Change comes to a hard place

Silverton is a 2-mile-high village parachuted between two steep mountain passes in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. Avalanches, violent snowstorms and whiteouts regularly cut the village off from the rest of the world for days, occasionally weeks at a time.

It is one of my personal favorite places—spectacular, old, idiosyncratic, unique: When you are there, you know you could be nowhere else.

But it is also one of the harshest places on the planet to live. And for a journalist it is even tougher. A few years ago, the local newspaper made national headlines when it offered to give itself away to anyone who would take it.

All of this is by way of background to a review of a very fine nonfiction book published this year about Silverton, “River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster” (Torrey House Press, $18.95, 312 pages in paperback). The author is Jonathan P. Thompson, who was a reporter for a Silverton weekly in his 20s, then publisher of a newspaper there, and later editor in chief of the famed environmental magazine High Country News in Paonia, Co. His family hales from the Animas Valley near Silverton and he now lives in Durango, Co.

The strength of “River of Lost Souls” (the title refers to an old name for the Animas River) is the same as its weakness: It tries to do an awful lot of things at the same time. It recounts the history of Silverton and the surrounding San Juan Mountains, which is mostly the history of disastrous mining. It describes Thompson’s personal odyssey, as baker, journalist and lost kid who finds himself.

Photos by Thelma Bowles

And most, and best, of all, it dissects the failed politics and economics of the West that led to the Gold King Mine disaster, which New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and the federal government are still trying to deal with three years after a poisonous orange excrescence burst through an underground dam and polluted the Animas and San Juan Rivers, destroyed agriculture on a major part of the Navajo Reservation, and devastated the economies of towns in New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, including Silverton, Farmington, Durango, Shiprock and Aztec. The plume of pollution reached as far as Lake Powell in southern Utah.

This tragic tale has a lot of villainous behavior but only one principal villain: greed. For a century and a half, everyone from capitalists to miners, from governments to ordinary citizens took from the land all that they could beg, borrow or steal without reckoning with the consequences. The resulting Gold King Mine disaster was, as in any true tragedy, inevitable. When before the disaster the federal Environmental Protection Agency wanted to designate the mine a Superfund site in order to finance its cleanup, the town of Silverton refused to agree for fear it would discourage tourism. Afterward, when it was too late, it changed its mind.

The recent history of Silverton in a way is the story of a town whipsawed between the two competing economic poles of mining and tourism. As mining progressively died in the 20th century, tourism mushroomed. Initially created by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, tourism has been enhanced in recent years by extreme skiing and a spate of second homes, including a couple of million-dollar McMansions.

Yet at least until very recently, Silverton retained its ambiance as a hard-scrabble place where only the toughest of its 600 residents stayed on during the violent October-May winters, but where everyone was a character in his or her own novel. During many a visit over the past 30 years, I always thought Silverton would never change, but earlier this year I found that, alas, it had.

The oldest and best restaurant in town, Handlebars Food and Saloon, had lost its lease and been forced from its colorful ancient digs. The old Teller Hotel where railroad employees and miners used to stay had raised its room rates to nearly $200 a night. ATVs had been banned from the streets. Parking on deserted Blair Street outside the Blair Street Hostel, was so regulated that parallel-parked cars were ticketed. Smoking almost everywhere, of any substance at all, was now illegal. Out-of-towners were directed to smoke in the back yard of the hostel as almost the only haven around. The rum distillery, the most pleasant gathering spot in town on a wintry day, was closed because of complaints. The Miners Tavern, the oldest and for long the only bar, was turned into an office for the ski area.

Thompson, god bless him, has found a saving grace in all the changes. He concludes:

“Silverton had finally moved on, had embraced a future and livelihood, that, for all its imperfections, is far less destructive to the land and the people and the water and the wildlife than mining. Yes, the horde of sightseers will swarm the tundra every summer, they’ll build their cabins in the high country, they’ll love this place to the brink of death. But these mountains will probably never again be gouged open for the sake of gold or silver or copper or lead.”

Life in Silverton has always been a touch closer to hell than to paradise, but in today’s gentrifying Rocky Mountains, this purgatory may be as good as it gets.

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