SILVERTON – Ed Nichols, president and State Historic Preservation officer for History Colorado (formerly the Colorado Historical Society), stood beside the weathered timbers and peeling tin of the Mayflower Mill outside Silverton on Monday. He’d come from headquarters in Denver to award a grant of $105,000 to the mill’s owners for a micro-hydroelectric generating project. But before he did, he squinted into a brilliant, late-September sun and gestured up Cunningham Gulch, up the 9,000-foot long cable tramway still connecting the mill to the mining claims there. It took very little imagination, he said, on such a day and in such a place, to travel back in time to the heyday of gold and silver in the San Juan Mountains.
And that was precisely the point of his organization’s Special Initiatives sustainability grants, he said, “to link the past and the future.”
The grant recipient, the San Juan County Historical Society, which has owned the Mayflower since 1995 and operated it as a National Historic Landmark since 2000, will use the money to restore a water supply pipeline and install, with help from Telluride Energy, a micro-hydro turbine. When completed, it should offset the mill’s $600/month electric bill and, possibly, have enough left over to contribute power to the grid.
Nichols spoke to a gathering of about 50 local citizens and dignitaries, including San Juan County commissioner Pete McKay, Mayor Terrence Kerwin and representatives from Senator Michael Bennett’s office. He spoke of benefits to the Silverton community both tangible and intangible. “Heritage tourism,” he said, “is one of Colorado’s most important sources of income.”
The Mayflower, also known as the Shenandoah/Dives Mill, is the last mill of its kind in the San Juans and is undergoing considerable restoration thanks to an earlier $375,000 grant from the State Historical Fund. “Your heritage effort here in Silverton is a model for rural economic development in small communities,” Nichols said. “You’re telling these stories together, as a community. You’re living proof that if you take that past and link it to the future – make this a current resource – you are creating a basis for a sustainable future.”
San Juan County Historical Society President Beverly Rich accepted the check. “A hundred and five thousand dollars will go a long a way in our little community,” she said. And then she gave a history lesson.
The Mayflower was built in 1929 to take advantage of a new technology called flotation, “which allowed them to mine lower grades of ore profitably,” Rich said. In its time, the mill processed 1,940,100 ounces of gold and 30 million ounces of silver. “Charles Chase ran the mill clear up until 1952. He kept this town alive.”
Then the mill was sold to Standard Metals which supplied the mill with ore from its Sunnyside Gold Mine until its closing in 1991. “One of our board members, Zeke Zanoni, said, ‘You know, all of the mills in the San Juans have been torn down. We oughta save this one.’ We got it in 1995. We’ve created a nice mill tour. We have the mine tour up the valley. Now we can tell the complete story of mining and milling.
“Another thing we got,” Rich said of the acquisition by the Historical Society, “was the Arastra Creek water rights. A century ago, mills all over the San Juans were powered by hydroelectric. Now we have this new grant from the Sustainability Initiative. And here we are.” Past meets present meets future.