Breckenridge’s endangered Reiling Dredge under the preservation microscope
Researchers hiked up French Gulch to survey the rotting remains of the Reiling Gold Dredge, a historical site declared endangered by Colorado Preservation Inc. last February. The wooden skeleton came to rest in 1922, now sitting in a small pond surrounded by mountains of tailings, the result of the hunt for all that glitters in Breckenridge’s “Golden Horseshoe.”
In an effort to slow the dredge’s decay, leaders in Breckenridge and the county started a hydrology study last Thursday to look at the possibility of raising the pond’s water levels by a few inches. As summer approaches, Environmental Resource Consultants plans to observe rising and falling water levels to see how water flows through the pond.
“The goal is to have less wood exposed to the elements by putting it underwater,” said Brian Lorch, Summit County Open Space and Trail director. “We’re looking at if it is feasible, and getting a general cost estimate of raising the water level.”
In March, Summit County agreed to match a $30,000 grant offered by the town of Breckenridge to cover the cost of the hydrology study, as well as the clearing of debris and stabilization of the structure.
“If we do nothing, then eventually it will all collapse,” said Larissa O’Neil, executive director of Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, anticipating that the dredge might go under in less than 20 years if left unchanged.
Researchers put up a temporary gauge to measure water levels while snow still surrounds the pond, located at 10,000 feet in French Gulch, off a trail just north of Breckenridge. But after the thaw, the team plans to return with a more permanent fixture, and look at the possibility of placing a few wells in the area.
Once the study is complete, the town will then be tasked with deciding how to best preserve the dredge.
“Certainly, we want to have all of this done by the end of this year,” Breckenridge Open Space and Trails planner Scott Reid said. “We’re looking at how to budget the next steps. Really the goal in this whole thing is to stabilize the Reiling Dredge, and slow decay, so it can be interpreted in the long term.”
Putting a price on history
The issue of the site’s interpretation has been the most debated aspect of the project up to this point. Both town and county leaders discussed the possibility of moving tailings to restore the valley, which was turned upside down by dredging several years ago.
As the large, barge-like structure chugged along the riverbeds, it moved 2,000 yards of earth each day, seven days per week, spitting out large rocks on a conveyor belt as a rotating cylinder separated the finer sediment — including gold — into a sluice box. Between the Reiling Dredge and the Reliance, the French Gulch Dredging Company mined $7 million in gold in a matter of years. The damage to the surrounding ecosystem remains as hills of upheaved rock surround the site.
Some would see French Creek restored, with tailings moved to uncover the alpine stream that once flowed through the gulch. However, as the recipients of a grant from the State Historical Fund of the Colorado Historical Society, the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance must be cautious to preserve the historical accuracy of the site — tailings included.
For now, town and county officials are putting the discussion on hold, until a plan for the structure itself is completed.
“I think everyone agrees that the dredge itself and its immediate surroundings should be preserved,” Reid said. “We don’t have a plan for revitalizing French Creek yet … we felt that discussion was premature.” Officials still have to decide to what extent the dredge should be restored. While the simplest of procedures, such as changing standing water levels, may increase the dredge’s lifespan by a matter of years, the added cost of further restoration brings the issue into perspective.
“The question is, how important is this that we try to preserve this for 50 years, or 30 years?” O’Neil asked.
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