Ghost Stories: A Look Back at Gilman
If you found yourself Googling Colorado ghost towns this Halloween, you're not the only one. Partly because driving and hiking around Colorado, it's not all that unusual to see the abandoned remnants of mining encampments and their neighboring towns clinging to hillsides and strewn across valley floors like skeletons from the state's mining boom in the late 1800s. There's said to be some 1,500 ghost town sites in the state, with physical remnants of 600 of those settlements still around. Of those 600, one is located on a prominent precipice in Eagle County: Gilman, which shuttered its mine permanently in 1985 and sent the last of its residents packing around the same time.
Gilman's houses and structures now sit in neat rows with peeling, pastel paint, and busted-out windows and doors that smile like jack-o-lanterns to the stream of cars that go by on the stretch of Highway 24 between Minturn and Red Cliff where Gilman sits atop a switchback just off the road. But, it wasn't always that way. Gilman—which was founded during the height of Colorado's mining boom in 1886—and was lauded in an issue of Rocky Mountain Empire Magazine from 1950 as “one of the richest producers in America” of zinc and lead, with material from the town's on-site Eagle Mine (which was owned and operated at the time by the New Jersey Zinc Company—now known as Horsehead Holding Corporation, a conglomerate that still owns and operates mines across the country and filed for bankruptcy in 2016) going into “almost every line of military equipment from ships to TNT." The periodical goes on to note that “the mineral city is air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted and fireproof. It has its own water system, elevator and 100 miles of steel track ... it's as modern as the mine itself, with clean-looking white administrative offices, hospital, school, homes and recreational buildings.” Nearly 700 workers at the Eagle Mine were on New Jersey Zinc's payroll during the mine's heyday, and Gilman's clubhouse was the site of the county's first (and—at the time—only) bowling alley, when it was outfitted with two bowling lanes sometime in the 1940s ("You didn't have to be an employee of Gilman to use the bowling alley," recalls former Gilman resident William Burnett in his memoir. "All the people in the valley got to use it.")
Gilman's demise, however, is well documented too. Gulf + Western took over the mine's operations in 1966, and lay-offs became a routine occurrence by the 1970s, with the Eagle Mine's then manager commenting to a local paper in 1975: “Nothing goes on forever … we are now looking at the end of our reserves. We have a limited life here unless we discover more ore ... If metal prices should tumble, it may be just a few more months.” It ended up being about two years. “Because of decreases in the price of zinc of nearly 25% during the past few years, the failure of recent exploration programs to encounter additional zinc ore reserves, steadily rising costs of labor and supplies and the costs of governmental regulatory requirements, the Gilman operation will be drastically curtailed at the end of the last shift of December 31, 1977,” details a company memo published in Leadville's daily paper from the time. Over 150 employees were handed pink slips right before Christmas. The mine continued to hemorrhage money and employees, and by 1981, one-third of the remaining 45 families that still lived in Gilman were ordered out.
There was renewed hope that the town might once again be returned to its former glory when it and the mine sold in 1983 for $17.5 million to Glenn Miller—a fertilizer manufacturer from Cañon City, who promised to hire up to 20 new miners, build a road up Battle Mountain for timber sales and explore the possibility of adding a sawmill to the site, and renovate the 70-odd units that had been vacated over the previous few decades. Also on his list of Gilman upgrades? Dealing with the 15 million tons of mine tailings had been pumped into ponds near Minturn. Unfortunately, those tailings as opposed to Miller's grand plan for Gilman are what the town and mine would become known for; county officials were increasingly concerned heavy metals from the Eagle Mine were contaminating the Eagle River, and in 1984 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had gotten involved and given the town and mine priority Supefund status. Miller was losing money on his investment—so much so, that the power to the mine was cut, and workers went unpaid. In June of 1985, the remaining 14 families who still lived on site were ordered out, and the entrance to Gilman was chained off shortly after that. A web of lawsuits between Miller and his financial backers ensued, with the state of Colorado also filing suits against the mine's current and former owners for environmental damages. Water that had flooded the abandoned mine's tunnels was seeping out so fast that the Eagle River had routinely started to run an opaque shade of orange.
Of course, the chain across the aspen-lined road to Gilman hasn't stopped everyone; vandalism began just days after the town closed when Gilman's administrative offices were ransacked, and two teenagers burned down an abandoned structure the year after that (per Eagle County Sheriff's logs). Even today, it's not unusual to see cars parked by the shoulder of the road on Highway 24 near the locked-off entrance to Gilman, and a spree of break-ins in 2017 led to county officials to issue more public warnings that exploring Gilman was criminal trespassing. A quick Google search reveals hit after hit of amateur "investigators" who have taken Chernobyl-esque photos of the former town despite glaring signage that such sleuthing is forbidden. And dangerous. Gilman is still an active Superfund site, and beyond the environmental issues, there's the risk of falling into one of the neglected chasms (many of which are flooded) left over from the mine, having a rickety-building collapse on you, or injuring yourself in any number of ways specific to an old industrial site. And it's a crime—trespassers are ticketed and handed a court summons—and then there's the possibility of putting first responders at risk if they have to come help you.
Despite those risks, in a community where skiing powder has replaced mining ore as the main industry (and multi-million dollar slopeside compounds are the norm), the dilapidated ruins of Gilman clinging to the hillside on Highway 24 continue to spark interest from passerby. Developers (for decades) have also taken note of the blank canvas on Highway 24 for decades, and since the mine shuttered, a comprehensive cleanup efforts has been underway; the Eagle Water Treatment Plant near Maloit Park in Minturn currently treats 221 gallons of water a minute from the Eagle River, filtering out heavy metals that still seep from the mine at Gilman at a cost of $1 million per year (the site's current owner, CBS, foots the bill). And while there's no end in site for the treatment plan (and hence, no viable option to repopulate the town any time soon), the next time you find yourself driving by, try to imagine what it might have been like when workers and families bustled around the the town's terrace site overlooking Mt. of the Holy Cross just across the valley.
"It is sad to see the Town of Gilman close down," wrote Gilman's then Postmaster Angela Beck to the Eagle Valley Enterprise at the time of Gilman's shuttering in 1985. "It provided a living, a home and many other services to a good number of people over the years. Many people write to say the best years of their lives were spent here and they have such fond memories of those times. I, too, have fond memories of the many friends I acquired while working in the post office in Gilman. I wish them well."