The tram station for the Sunnyside Mine just happens to be part of a bigger story, one that has three elements of very real danger: altitude sickness, avalanche, and the hidden threats of abandoned mining shafts — not to mention the possibility of stumbling into the maw of a emptied alpine lake.
The Sunnyside Mine in Colorado has been an on-again off-again operation since the late 1880s, and has riddled much of the surrounding area with underground shafts, galleries, and tunnel workings. The mine itself is extensive; it encompasses the area between the headwaters of Eureka Creek (the top of the mine opens near Bonita Peak at about 12,000 feet) and Gladstone (where the bottom portal exits at about 10,000 feet). The top of the mine was quite isolated from the local towns of Silverton, Eureka, Animas Forks, and Gladstone — so a high-altitude tramway was constructed to transport the rich ore down the rugged mountain to lower elevations for processing at the Sunnyside stamp mill. More can be read about the area here.
The only remaining town today is Silverton, which has a local historical society that provides many of the mining images and anecdotes of the region. When we visited the area again in 2007, we used the town as our base of operations; we camped on the property we owned nearby, but purchased all of our supplies from the local stores.
To give a sense of how confusing the mining claims could be, take a look at the example below. Mining claims — and counter-claims — butted-up against one-another, overlapped, and even stacked-up on neighboring claims. Some of it was due to shoddy record-keeping, or inaccurate surveying, or a variety of different reasons — with the end-result being mass confusion in some locations as to whom actually owned what land that was being worked.
Below is a 35mm film image taken back in the summer of 1999, when there were still many buildings to be seen at the Sunnyside Mine exit portal near Gladstone, along with some settling ponds (foreground) that were big enough to be used as a navigation reference from the air.
We had previously hiked to the top of the Sunnyside Mine back in 1999, but that was during July, when there was no snow. We wanted to hike up there in June 2007, when there was still much snow left remaining. So up we went in our rental car. Up the Animas River, past Eureka, up Eureka Gulch, until we finally were stopped by a huge wall of snow.
Cindy may disagree, but I felt that parking the car and climbing up the face of that snow wall was one of the most dangerous stunts we’ve ever done together. It was as steep as climbing a ladder, about 40-50 feet high, and crumbly as a snow cone. And we had nothing with us to arrest our descent in the event of a fall… no ropes… no ice axes… nothing.
And we had to make our way back down that same slope later. Yeesh. Talk about an avalanche just waiting to happen…
Once we got past the snow wall, the view opened up and we were able to take in the sights; note that the tram station can still be seen in the image below, just to the right and above Cindy.
Keep in mind that all of this is taking place up around 11,000-11,500 feet. That elevation can be really tough on people, especially if altitude sickness kicks in. We have felt the onset of altitude sickness in the past but either stopped and slept it off, or went down the mountain to reverse the effects. We didn’t feel anything happening on this hike, so we kept going.
And the views just don’t stop.
As we walked around the tram support, we discovered another unsealed abandoned mine shaft, with the entrance effectively blocked by flooding. And no, you don’t want to drink that water, as it’s usually poisoned by mining by-products.
Surprisingly — in all that snow and cold — there were alpine blooms to be seen.
We hiked and climbed around smaller snow walls up and up until we dared go no further — we had reached the barren shore of Lake Emma.
Barren? Yes. It isn’t visible in the above image, but Lake Emma was drained dry in just a few hours back on June 4, 1978. How? The Sunnyside miners had tunneled right under the bottom of the lake, but didn’t know they were on the brink of catastrophe. They finished for the day on a Friday, and the bottom fell out of the lake on Sunday… when no one was around.
On a Sunday afternoon, when the mine crews were at home, Lake Emma broke through the spot and emptied thousands of gallons of water and over one million tons of mud into the mine. The crater on the surface was the length of three football fields and about 500 feet wide. The water and the mud had about an 1,800-foot fall to reach the American Tunnel level. A 20-ton Plymouth Locomotive parked below the main ore pass was completely flattened. All timber, except for a 200-foot section between “G” and “F” levels, was stripped from the Washington Incline Shaft. All mining tunnels, including the mile-long Terry and the two-mile-long American were filled to the top with mud. Although the mine was insured for $900 million, the insurance company refused to pay any damages. After an expensive court battle, the insurance company was ordered to pay, although they actually paid only about $5,500,000. Had the breakthrough occurred any time other than Sunday, over 125 men would have been killed, leaving no survivors. — Silverton Gold by Allen G. Bird, 1986
We didn’t go any further, as we couldn’t see what lay under all the snow… and that area is real sketchy, with lots of hidden drops and holes to get injured in. However, below is what Lake Emma looked like back in 1999… emptied and the bottom all slumped.
We didn’t want to press our luck, so we turned around and made our way back to the rental car, successfully navigating the huge snow wall that worried me so much, and retired to our campsite for the night — very tired, but quite invigorated.