Historic Pandora Mill

San Miguel County, Telluride Ponder Preservation of Pandora Mill

The historic Pandora Mill (Photo by Alec Jacobson)

The historic Pandora Mill (Photo by Alec Jacobson)

By Alec Jacobson | Telluride

The Pandora Mill has guarded the back of the box canyon and processed countless tons of ore containing gold, silver, copper, zinc and lead since it was built in 1921. The building was emptied when Idarado/Newmont ceased operations in 1978 and was slated for destruction in 2013.

The San Miguel Board of County Commissioners, Telluride Town Council members and representatives from Idarado/Newmont Mining Corporation will gather at Rebekah Hall on Tuesday, March 29 at 10 a.m. to consider the structure’s fate. On the table is a deal to transfer ownership of the structure to the county and then restore it through the combined efforts of the county and town, with potential supplemental funding from Idarado/Newmont and other private sources.

“The cheaper, much, much easier option would be demolition. Actually, there’s no incentive except good will with the community.”Idarado/Newmont Director of Legacy Sites and Reclamation Larry Fiske

Idarado/Newmont’s reclamation permit requires it to return the mill site to a natural state, removing the building and all environmental contaminants. The company initially estimated that it would cost around $1 million to demolish the building, but since scrap steel’s salvage value has dropped in recent years, Idarado/Newmont’s Director of Legacy Sites and Reclamation Larry Fiske thinks the actual cost would now be significantly higher.

JJ Ossola, chair of the San Miguel County Historical Commission, has worked with the county and the mining company over recent years to find an alternative solution to demolishing the historic icon of Telluride’s mining past.

In 2014, Idarado/Newmont decided it was willing to lease the building to the County to restore and preserve it. “We basically talked to anyone who wanted to talk about it,” said Fiske. “The cheaper, much, much easier option would be demolition. Actually, there’s no incentive except good will with the community.”

Based on community support for preserving the structure, the county approved spending $32,000 to commission a structural engineering study to assess the feasibility and cost of such a project. At the time, commissioners set aside an additional $100,000 to begin preservation pending the results of the study.

The historic Pandora Mill, exterior closeup.Shear Engineering Corp. assessed the building and reported that the main mill building’s steel superstructure is in generally excellent condition for a 96 year old structure. The roof is the primary structural concern. In the past, Idarado/Newmont removed asbestos from the building, leaving a gap between the roof and the walls when they pulled out insulation. Shear Engineering reported that when the wind blows, that gap can channel the flow into a vortex that could damage the roof and destabilize the rest of the building. It would cost an estimated $1.5 million to restore damaged sections of the roof and stabilize the structure, Ossola said.

Adjacent to the mill, there is an ongoing superfund effort to clean up mine tailings. But, as far as the building itself is concerned, “Environmentally, we think it’s in pretty good shape,” Fiske added. Idarado/Newmont plans to cap the ground around the mill with gravel to reduce the chance of kicking up any heavy metals that might still be near the site.

At a Feb. 9 meeting, mine stakeholders found no insurmountable obstacles to restoring the mill. Idarado/Newmont is now willing to deed it to San Miguel County if the commissioners determine that the county should shoulder the responsibility. The State of Colorado has agreed to remove the mill from Idarado/Newmont’s reclamation permit if such a transfer occurs, allowing the historic structure to continue standing. The mining company has also said that it will contribute some funds toward restoration if there’s any money left over after final environmental cleanup of the site.

So now, “It’s up to our public officers,” said Ossola. “In terms of public support, we’re in dire need. I’m in this for the crown jewels. We did an inventory of historic structures in the county 15 years ago and there’s basically nothing left.”

The historic Pandora Mill, exterior.

THE BUILDING AND ITS HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE

The Pandora Mill was built to replace the Smuggler-Union Mill and Cyanide Mill that burned in 1919 and 1920, and was the heart of the Telluride region’s mining operation throughout the 20th century.

“Telluride called itself ‘The City of Gold’, said Rudy Davison, a member of the Telluride Historical Museum’s board of directors. “[The mill] signifies how everything in the mountains came together.”

Originally called the Grey Mill, the 120’x 200’ building was slated for deconstruction after the Smuggler-Union Mining Company shut down in 1928. Max Grimes of Denver was commissioned to demolish the building and the adjacent tram. But Grimes’ son Ben, a recent Colorado School of Mines graduate, convinced his father to let him try to profit from the mine first. Ben struck enough gold to justify keeping the mill open, leading to another prosperous era of mining in Telluride.

In 1955, Idarado bought the mill and other mine holdings in the area. At nearly the same time, Idarado’s primary mill burned to the ground, so the company rerouted its operations entirely to the Pandora Mill, upgrading it to its maximum capacity.

“I think mining history is an integral part of what Telluride is,” said Davison. “The [Pandora] Mill is the last one standing.”

Davison hopes to see the mill preserved. “It was saved once, why not do it again?” he asked.

The historic Pandora Mill interior (Photo by Alec Jacobson)

The historic Pandora Mill interior (Photo by Alec Jacobson)

THE DEAL

The upcoming meeting on March 29 is hosted by the Telluride Town Council as part of its regular meeting. San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May views it as an opportunity to gauge public interest and expects that a final decision will be made this summer. “At this point, we’re just fact finding and getting public input,” she said. “It comes down to what the public wants and how to pay for things.”

Part of the funding solution could come from a mill levy the county collects to support open space, recreation and historical preservation. Funds generated by the levy support a range of projects from the San Miguel County Fairgrounds in Norwood to trail construction and maintenance. In the past, portions of those funds have been used to stabilize historic structures including the Lewis Mill. “So this isn’t unusual,” said May. “But to own it is unusual.”

The terms of the potential transfer are still being finalized. An early draft includes clauses requiring the grantee of the mill to either maintain it or demolish it, and to guarantee that the grantee can’t sell the property without consulting with Idarado/Newmont. The area’s history with heavy metals precludes digging in the site or drilling wells.

Fiske doesn’t think any of these terms are meant to impede progress. Rather, their primary intent is to ensure that the new managers of the site are good neighbors to Idarado/Newmont, which has an office behind the mill and is responsible for other ongoing reclamation projects in the area.

“We’re gonna be working there forever,” Fiske said. Idarado/Newmont’s primary concern, he explained, is ensuring that the mill is not converted to any use that would impede such operations – “like a baby formula factory, a brewery or low-income housing.”

So far, there is no official plan for future use of the building, though in informal forums, citizens have suggested a rec center, a concert venue and an interpretive historical site.  But, said Paul Major, President of the Telluride Foundation, the limitations of the building, the inability to dig in the soil below it and the terms of Idarado/Newmont’s deal so far allow only for “limited, seasonal use,” precluding many casual proposals.

But the focus right now is simply on saving the structure. As Telluride local Ted Wilson commented in the popular Facebook forum Telluride Sweet Rants and Bitching, “If we preserve the mill, there are possibilities. If we don’t, there are none.”

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About the Author

Alec Jacobson

Alec Jacobson has worked as a photographer around the world and was recently selected as a National Geographic Young Explorer. Before moving to Telluride, he was the Editor in Chief of ArtsRiot.com, building the site from a blog into an online culture magazine. He graduated from Amherst College in 2012, where he studied Anthropology, French and Arabic.