Gold fever in the 1880’s has caused “flume fever” today, as scientists puzzle over how the Hanging Flume in western Montrose County was constructed more than 120 years ago. During a blustery week in April, 2012, some pieces of the puzzle fell into place as a 48 foot section of the flume box was reconstructed on a cliff face above the San Miguel River.
The reconstruction project, funded by the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the Hendricks Family Foundation, was the recipient of the 2014 Stephen H. Hart award by History Colorado. The team of wood scientists, structural engineers, industrial riggers, archeologists, carpenters and historians have been researching the Montrose Placer Mining Company Flume construction configurations since 2003. The reconstruction gave them the opportunity to test their theories as they replicated the original box construction and placement on existing support beams in the cliff wall.
“Flume fever – how in the heck did they do it? I am thinking about the guys who built this every second I am down here,” said Donn Hewes of Vertical Access. Hewes is a New York firefighter, dairy farmer and sometimes industrial rigger who worked on the ropes to rappel the cliff face and set the pieces of the flume box into place. Hewes said spending three days in the canyon on the project has given him insight into what it was like to spend three years, which was the length of time for the construction of the flume from 1887 to 1890.
The History Colorado award has sparked renewed public interest in the Hanging Flume. Chris Miller, Executive Director of the Interpretive Association of Western Colorado, is re-printing the Hanging Flume brochures in response to requests from area visitor centers. The Colorado Department of Transportation re-graded the Highway 141 pullout for better visitor access to the existing interpretive signs and new signs are in the works for the reconstruction site. “The Hanging Flume is most intact flume in North America and the longest existing structure,’ Miller said. “The Hanging Flume is much more than a marvel of engineering. It is a statement driven in stone – a monument to an era of innovation and ‘can-do’ attitude in the 1880’s.” Work will continue on the Hanging Flume research and documentation later this year, through a grant from the State Historic Preservation Office.
The new project will focus on addressing unknown aspects of the Hanging Flume construction so that future preservation opportunities for site and structure can be developed within the 2005 State Historic Fund Master Plan. In addition, the public will benefit from better understanding of the level of innovation and ingenuity used to extract gold by hydraulic mining. Originally named the Dolores and San Miguel Ditch, the flume was 10 miles long, with slightly over 7 miles of wooden structure traversing canyon walls; the remainder was believed to be earthen ditch. It was the hydraulic mining solution to work several gold claims filed on the Dolores River. Over the 10 mile length, the flume drops in elevation 90 feet, adhering to a grade of 0.17% to produce the water pressure necessary for mining. The beginning point of the flume is four miles upstream from the confluence of the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers. Nathaniel P. Turner, an experienced hydraulic mining engineer from California, was the leader of the design and construction of the flume.
An 1895 interview with Turner in Ouray indicated that 1,800,000 feet of locally produced lumber was used in the construction. The flume carried 80 million gallons of water in 24 hours and cost over $100,000 to construct. An 1897 Engineering and Mining Journal article estimated the cost was between $165,000 and $173,000. Hydraulic mining with the flume operated for three years before the panic of 1893 on Wall Street sent futures tumbling and shut down the mining as various owners struggled to turn a profit. The flume is located on Bureau of Land Management property. In 1970, the BLM recorded the historic structure. It was re-recorded in 1974 and nominated for the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. In 1980, the flume was listed on the register. The Hanging Flume was listed as one of Colorado’s Endangered Places in 1999. Colorado Preservation, Inc. worked with the Western Colorado Interpretive Association and contracted with Anthony & Associates, Inc. to complete a Historic Structure Assessment in 2003, after supporters secured a grant. The assessment highlighted various construction methods, rock continuation walls and numerous oxcart trails.
By 2004, additional funding from the State Historical Fund, Bureau of Land Management, Bacon Foundation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Hendricks Family Foundation, and Gateway Construction and Design had been secured by the Western Colorado Interpretive Association to document the history and condition of the flume. This led to the development of a master plan to preserve and interpret the flume that integrated the river, trails and scenic byway. Vertical Access, professional climbers who ordinarily work on buildings for preservation assessments, rappelled down the canyon walls to help consultants analyze the site. The work was completed in 2005. The phase of work which included development and implementation of an interpretive plan and production of construction documents for reproducing a small segment of the flume was completed in 2012. Supporters are currently seeking funds for additional documentation of unexplored segments of the flume as well as construction of a larger segment of the flume on the rock face. The flume was named to the World Monuments Watch List in 2006.