Cumberland Basin Part Two — The Machinery

Post by blogger | August 7, 2007      

During last week’s hike in Cumberland Basin, near Castle Peak here in Colorado, we ran across a nearly intact steam boiler with associated steam engine, air compressor, and airtank.

Mining heritage in Cumberland Basin
Detail from the steam engine. Brass bearings look nearly new, as they must have appeared around a century ago when this installation was in use. The threaded hole at the top of the bearing was probably a grease fitting that’s totally rusted away, leaving the brass hole with perfect threads. Click image to enlarge.

Mining heritage in Cumberland Basin

We spotted this stuff when a pile of mine tailings caught our attention across the valley from our hiking route. Colorado has thousands of old mines, but most associated machinery is rusted away, ruined by fire, or carted off to museums and such. It’s rare to find a real steam engine, boiler, pressure tank and pressure regulator just sitting there in the middle of the alpine. Along with that, two other vertical style boilers are on the ground nearby (out of photo). That’s a compressed air tank at right foreground, steam engine and compressor in right background, and boiler to left. Click image to enlarge.

Mining heritage in Cumberland Basin

The installation in situ. This appeared to be a fairly large operation that mined the same silver vein tunneled by well known Montezuma Mine one valley to the north. One thing I truly enjoy about seeing these areas is how the land has healed. With so much anti-industrial sentiment these days, it is good to take the long view and know that we can actually use resources for things like mountain bikes and ski lifts, and the land can recover. The Aspen area is a good example of this. The place was a literal wasteland in the 1800s, and is now considered to be one of the most beautiful places in the country. Pretty good for just a hundred years or so… Click image to enlarge.

Mining heritage in Cumberland Basin

Boiler from the smoke stack end. Larger fire was built at the other end, with heat and smoke passing through tubes in water jacket to this end then up though a large chimney opening. The chimney opening is the collar closest to end, the cylinder that looks like a chimney is actually where the steam was collected. Click image to enlarge.

Mining heritage in Cumberland Basin

Detail of boiler, chimney end. This model was apparently called the Economic, made by Erie City Iron Works and patented in 1885. The machinery was transported by mule hauled wagon, either over Pearl Pass from Aspen or up from the Gunnison Valley — either trip being at least 30 miles from a railhead. One can only imagine what it was like running enough animals to haul something like this — probably made Noah’s ark look like child’s play. Click image to enlarge.

Mining heritage in Cumberland Basin

Boiler firebox end. Think of all those movies with a guy shoveling coal into a train boiler, this is where they worked. The firebox is still lined with fire brick held by removable steel rods that slide in and out from above. Click image to enlarge.

Mining heritage in Cumberland Basin

Now for the eye candy. In position to the side of the boiler (Louie is checking out the boiler firebox), this is the intact steam engine with attached air compressor. Steam engine with flywheels on right end of unit, compressor on left. Numerous brass fittings were still intact. The compressor obviously worked with one large piston, as did the steam engine.

Mining heritage in Cumberland Basin

Lettering on top of steam engine indicates it was designed for use as mine drilling machinery. In this case, “drilling” means sinking small diameter bores that were perhaps 3 inches wide, tamping in some dynamite, then triggering a blast to fracture the rock which was then “mucked” out by hand and rolled out of the mine in ore carts on steel track.

Mining heritage in Cumberland Basin

End view of steam engine. The thin upper rod probably controlled the valve, while the piston had a much stronger attachment to spin the flywheels, which in turn moved the compressor piston.

Mining heritage in Cumberland Basin

The compressor filled this airtank, which is topped by what’s obviously a massive gate valve. The handle is bent from avalanches that fall from a huge avalanche slope above the installation. One has to wonder if it was avalanches that closed down this operation, as it looks very vulnerable. Attesting to that, we noticed a rock berm built on the slope above the cabin foundations that was not doubt intended as defense against rockfall and snowslides, but looked rather ineffective to the experienced eye.

Mining heritage in Cumberland Basin

The rock berm we figured was built as avalanche and rockfall defense. One can only imagine being in a cabin on the downside of this, with a 2,000 vertical foot avalanche slope above. In another hundred years this rock pile and the mine tailings apron are probably all that will be left of the Cumberland Basin silver mine.


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6 Responses to “Cumberland Basin Part Two — The Machinery”

  1. Scott B August 7th, 2007 1:43 pm

    It is interesting how the tundra appears to heal more quickly than is usually touted.

    However, just because the plants have returned doesn’t mean I’d want to drink the water coming out of that drainage.

  2. Lou August 7th, 2007 2:47 pm

    Scott, yeah, since I’ve been around the same mountains and desert for a while I’ve noticed that tundra sometimes heals way faster than the “100 years” standard, same goes for cryptogamic (spelling?) soil, which I’ve seen in fine shape with bicycle tracks imprinted in it. How long it takes those bicycle tracks to go away is another story, but the soil was fine.

    That’s not saying we shouldn’t watch out for damage to such surfaces, but it annoys me when people spout these “scientific” things and they turn out to not be true in direct observation. Talk about loss of credibility…

    As for the water, you really never know. Just about every drainage in the Elk Mountains has a mine shaft or prospect in it, and I’m not noticing too many people with 12 fingers…though I’ve seen a few up in Aspen (grin).

  3. Jon August 7th, 2007 11:27 pm

    Howdy Lou – what an amazing find in Cumberland basin. This is perhaps the most intact installment from that era in western CO?? As there are countless remnants from the turn of the century lingering in Colorado’s hills, perhaps this is by far the most intact you have stumbled upon? Funny to see that the boiler was manufactured in PA, as I am from there and the state at one time prided itself on the manufacturing (steel) industry. What a long train ride cross-country before the silver collapse changed it all.

    Last weekend while gathering logs I stumbled upon two separate prospector holes several hundered feet above my cabin in the West Elks. Surrounding those holes were the remnants of axe-felled spruce and fir trees from nearly one-hundred years ago. It is a fantastic thing to walk through the wilds and discover the tasks of former residents, while also recognizing the healing effects that the forest has upon human disturbance.


  4. Mark August 8th, 2007 9:45 pm

    Some great access roads exist due to prior mining activity in parts of Montana as well. They can be a boon for skiers. And on Mt. Adams (the one in WA), mule trains removed mined sulfur way up high on that great, big mountain. Sounds crazy, but it’s true.

  5. Geof August 8th, 2007 10:24 pm

    Very cool find Lou!! Hopefully now one will get silly and try to remove it. I agree with your statement on replenishing tundra. While I don’t “bash” just to bash, these hills are FAR more resilient than the “scientists” give them credit…

    There are some cool mining remains on the north side of Democrat as well, to include the remnants of an outhouse… I wish I could find the pics… We found several implements, some tin cans and the remains of a mining cart, tracks and all…

    Great history in them thar hills…

  6. Hydraulic Pumps July 22nd, 2008 3:08 am

    Nice pic. The machine really looks old.

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