Safe and Sound
Locals preserve key part of mining history in the West

Safe and Sound

The Sound Democrat Mill today after recent restoration was completed. Insert: The mill before stabilization efforts were made in the 1990s./Courtesy photos

Tracy Chamberlin - 10/12/2017

It’s the only one of its kind in the West. Just past Animas Forks, in Placer Gulch north of Silverton, sits the only amalgamation stamp mill left standing in the country, the Sound Democrat Mill. Built in 1906, it’s a key piece of mining history and a reminder of the valley’s bustling past.

“The future is really bright when you have a good idea of the past,” David Singer, owner of Silverton Restoration Consulting and a key member of the team behind the preservation of the Sound Democrat Mill, said.

Today, the Placer Gulch valley is a serine escape at 12,000 feet. Hikers, bikers and off-road enthusiasts looking to flee the typical tourist traps find a quiet landscape littered with old buildings that are giving way to time and tram towers standing like ghosts in an ancient graveyard.

But, a century ago, it was home to a hectic mining operation with a steady stream of gold and silver coming from the San Juan Mountains. It’s that energy historians like Singer are hoping to preserve. “The energy that is embedded in a building ... by restoring the building, you’re conserving that,” he said.

The area was once a place where workers pulled ore, packed with gold and silver, from the nearby Sound Democrat and Silver Queen mines. The ore was then transported via tram to the mill, where it was unloaded, crushed by giant “stamps,” turned into paste, combined with mercury and eventually sent down to Durango for smelting.

Although the process at the Sound Democrat is considered an important part in the evolution of mining technology, it’s not actually what makes the mill so special. Singer said the real value of the Sound Democrat is context. The mill still sits where it was built, and the equipment is in place and intact. In fact, according to Loren Lew, restoration contractor and co-owner of Klinke and Lew Construction, if the building had power, the stamps might even fire up.

Anyone visiting the site can get a first-hand look at the challenges hard rock miners faced at 12,000 feet and better understand just how the amalgamation process worked.

“Visiting such a site in its original setting conveys much more meaning and understanding than reading about it in a book or visiting a museum,” Liz Francisco, lead archaeologist for the BLM’s Gunnison Field Office, explained in an email.

In the mid-1990s, the BLM, which manages the land on which the mill sits, initiated volunteer work at the site to stabilize the structure. Singer, who also serves as chairman of the Durango Historic Preservation Review Board, said those efforts essentially saved it from collapse.

It still needed additional work, however, and that’s where Singer came in. In the late 2000s, he was asked to assess the structure, help author a grant request and create a preservation plan for the Sound Democrat. Once the grant was awarded, Singer gathered a group of local historians, BLM officials and master craftsman, like Lew, to shore up the structure and restore certain elements.

Much of the work was geared toward the reality that maintenance at the remote site would be a challenge. “We really tried to build in a maintenance free approach,” Singer explained.

Singer and Lew, who also worked together to preserve several buildings at the Animas Forks ghost town, utilized some of the same technology in both projects. For example, instead of replacing broken windows with new ones, they chose a polymer-based product. It’s more durable and can stand up to the harsh alpine weather.

Singer said there are essentially two schools of thought in historic preservation. One is to allow a structure to deteriorate naturally, or simply rot into the ground. The other is to preserve it. With preservation, the goal isn’t to remodel or make it like new. The goal is to capture the authenticity and energy of the original

place, like a living photograph. “Perhaps the best compliment we get is, ‘What have you all done here?’” Lew explained.

Most of the work, which was officially completed Wed. Oct. 4, was in tightening up the building’s envelope, securing the structure and stabilizing the roof. Doors were also added, along with the polymer-based windows, and some rotted timbers inside were replaced.

The machinery, however, is just as it was more than a century ago.

Lew said it’s rare to see the machines in place. Typically, mine operators would take the machinery with them upon moving to another site, according to Francisco. It’s one of the reasons the Sound Democrat is so unique. “People are interested in the history, the human handprint and what (the miners) had to do to make a living back then,” Lew said. When visitors come to the site, they’ll get the usual signage, brochures and a donation post at a small parking area just below the mill. There are also signs at each level of the process, describing the equipment and how it worked.

But just because no one’s standing at the site and giving tours doesn’t mean it isn’t being cared for. Each person who visits the site is expected to be a steward of it.

“They’re kind of becoming a part of the history,” Singer said of visitors. “They need to respect that.”

Singer has worked on several historic buildings around Silverton, including the Mayflower Mill, which used an innovative-for-its-time flotation technology to separate precious metals. Built in 1929, the Mayflower is also intact and complements the Sound Democrat as a part of the history of hard rock mining.

Currently, Singer is working on several additional projects around Silverton, like the restoration of the old Miners Union Hospital, which is still in use today as county offices in Silverton.

“Not every structure tells a good story,” Lew explained. But, the Sound Democrat is certainly one that does.

Safe and Sound

As part of the hard-rock processing at the Sound Democrat Mill, stamps crushed the hard rock into a paste before the amalgamation process.