secret to cross the scree.
HHHBeginning in the 1890s in the remote recesses of the San Juan Mountains, perched precariously on narrow ledges or tight glacial valleys, log and wood frame boardinghouses housed miners, dormitory style, close to the portals of hardrock mines where they drilled for gold and silver ore. 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, because of avalanches, fires and shifting slopes, few boardinghouses remain.
Those high-altitude buildings are a unique remnant of the 19th- and early 20th-century gold and silver mining booms that made the San Juans an exciting place to live. Eastern capital flowed west to develop mines. Immigrant laborers scrabbled up mountain passes to seek their fortunes underground.
Though other miners had filed claims on Galena Mountain, it was the Niegold brothers – Reinhardt, Gustave, Otto and their half-brother, Oscar – who developed the Old One Hundred Mine. The brothers loved fine wines, liquor, expensive Turkish tobacco and music. In the remote San Juans, they even had a piano.
San Juan County Commissioner and Fort Lewis College graduate 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.
“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!” Fetchenhier adds.
Because the brothers loved to sing, the Old One Hundred probably derived its name from the Bible’s 100th psalm, which was set to music and used in 19th-century hymnals.
HHHAlas, like most gold and silver mines, the Old Hundred never turned a profit. The Niegold brothers sold their claims to eastern investors who organized the Old Hundred Mining Co. and began to develop the “prospects” in 1904.
Carpenters constructed the Seven Level boardinghouse, featuring a complete kitchen with cabinets, woodstove, cutting blocks, counters and dining room tables. On the first floor, a dining room, lit by electricity, was served by a cook, a baker and busy waiters. On the second floor, carpenters built 24 bunks, with a separate bedroom for the shift boss.
Despite frigid winters and no insulation, only two pot-bellied stoves heated the building. Off the dining area, the boardinghouse has a west-facing porch with a magnificent view, but watch your step. “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,” Fetchenhier says. Though much of the kitchen remains intact, packrats chewed their way through cabinetry and gnawed on the wooden pillars that support the building.
Today’s access to the boardinghouse is on the steep, winding 1904 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 mule and burro travel. The trail 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.
The possibility of slipping and tumbling down the mountain is real. Added to the excitement of loose footing, avalanches close the trail in winter. In summer, afternoon thunderstorms of driving rain and lightning make the trail hazardous.
Then there’s the historic problem of finding drinking water. There wasn’t any fresh water for the crew of 13 miners who sampled the Old Hundred’s Seven Level workings in late summer 1937. They developed a powerful thirst.
“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 chock-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 10 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,” said miner Walter Kimball.
“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 sh-- before and found it so good.’”
HHHAfter years of neglect and decay, the Old One Hundred boardinghouse seemed destined to be blown off the mountain. But folks in Silverton are nothing if not resourceful. Because the glint of the galvanized siding could be seen miles away in town, locals decided to stabilize the building.
Spurred on by Bev Rich, president of the San Juan County Historical Society, History Colorado 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, carpenters re-braced the walls, repaired the porch, put a new roof on the boardinghouse and fixed the tram tower. Supplies required 18 helicopter drops. The work crew included project manager Loren Lew.
Straddling the boardinghouse ridgeline, nailing roofing tin, Lew felt secure with his safety line held by another team member. After pounding in his last nail, he took one final look at the glorious 270-degree view of Cunningham Gulch and the mountains toward Silverton. 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 walking on the sloping tin roof without a safety line. One slip and he could have died on the rocks below. Suddenly, someone owed him a lot of beer.
HHHThe Old One Hundred Mine never made money for its investors. Avalanches carried the huge mill below Seven Level into the creek. Yet, the Old One Hundred Boardinghouse is on the National Register of Historic Places and stabilizing it on windy Galena Mountain has been one of the greatest preservation feats in Colorado.
Work occurred in 1999 and 2003, but now the foundation is failing. The boardinghouse is inching down the mountain. So this summer, the San Juan County Historical Society, the Bureau of Land Management, the Mountain Studies Institute and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining & Safety will use contractors Klinke & Lew to provide new footers, foundation beams, floor joists and concrete and stone piers. The State Historic Fund awarded a $48,750 grant, and the San Juan County Historical Society is seeking donations to complete the $65,000 project.
“Mining heritage is essential for telling the story of Colorado. The history of the Old One Hundred Mine and boardinghouse captures both the struggle of mining enterprises and some of the more colorful stories that came with that life,” says Heather Bailey, western field office director for History Colorado.
HHHSo what’s the secret to hike that dangerous scree field?
Ascend the trail, curve around the mountain, and when the trail ends with the boardinghouse below and on the right, look for a small flat granite monument to Reinhardt Niegold. Once you’ve found it, carefully study routes toward the boardinghouse. A rocky path will appear that brings you downslope and beside the tramhouse. From there, it’s a few, quick, breathtaking steps to the boardinghouse – one of the most stunning structures still standing in all the San Juans.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Email him at [email protected].