Flume with a View

In the chilly early spring of 1889, two dozen sunburned and wiry mine workers in western Colorado started moving the San Miguel River, damming portions of the waterway and sending it into a new wooden flume, a narrow chute used to channel water. Some 80 million gallons of water a day were slated to spray into downstream gravel riverbanks flecked with gold. Carried out by the Montrose Placer Mining Company, the three-year project was supposed to sluice out enough metal to pay for itself. Instead, its $170,000 price tag quickly bankrupted Montrose Placer. No company records have survived to explain how the workers on sandstone cliffs managed to drill and hammer and cantilever beams and planks for some 16 kilometers. Flume fragments still cling to the canyon walls along ten of the original kilometers. In some spots, just a couple of iron pins are poked into the rock. But wherever the flume was tucked under cliff overhangs that kept early twentieth-century locals from salvaging much lumber, the brackets and floorboards hang on. The structure made Colorado’s 1999 list of most endangered places and WMF’s 2006 list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. Though rickety and decaying, it has at last begun attracting conservators’ attention. It’s also being documented down to its bolts and washers.

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