Digging in the dirt

The Town of Telluride pivoted in 1972. It was a place up for the taking, a mining boomtown on the verge of going bust. Zinc, lead and the Tellurium for which the town was named had become less lucrative. The Idarado mine, Telluride's lifeblood, was hanging on by a thread.

So, a fellow by the name of Joe Zoline seized the day and opened a new chapter in the town's history. He took advantage of the Victorian streetscape and wild topography and cut trails, installed lifts and started the Telluride Ski Resort. Run off by the pace and change in Aspen, my parents loaded up the car and their infant son and made the move.


However, even though the lifts started running that winter, the giant mine just east of downtown continued to hang by that thread for nearly a decade. Consequently, I grew up in the company of miners and their kids, and over time grew to respect the lifestyle. After some early kinks were worked out, ski bum and miner coexisted almost comfortably.

One ancient prospector, Jim Dalpez, was known for spinning great stories in high volume, earning himself the nickname "Whispering Jim." Most of the tales centered around his life-work, the Shamrock Mine. The mine wasn't much by today's or yesterday's standards, and Whispering Jim got by with a couple of small buildings, a dying pickup, an ore cart and a door-sized portal. But through that hole in a wall, he explored and gutted a small corner of the San Juan Mountains.

Except for his time at the Last Dollar bar, people didn't take much notice of Whispering Jim and even less notice of the Shamrock Mine, which lay hidden away in a hollow high above Telluride. The last time I saw him, he was probably nearing the age of 80 and loss of sight and memory were joining his traditionally bad hearing. In spite of everything, he was still limping into that portal with fever in his eyes.

Not much later, I picked up the phone and heard my mom's voice moving in and out of tears. Earlier that morning, the doctor had handed over some bad news. At the age of 55, my dad had been diagnosed with cancer.

Initially, the disease made for a total mystery. The devoted vegetarian and pastor of good health wasn't supposed to be struck down, particularly not by cancer. At first, it seemed like a cosmic joke had been passed our way, but after a couple more phone calls, the mystery was dispelled.

Many other 1972 Telluride transplants had gotten similar news. A number of the miners that pre-dated them had already received treatment and were keeping their fingers crossed. Prostate cancer had reached nearly epidemic proportions in long-time male residents, and we weren't the only ones scratching our heads.

Eventually many of us thought back to a long-time fixture in the background of our Telluride lives. That giant, gray mound overshadowing town was no more than Idarado's dirty leftovers. When the wind blew, the tailings took flight, blowing into our kitchens, our eyes and our lungs. As a second-grader, I remember my dad dashing out after a call from another parent. Apparently, my 4-year-old brother had spent the last few days playing in a sandbox filled with tailings.

In high school, we snuck kegs and cases out to "Telluride Beach" on the edge of town. The "beach" consisted of tons of gritty mine residue that the San Miguel River had transported downstream. They were great parties, and blinded by the bonfire, nobody thought twice.

But throughout my upbringing, one of mining's forgotten legacies filled our drinking water, stained our clothes and tainted our air. There was a flip side to my postcard upbringing.

On the other hand, that giant gray mound left Telluride not long ago. Likewise, Durango's uranium mill tailings pile has been Superfunded and many of the local houses that used the material for fill have been cleaned up. Efforts are under way to seal leaking shafts near Silverton and purify the Animas. Best of all, we eventually got news that my dad and many other Telluriders beat the cancer.

Perhaps most reassuring of all was that old prospector and his Shamrock Mine. Whispering Jim eventually bid the streets of Telluride a final farewell, but only after enjoying a long healthy life above and beneath the ground.

Will Sands




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