Mine off Avalanche Creek set to reopen | AspenTimes.com

Mine off Avalanche Creek set to reopen

Will Grandbois
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Robert Congdon shows out a piece of alabaster at the foot of Jeremy Russell's unfinished sculpture “The Cost of Freedom”.
Will Grandbois / Post Independent |

An Old West holdout is getting a chance to serve a New West demand in the Crystal River Valley.

Mystic Eagle Quarry, also known as the White Banks Mine, has received tentative approval from the U.S. Forest Service to resume alabaster mining after being shuttered for more than a decade, providing a new material for local sculptors.

It’s easy to miss the entrance, next to an aging cabin less than a mile off of Highway 133 up Avalanche Creek, but when Robert Congdon first laid eyes on the spot, he knew he’d found something special.

Congdon wasn’t particularly geologically savvy when he arrived from New York in an old bus with his brand-new wife in tow in 1978 at age 18. He put aside his claustrophobia and took a job at a Thompson Creek coal mine in an era when few other jobs were available in Carbondale. There, he drew friendly mockery when he mistook an outcropping of iron pyrite for gold.

His naivety didn’t last long.

“Working in the coal mines, I fell in love with geology,” he said.

He made a habit of exploring old caves and mines, and in 1980 he stumbled across an outcropping of alabaster formed when the underground bubble of magma that formed Mount Sopris heated the gypsum around it.

Further study showed a deposit more than 200 feet thick and three-quarters of a mile wide, with alabaster ranging from soft and white to hard, dark gray and almost translucent, with a layer above of marble — formed from the same limestone as the Yule marble farther upvalley but in shades of brown and black instead of white.

By the time Congdon completed the necessary preparation and went through the bureaucratic process — including pushback from Pitkin County — Carbondale’s coal industry was on the way out and the area’s artistic community was beginning to grow.

The quarry operated seasonally from 1992 to 2003, churning out stone for sculpture and low-impact architectural purposes for further processing at the old MidContinent loading facility near Carbondale. Meanwhile, artist Jeremy Russell began work on “The Cost of Freedom,” a massive underground sculpture of an eagle at the mouth of the quarry. It was never finished.

After a test year in 2003, the quarry failed to obtain a permit for year-round operations, and the project proved unsustainable.