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One last look at Gilman

Kathy HeicherEagle County correspondent
In "The Gilman Project: Lost town, lost dreams," photographers Scot Gerdes and Greg Dahlgren capture the defunct mining town of Gilman, near Minturn. (Scot Gerdes)
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The town of Gilman has been abandoned for more than 20 years, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in it. The rows of vacant houses precariously perched on the steep hillside of Battle Mountain are easily visible from Highway 24. But visitors are not welcome in the former company town for the New Jersey Zinc Mining Company – it is private property, and it was part of a Superfund clean-up site. What was once a bustling, self-contained mining community is now a dangerous and dirty collection of decaying buildings. Trespassers are vigorously prosecuted.Although Gilman has been boarded up since the last families moved out in 1985, the deserted buildings seem to have a story to tell. The empty town beckons the curious.In 2003, photographers Scot Gerdes and Greg Dahlgren, both participants in Colorado Mountain College’s professional photography program, with the permission of the property’s owners, began capturing images of Gilman. They spent more than a year snapping photos of what was left of the town and of the Eagle Mine. They took photos during every season. Gerdes ended up with 650 images of Gilman scanned into his computer; there are more photos that he didn’t scan.Gerdes’ and Dahlgren’s work is part of a special, five-week exhibit now on display in downtown Glenwood Springs, at the CMC Gallery at Ninth and Grand. “The Gilman Project: Lost town, lost dreams” features both black and white and color images. Through the photos, people can once again stroll along the roads and peek into the buildings of Gilman.”One of these days, it’s all going to be gone … torn down, leveled or burned. We wanted to show people its intrigue, to create a living documentary on this disappearing mining town,” says Gerdes.Once the Glenwood Springs exhibit closes, the photographers plan to stage similar shows in the Eagle Valley and in Leadville.Company townThe abandoned buildings that still stand at Gilman were built in the 1940s and 1950s, when the New Jersey Zinc mine was at its peak.But Gilman got its start as a gold mine camp in 1879, one of numerous tent-city settlements created by hopeful miners. Perched on Battle Mountain, about 1,000 feet above the Eagle River and four miles north of Minturn, Gilman was settled by gold and silver miners who worked mines with names like the Iron Mask, the Star of the West, the Ground Hog and Belden. It soon became one of the more permanent settlementsBy 1886, the community was given a post office. The name “Gilman” was a tribute to Henry Gilman, the popular superintendent of the Iron Mask Mine. Miners began building more permanent structures on the mountain.

The gold boom was short-lived, though. None of the mines offered the kind of bonanzas found in nearby Leadville. But the mines below the surface of Battle Mountain did yield another valuable ore: zinc. The bluish-white metallic element is used to form various alloys including brass, bronze, solders and nickel silver; it is also used in galvanizing irons and other metals.Zinc, along with the copper and silver ore found on Battle Mountain, were in high demand in the 20th century. Before World War I, the Empire Zinc Company consolidated the four existing mines to form the Eagle Mine at Gilman and production picked up.According to local historian Bill Burnett, who recently published a book about Gilman, from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, the New Jersey Zinc Company employed about 750 people – and Gilman was the “king of the hill.” As many as 350 mine employees and their families lived in the company town, which featured houses, a store, a hospital and a recreation center (including a bowling alley).The mine started slowing down in 1975, when changes in technology caused the demand for zinc to drop. In 1977, it was shut down and many miners lost their jobs. Limited mining continued until 1984, when the mine was allowed to flood. A year later, the state of Colorado filed notice and claim against the former owners of the Eagle Mine for natural resource damages under the federal Superfund law and the town and mine were completely abandoned. The Environmental Protection Agency placed the mine on the National Priorities List of Superfund sites in 1986.Capturing imagesAn estimated 90 buildings remain within the town boundaries today; most have been vandalized and are in a state of disrepair. Over the years, access to the site has been restricted.Gerdes notes that Gilman is an unusual ghost town.”It’s actually somewhat of a modern town, sitting there completely empty,” he notes.Both Gerdes and Dahlman have long been interested in capturing images of aging buildings. At Gilman, Gerdes focused on the homes and the town; Dahlgren trained his camera more on the mining aspect of the community.Documenting what remains at Gilman was a fascinating, yet daunting, endeavor for the photographers. After obtaining permission from the owners to enter, they made about a half a dozen trips into Gilman. Each time they went back, they found something different. In the winter, they walked in on snowshoes and hauled their photography equipment around in a sled.”There is so much stuff remaining in the town and the mine, you’re overwhelmed. Weather has taken its toll on the buildings, walls and mine shaft. Anything of value has been either ripped off, removed or torn away,” Dahlgren explains.The photographers found clear evidence of pack rats throughout Gilman. (The rodents are known for leaving behind nasty physical evidence of their presence.) Humans have left some nasty stuff behind, too. Dahlgren said several of the mine’s administrative buildings were littered with needles from drug users. Vandals have spray-painted graffiti on some walls and somebody smashed all the old X-ray equipment from the company hospital. Dozens of old X-ray films lay in standing water.”People would ask us if Gilman is creepy. It’s really dirty. It’s filthy. But it’s not creepy,” says Gerdes.

He stresses that while the town is empty, there does seem to be an energy there. Gerdes was drawn to the still-vibrant colors within the houses. His color photos capture the play of light on the aging buildings.”The light is still the energy moving around,” he says.Dahlgren used black and white film and a large-format camera to capture the beauty and depth of the old mine buildings. He calls his particular form of photography “photographic architectural geology.” “Man builds a structure, then eventually the earth takes it back,” he observes. Indeed, the photographers found that the buildings changed with each season. Sunlight filtered through doors; roofs collapsed under the weight of snow; snow drifted in from open doors.Gerdes’ images are in color, while Dahlgren views the mining life in black and white. “It’s really strange. There’s very little, if any, evidence that people were there,” says Gerdes, “The houses are completely empty – there’s nothing … the people stuff is gone.” Still, the photos he chose for the show convey a sense of the people who lived in the town.Gerdes, a 1995 graduate of CMC’s Professional Photography program, has worked the past seven years as the program’s photo technician. It was there he met Dahlgren, a former fireman and student in the program. The two have since teamed on various photography projects. Alice Beaucham, CMC’s director for excellence in the arts, says the photos help people connect with the past.”When you look at his [Gerdes’] Gilman photos, you’re instantly shifted back in time, mentally and emotionally,” she says.Gilman’s days are numbered, though. Wendy Naugle, state Superfund project manager for the Eagle Mine with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, anticipates that within five years the houses and buildings in Gilman will be demolished. The town and other nearby properties have been purchased by a Florida firm with a proposal for a luxury development. Naugle cautions against excursions into Gilman, as many areas of the town are considered unsafe. Plus, the new owner has stepped up surveillance and prosecution for trespassing.The photo exhibit may well be the last opportunity for locals to see this historic town. “It’s really sad. One of these days, the buildings will be totally gone,” says Gerdes.

“It’s kind of my personal quest to find things like this,” says Dahlgren. Dahlgren also found out more about the role miming has played in America.”Good, bad, or indifferent, mines basically made America the way it is. They gave me the tools to do this job – camera, chemicals, and film,” he notes.


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