When stories collide: The Gold King, Bears Ears and Regionalism

Beginning in late 1892, hundreds, maybe even thousands of men descended on the little town of Bluff City, Utah, nestled along the San Juan River, a sliver of green in a sea of sandstone. They came not for uranium or oil or the scenery or even the prehistoric pueblos scattered amongst the landscape. They came for the gold purportedly lurking amongst the alluvial gravel lining the river.

The precious metals weren’t local in origin. They had washed down from the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, eroding from the rich veins there and slowly making their way down tributaries and the San Juan River’s main stem before settling out in the vicinity of Bluff, Mexican Hat, the Goosenecks. This transport of gold across state and county lines isn’t surprising — it’s natural. But we sometimes forget that the San Juan originates in the seemingly distant mountains in a neighboring state, and thus how inextricably linked folks in southwestern Colorado are to those in northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah. The “Bluff Excitement” serves as just one more reminder of that.

Like most gold rushes, this one was spurred on by hyperbolic newspaper reports which in turn were fueled by those who stood to benefit from a mass movement of people, namely the railroads, merchants and stage lines. While shopkeepers in Bluff would also profit, they were decidedly less enthused about it all.

Bluff’s stately stone houses were built on a spot of land that had been inhabited by Navajos, Utes, Paiutes and, long before that, the Puebloans: The Bluff Great House, a Chacoan outlier constructed in the 900s, overlooks the town, which itself was constructed near a Basketmaker settlement occupied from the 500s until the 800s. The latest version of the town was established in 1880 by the pioneers who had made their way here from Mormon establishments in southwestern Utah via the Hole-in-the-Rock trail.

It had been an arduous journey across a deeply wrinkled landscape into hostile country. And the people who made the journey didn’t even want to be there. Church leaders had plucked all 250 out of the nascent communities in which they then lived, and sent them on their way. Their purpose was not to make the desert bloom in God’s glory, but to buffer the communities of “Dixie” — St. George, Cedar City, Parowan — from the Navajos, Utes and Paiutes of the Four Corners Country as well as from the influences of the white settlers arriving in droves to get at the mineral wealth in the San Juan Mountains.

“We have been here some nine years, struggling hard to hold and redeem this country,” wrote Frances Hammond a few years before the gold rush, as recounted by Robert S. McPherson in his book Comb Ridge and its People, “standing guard as it were, on the outpost, to protect our more wealthy, populous counties from the raids of the Indians and renegade white men, white renegades being far the worst.”

The rush for the “New El Dorado” would draw even more of those renegades, bringing with them the evils of whiskey, greed and naked capitalism, the latter a threat to Brigham Young’s collectivist vision.screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-11-34-22-am

Fortunately for the day’s Bluffites, most of these morally bankrupt souls wouldn’t linger. The prospectors found what they were looking for, sure, but it was primarily in the form of “flour gold,” tiny particles mixed with thick silt. While the metals could be recovered, the process was costly and time-consuming. Promises of easy money were blown. By mid-January 1893 the same newspapers that had fed the boom were declaring the whole thing a fraud, a “Fractured Boom,” and “The San Juan Fake.”

Most of the prospectors bailed, but dozens of optimistic ones hung around, some for decades, to wring what they could out of the San Juan silt. Up until about 1920, prospectors were hauling themselves and their equipment to their mining claims from Bluff, and even as far away as Farmington, via boat. Bert Loper, who would later become known as a whitewater river-running pioneer on the Colorado River, got his boating start as a gold-digger here on the San Juan.

The Mormon settlers, though, had a much harder time making the tempestuous river work in their favor. Frequent fluctuations in the river’s level made harnessing its waters for irrigation difficult, and occasional floods were downright devastating. In October 1911, an estimated eight inches of rain fell on the San Juan Mountains in less than one day, turning the most placid trickles into raging torrents. Much of the railroad track between Durango and Silverton was wiped out, parts of homes bobbed in the current alongside upended 50-foot-tall trees and bloated cows, ultimately destined for Utah and beyond.

As it roared through New Mexico and then into Utah, the San Juan River grew into a monster. It ripped out bridges and barns and decimated the Methodist Mission downstream from Farmington and several adobe buildings at the Shiprock Indian Agency.

By the time it reached Bluff, the river had grown to a terrifying 150,000 cubic feet of water per second, according to US Geological Survey estimates, some 1,000 times bigger than typical summer flows. It wrecked homes and ranches in Bluff, and tore out the new Goodridge Bridge in Mexican Hat, 39 feet above the river.screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-1-56-04-pm

After that, The Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers and their offspring had mostly had enough, and gave up on the San Juan River and Bluff, fleeing to higher drier ground and the newer towns of Grayson (Blanding) and Monticello. In 1930, a traveler called Bluff a “ghost city.”

Just over a century later, the river again brought menace down from the San Juan Mountains. This time it was only 3 million gallons of extra water, a pittance compared to the torrent of 1911, but the water was tainted by acids, heavy metals and whatever else had been building up in the Gold King Mine before it blew out in August 2015. As the electric-orange slug made its way slowly downstream, it seemed to those watching potentially to be every bit as devastating as the 1911 wall of water and debris. Regional connections between the headwaters and those far downstream were again made startlingly clear.

Over the last several months, I’ve been working on a book about the Gold King blowout and the history of pollution in the Animas River watershed. By coincidence, I also have been reporting a story about the Bears Ears national monument proposal along the lower reaches of the San Juan River. I keep encountering overlaps between the two stories and connections between the two seemingly distinct places in which each story is set.

There is the gold rush, the floods and a fascinating study done by the USGS a few years back, in which scientists found that a high concentration of metals in the silt flats where the San Juan runs into Lake Powell. They hypothesize that the metals were deposited roughly between 2005 and 2010. While they have no idea where the metals originated, or why they built up so much then, there is a strong possibility that they came from the San Juan Mountains and even, perhaps, from the Gold King and other nearby mines.

Another surprising overlap: One reason that some local Navajos oppose a Bears Ears national monument designation is because they don’t trust the federal government, understandable given the history. But for some, the distrust was exacerbated by the Gold King blowout, triggered as it was by contractors working for a federal agency, the EPA.

For me, these overlaps reinforce the notion that we are people of a region — the Four Corners Country — first, and of state and counties after that. Watersheds, topography, history and culture will always trump arbitrarily-drawn political boundaries. The stories of this place transcend those boundaries, and the connections across the region are what make it so fascinating.

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