Valley miner strikes success with cut-and-polish operation
Mid-Continent Resource’s massive coal load-out site along Catherine Store Road has jumped back to life this year – though not at the frantic pace of a decade ago.
While scores of trucks once dumped tons of coal from Mid-Continent’s mines to be shipped out by rail, the site now hosts a more refined byproduct of mining.
Robert Congdon is leasing part of the site for a processing plant that’s cutting and polishing marble, alabaster, granite and even sandstone into some of the finest stone construction products in the country.
Congdon, a longtime miner in the Crystal River Valley, leased a special wire cut-off saw from an Italian company last spring and set it up in the former coal-dumping building on Mid-Continent’s loading facility, 2 miles east of Carbondale.
The special saw, called “The Stone Master,” uses a 21.5-meter wire blade studded with industrial diamonds to slice everything from hard granite to soft alabaster.
And the incredible machine makes a cut as smooth as a sharp kitchen knife slicing through pat.
Congdon’s crew Tuesday had a 4-by-8-foot block of beautiful Santana sandstone from Grand Junction along with a slightly larger block of pure white marble jammed into a giant vise grip resting on rails. Both hunks of rock were well over one foot thick.
Shop manager Alan Niswander methodically brought the wire saw blade into the rock to cut slabs as thin as 1.25 inches.
“With this saw, we can treat stone like it’s wood,” said Congdon. “With the capabilities we have now, we could build a castle. There’s nothing we can’t build out of stone.”
Each cut took less than 45 minutes Tuesday. The saw is operated about about 18 hours a day, cutting eight slabs per shift.
The $4,000 blades on the beast are replaced every month.
The high-tech saw – one of only a dozen being used in the United States – needs an operator only 10 percent of the time, thanks to programmed computer settings.
“Some people think that Alan is the brains, but the brains are over here,” said Congdon, pointing to a computer console off to the side.
While the diamond-laced wire eats away, water is continually sprayed along the length of the cut by jets from above. The water reduces the friction and keeps the blade cool. It drips off the rock, gets trapped below and recycled for the process.
Once the cutting is finished, the sandstone and marble will be buffed to a smooth, shiny surface on a polisher that uses discs the size of Frisbees.
The sandstone slabs display an incredible amount of grain and pattern. Windblown layers petrified in the rock are visible in great detail.
Once it is processed, the sandstone slabs will be shipped to a Denver distributor who will sell it to fabricators for a variety of uses.
The marble will be used for everything from mantle pieces and kitchen and bathroom tiles to outdoor sculpture. Tons of alabaster that Congdon has pulled from his mine along Avalanche Creek will also be cut and polished for interior uses.
A descendent of the Evans family, Colorado’s first governor, is having Congdon’s alabaster cut into square tiles ranging from 4 inches to 2 feet. Those tiles – colored in swirls of white, black and gray – will be used in the family mansion near Evergreen.
Congdon said he’s had very little time to market the products of his company, Avalanche Creek Marble and Alabaster. He first devoted his time to getting the mine operating, then cranked up production of the plant.
Before closing for the season, his crew of three was pulling 100 tons of alabaster out of his Avalanche Creek mine.
Production at his cutting plant soared as the year progressed thanks to word-of-mouth. For example, he shipped nearly 25 tons of his alabaster to New York City for sculpting.
Congdon works with both stone-mason contractors and with distributors. He will bid to provide the stone for specific jobs, like a Mesa County building in Grand Junction. And he supplies cut-and-polished rock, such as the slabs of Santana sandstone, to distributors.
One of the benefits of running this type of operation is the vast supply of unique materials available in the area. When earth moving started at the North Forty employee housing site, for example, huge boulders providing 4,000 to 5,000 total tons of rock were found underground.
That granite was carried down from Independence Pass by glaciers and deposited on the valley floor, Congdon explained. It’s special because of the veins of gold and other minerals running through it.
Once cut and polished, the granite will make an attractive product for indoor and outdoor masonry.
Some examples of the company’s stone work can be found at its web site, designed by Robert’s son, Jason. That site’s address is http://www.avcreek.com.
Even with the high-tech production tools and state-of-the-art marketing through the Internet, Congdon has no dreams of building a big mining conglomerate. He’s busy enough.
“It’s not like the coal mining where you have hundreds and hundreds of guys,” he said. “We’ll have eight or nine at most.”
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For 29 years, day and night during every season, shoulder-high electric infrared radiators directed heat downward to warm the top 6 inches of soil at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. The experiment was called Warming Meadows.