Restoration challenge at 12,000 feet

Project site during construction from upper adit levels on McClellan Mountain. (Photos: Jason Willis)

Editor’s note: On March 14, Jason Willis, Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Abandoned Mines Land program manager, was awarded the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Regional Forester’s Honor Award for Sustaining our Nation’s Forests and Grasslands. Jason and the project team received the award for work completed at the Santiago Mine and Mill site above Georgetown, Colorado. This project, along with one other, were the only two chosen from the five-state Region 2 of the USFS. This is Jason’s second Honor Award in as many years. In this blog, Jason discusses how his team tackled the unique challenges posed by the Santiago project.

By Jason Willis

Abandoned mines pose a serious threat to headwater streams in the West, because they seep toxic heavy metals such as zinc, lead and copper into streams and watersheds, undermining water quality and poisoning aquatic life. Trout Unlimited's Abandoned Mine Land program works across the West on projects to clean up abandoned mine sites and restore watershed health.

Difficult, remote, unpredictable, jarring—four adjectives that come to mind when I think about the Santiago Mine and Mill, perched at roughly 12,110 feet near Argentine Pass and the Continental Divide. The abandoned mine site sits in the headwaters of Leavenworth Creek, which ultimately flows into South Clear Creek, a drinking water source for the town of Georgetown. Trout Unlimited and USFS had been working together in the watershed since 2014 on various abandoned mine land (AML) reclamation projects when the idea for cleanup at the Santiago was conceptualized. With the site being listed on the state’s historical register, and eligible for the national register, proposed cleanup posed a unique challenge: How to mitigate high levels of lead, arsenic, and iron while simultaneously preserving the buildings as important relics of Colorado’s mining history?

Over the winter of 2016-2017, a workplan was developed between project partners based on an engineering evaluation previously completed at the site. Our goal was to preserve the historical integrity of the interior mill building features, as well as an ore bin adjacent to the mill. Historical preservation and navigation of the State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO) was not in TU’s restoration wheelhouse prior to taking on this project. Therefore, it was essential that we coordinate with partners to ensure proper permitting in the development and construction phases of the project.

Remember those adjectives? About seven miles of high-clearance 4WD road dictates the type of equipment and crew you can have on a job like this. Most days, it took us almost an hour and a half, one-way, to get up to the site, which is hard not only on the body but also on the equipment used on the job. I’ve seen wheels sheared off at the axles because of countless trips up and down this road—enough said.

Ore bin 1 about to be picked up by excavator during construction. This was the tensest time during work, to see if skeleton would maintain structure during the move. Keep in mind this is an early 1900s feature!

We were fortunate to hire RMC Consultants to complete work that began in August 2016 and ran until almost October. At 12,000 feet, October is pushing the weather window that saw various spouts of rain, sleet, snow and sunshine all within the daily wheelhouse of Mother Nature. The crew was split up, with one group focusing on environmental cleanup of the large waste rock pile, and the other pursuing decontamination and historical preservation of the mill and ore bin. Working in tandem, the teams slowly consolidated and capped waste rock while building a makeshift exoskeleton around the shaky, rotten ore bin with 2x12s and timber locks. This exoskeleton would be the mechanism for cutting away the rotten foundation, picking the bin up and moving it to allow for cleanup of waste rock, and setting it back in its original orientation on a new foundation.

Easy, right? Not so much, especially considering that it looked like the old ore bin could crumble like match sticks at any time. From some stroke of luck, or pure skill, the crew successfully picked the ore bin up at almost full capacity of the excavator, moved it, and set it back down on a new foundation mimicking that of the 1900s mining era.


Before (top) conditions of ore bin showing contaminated waste rock and lean of structure due to unstable foundation. After (bottom) conditions of ore bin after being set on new foundation with pulley wheels and trough to mimic historic usage.

Both crews really took ownership of the project, which made my job a lot easier throughout the entire process. Once the ore bin had been tackled, the interior of the mill building was decontaminated and preserved so future generations of the public can enjoy the original equipment without risk of exposure to heavy metals.


Mill equipment, post-restoration: flotation mill (top) and ball crusher (bottom) after crews performed decontamination work, making  the building safe for visitors.

The environmental cleanup, historical preservation, channel construction, and safety closure work all turned out incredibly well. Completion of project work will help ensure that future site visitors are not exposed to heavy metals or physical safety hazards, while also reducing the likelihood of downstream contamination to human and fish populations. At the same time, preservation of equipment and structures on-site, will help maintain Colorado’s rich mining history for years to come.

It is a pleasure working with such a diverse group of partners and contractors who are passionate about the work we do. Cheers to more successful projects in the future!

Jason Willis is Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Abandoned Mine Land program manager.


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