OURAY COUNTY – Railroad enthusiasts participating in a guided tour of the Silverton Railroad Grade on Red Mountain Pass last Saturday received a nasty surprise when they discovered one of their hike’s main attractions – the historic Guston Depot platform– had been bulldozed into a heap of crushed wood.
“This was an important historical structure from the late 1880s and its destruction is an act of wanton vandalism,” local railroad historian Don Paulson asserted in an email distributed to a number of county authorities over the weekend.
Paulson added that the portion of the historic railroad grade along which the depot platform had been located was also “obliterated by the bulldozer.”
The Guston Depot was built in 1889 as part of Otto Mears’ famous Silverton Railroad, connecting Silverton to Ironton Park. The railroad served the Red Mountain Mining District where some of the richest silver mines in the state were once located, including the Yankee Girl, National Belle and Guston Mines.
Much of the Red Mountain Mining District was preserved a decade ago by the Red Mountain Project, which has placed more than 9,000 acres of land into perpetual conservation easements. The Guston Mine complex, however, is still mostly privately owned.
The Guston Depot, which was the only depot along the Silverton Railroad located at a mine, consisted of a passenger shelter and 20-foot long loading platform, Paulson said. Years ago, a tree fell across railroad right-of-way and knocked the shelter down the hill; remnants of the platform were all that remained of the original structure.
Now, these fragile remains have been obliterated.
“They bulldozed it off to the side, like trash,” Paulson said in an interview shortly after discovering the wreckage of the platform. “I’m sure the person who did it didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t in the greatest shape in the first place.”
The Ouray County Board of Commissioners has in recent years adopted resolutions indicating that both the Silverton Railroad right-of-way and the Guston Depot platform are historic county landmarks.
However, there was no interpretive signage at the site to alert visitors or landowners to its historical significance.
“I’ve often thought of going up there and cleaning up the site,” Paulson said. “But I’m of the opinion if you’ve got a historic site, you don’t restore it ... to a ‘Disney Land’ tourist attraction. Rustic decay is part of what makes historic sites interesting.”
The matter was briefly discussed by the Board of County Commissioners at its June 12 meeting.
Ouray County Attorney Marti Whitmore advised the commissioners that the county’s legal rights regarding protecting historic sites are “fairly limited” if the structure is on private property, regardless of whether the county has designated a structure as a historic landmark.
“The owner honestly has the right to do with it as they please,” she said. “But the first question is, whose property is it on?”
Sheriff Junior Mattivi stated that he is working to find the answer to that question. Initially, he thought the vandalism had occurred on the Guston Claim, which belongs to Frank Baumgartner. Baumgartner has been known to bulldoze historic sites in the Red Mountain district in previous conflicts with the County over preservation and public access.
However, further research showed the Guston Depot was actually located on the Little Annie Claim. Mattivi is working with the county assessor to determine who owns that claim.
County Commissioner Lynn Padgett wondered if the site might have been cleared with intention of putting a cabin directly on the old railroad grade, which could lead to some interesting ramifications, given that the Silverton Railroad Grade was recently identified by the Ouray County Public Access Group as one of five “priority routes” whose public access is potentially threatened by issues with private landowners.
PAG minutes from the fall of 2011 reveal the complexity of the public access issues surrounding the Silverton Railroad grade. The minutes show that Ouray County Historical Society member Tom Hillhouse spent considerable time researching ownership of the Silverton Railroad grade.
“There’s not a lot of documentation as far as official land transfers to the Silverton Railroad,” the minutes state. “The problem is that most of the claims on Red Mountain predate the existence of railroads. Although the railroad granted their rights of way to Ouray and San Juan Counties, they may not have had the authority to do so.”
There was also some discussion among PAG members at that time about whether Ouray County might be successful in attempting to claim the Silverton Railroad right-of-way as a prescriptive easement.
Whitmore, meanwhile, suggested the county would be more successful in its attempts to protect fragile vestiges of its mining history if it attained Historical Landmark designations from the Colorado State Historical Society as well as listing such sites on the National Historic Register.
“Honestly, one of the ways of moving forward to protect a lot of these sites is to work on getting state and or national designation and try to wrap it up into a Memorandum of Understanding along with the Ouray County Historical Society and various land owners,” she suggested. “We need to get a cooperative plan in place to protect these very important historic sites.”
Padgett said there is an opportunity for education and outreach – putting up signs and explaining to land owners and visitors why something is significant is a first step, she suggested.
The discussion regarding the Guston Depot vandalism fell on the heels of similar discussions in recent weeks about how to address the problem of vandalism at the lower Camp Bird Mine. In both cases, concerned parties agree that interpretive signage may help educate people and discourage them from damaging relics of the past.
Both the Ouray County Historical Society and the Ridgway Railroad Museum are actively seeking donations to pay for such signage to be manufactured and installed.