Breck’s historic dredge boats turn 100
BRECKENRIDGE – For Bill Fountain, Breckenridge is pretty easy to figure out. “All of the mining activity is the reason the town exists and the reason it continues to exist,” the Breckenridge area mining historian proclaims with confidence at the start of an interview. Fountain calls his 25-hours per week, 52 weeks per year mining history study “just a hobby,” but it’s hard to believe when he tells you about the hundreds of hours he’s spent in the vault of the County Clerk and Recorder’s Office. “All the leatherbound records are there,” Fountain says, his excitement level audible. “The original mining districts talked about the log books, registering of claims, court documents.”
In terms of historians, Fountain’s riding singletrack on a mountain bike that hasn’t been invented yet. “I try to zero in on a project and thoroughly investigate it,” Fountain said of his Summit-focused mining studies. “There’s other historians, but not into mining as much as I am in the research end of it.”And in this season, the 100th anniversary of dredge mining by the Number Six and Number Seven boats in Breckenridge, Fountain is the person to go to for the facts. Who better to reveal the area’s true past than a man that spends his summer days orienteering in the backcountry in search of forgotten mining sites?Fountain reports that early prospectors discovered gold in the lower Swan River in 1859 or 1860, but due to the 30-50 foot depth of the bedrock there, the precious metal was unreachable by simple placer mining methods. Dredge mining was brought to Summit County in 1898, but it wasn’t until 1907 – 100 years ago – that a contract was signed for the Number Six and Number Seven dredge boats with the Bucyrus Company of South Milwaukee, Wis.
Number Six and Number Seven were built in Valdora, a mining “company” town that used to be situated in the southeast corner of what is now Tiger Run Resort. There, a pond was built by the “Dredge King” Ben Stanley Revett for construction of the two dredge boats.According to skicountry.com’s website, ponds like Valdora had depths that allowed a boat’s hulls to float. Dredge boats were anchored to the shore by cables and to the pond floor by hollow, heavy poles driven into the gravel. Every eight hours the poles were lifted and men using winches onshore pulled the dredge forward. The dredges made 200-foot arcs on the sides of the ponds, and as the dredges moved, the ponds went with them. The town of Valdora was eventually decimated by its maker – dredge boat mining – when the boat’s bucket-and-motor method unearthed the very land the town was situated on. Precious few artifacts remain due to upheaval left in the path of dredge boats. The Number Six boat operated during 1908 and part of 1909, working the gravels down the Swan River to the Blue River, where it entered and continued on south.
After that, Number Six would sit idle until 1914, when it was purchased by a new company. But, like all the other mining activity in Breckenridge, after an off-and-on schedule, it would see its final turnings with the War Production Board’s passage of Order L-203 on October 15, 1942. The order stopped all mining for precious metals, including the gold that motivated the dredge boats to run the rivers. Dredge mining, with its visible tailings piles and calls for local restoration, is seemingly a financial cornerstone of Breck’s mining history. Not so, according to Fountain. “It was just another new method of the time of going down to bedrock to extract the gold,” he said. “It employed people, it brought the merchants.” Dredge boat crews consisted of only six people, and if they worked around the clock, maybe twice that number were operating the river giants, Fountain said. But the returns could be quite high for a fairly short run. Number Seven dredge spent its life working the Swan River. In 1911, just above Galena Gulch, produced $33,000 in gold in just 12 days.
Both the Number Six and Number Seven dredges were electrically driven with 42 9 1/2-foot buckets turned by 200 horsepower motors. The dredges were designed to dig about 40-50 feet below the water, depending of the river: 40 for the Swan, and 50 for the Blue. With that kind of rock-moving power, the riverside remains piled high. Fountain found a copy of a 1908 Breckenridge Bulletin story: “They (the dredge boats) have done wonders in piling up rock behind them, in their journey up and down the Swan Valley. It seems incredible that so large a pile of rock could be taken out of the bed of the stream, and instead of just following up the excavation it is piled forty feet higher than the surface of the ground.” The writer of the Breckenridge Bulletin piece was salivating at the “ground rich in gold” at the time of writing, but the tailings piles have proved an environmental albatross for the area. Various restorations have occurred in recent years, with more planned for the future.
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