… The capitalists formed the Gold King Mining & Milling Company, and went to work developing the claim, combining it with the nearby Harrison Mine. By the summer of 1895, Nelson’s one hundred feet of workings had grown to five hundred feet; in 1896 the Harrison mill at Gladstone reportedly pounded out more than $10,000 from Gold King ore. In 1897 the company built a mile-long tramway reaching from the new Gold King mill to the mine portal and the neighboring boardinghouse and blacksmith shop. It also began work that year on the Level #7 adit, originally planned as a long haulage tunnel that would provide lower-elevation access to the mine’s workings. This is the level that would blow out in 2015.
“I may be pardoned the apparent egotism of the assertion, when I affirm that the Gold King, situated at Gladstone, is a property in which this city takes delight, and a property whose future is not behind it,” wrote Davis to the Silverton Standard in May 1898. He claimed that he and his colleagues paid sixty thousand dollars per year in labor, that they were doubling the capacity of the mill, and were adding a cyanide plant to extract the gold. He continued: “The $500,000 of capital stock of this corporation which is organized under fifteen men, all capitalists of Massachusetts, Maine, and New Brunswick; men whose combined personal wealth exceeds tens of millions.”
The company was a prime example of vertical integration, and the antithesis of the romantic vision of miner as lonely entrepreneur. The Gold King Consolidated Mines Company owned the mine—made up of thirty-six claims—the tram, and the mill. It also owned the Rocky Mountain Coal Company in Durango, which included the City Mine in Horse Gulch southeast of Durango and the Champion Mine to the west, from which it got fuel for its operations. In 1899 it built and operated the Silverton, Gladstone, and Northerly Railroad so it could more efficiently haul ore and concentrates back to Silverton, where they could be loaded onto the Durango train. And by 1900 it owned the Anglo-Saxon Mining & Milling Company, with operations in the Cement Creek drainage.
The mine reportedly grossed around $4 million per year, with more than $1 million in dividends paid out to the New England investors annually. The owners’ substantial geographical remove from the mine itself spared them from seeing the horrendous costs others were paying. As one of the biggest ore processors around, the Gold King mill also belched out a lot of tailings, most of which ended up in Cement Creek and, ultimately, the Animas River. And as one of the largest employers in the county, it was also one of the deadliest.
Mining is and always has been a difficult and hazardous vocation. In 1898 alone, Silverton-area miners froze to death, were poisoned, and got caught in the belting at a mill to gruesome effect. Frank Deputy and Gail Munyon figured it would be a good idea to thaw their powder on their cookstove in a cabin near the Yukon Tunnel along Cement Creek. They were both blown to bits. Miners were swept into oblivion by avalanches, large and small, while they were getting to and from the mines or even while sleeping or dining in the boardinghouses, built with no respect whatsoever for geologic hazards. On St. Patrick’s Day 1906, following a massive multi-day storm, nearly two dozen people, mostly miners, lost their lives to snow slides in the county. Local newspaper editors called repeatedly for county-wide zoning aimed at preventing such tragedies. They were ignored.
The Gold King was as perilous during its heyday as it was profitable. The litany of dead and injured near the turn of the century was relentless…
— From River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster, by Jonathan P. Thompson. March 2018, Torrey House Press.