Reiling Dredge, relic of Breckenridge’s mining past, set to receive state-funded facelift
Doling out more than $4.5 million for numerous historic-preservation projects across Colorado, the State Historical Fund has earmarked $163,275 for a matching grant to stabilize a piece of Breckenridge’s past that some would prefer sinks into memory.
The Reiling Gold Dredge was built in 1908 by the French Gulch Dredging Company to mine gold out of Summit County. It ceased operation in 1922 when the dredge partially sank in a small pond in French Gulch, just off a trail north of town. It remains in the pond where it sank almost a century ago today, surrounded by mountains of tailings.
A nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the state’s most historic sites, Colorado Preservation Inc., identified the dredge as one of Colorado’s most endangered historical sites in 2015.
The Breckenridge Heritage Alliance successfully applied for the state grant earlier this year, and executive director Larissa O’Neil said that if left to sit, the old dredge, little more than a shell of what it used to be, could disappear completely within the next two decades.
The work to stabilize the dredge is slated to begin next spring and be complete by summer 2019. Altogether, it’s expected to cost $334,795 with the town of Breckenridge and the Breckenridge Open Space Advisory Committee each chipping in $87,500 and Summit County’s Open Space Advisory Committee adding another $30,000 to the pool.
According to the BHA’s application, the money will help stabilize the dredge “to maintain its existing form,” and there are no plans to restore the old, barge-like mining boat.
“The point is to preserve (the dredge) in its existing form so that people, 50 years from now, can walk up to it and get a sense of the scope, the scale and the size of these dredges, how they operated and the impact these machines had on our local economy, as well as the landscape,” O’Neil said.
Dredges devastated the landscape, she said, adding that their impact is still felt today. “The purpose is not to preserve the rock piles. It’s really to preserve the structure that created all that change.”
Due to fear of a collapse, bracing cables were installed at the dredge in 2012 to provide temporary stability. That was a short-term measure, and a hydrology study began in April 2015 after Summit County matched a $30,000 grant from the town to cover the cost of the study, as well as clearing debris and stabilizing the decaying mining boat.
At the time, efforts to preserve the dredge were met with fierce criticism from a handful of people who believed moving materials and heavy equipment up to the dredge site could jeopardize the popular B&B Trail, with many sections of that path often being wet and muddy.
O’Neil conceded that she’d heard those comments, but noted there are efforts underway to mitigate those concerns, including transporting materials via helicopter. She also said that as BHA recently worked on producing a master preservation plan, part of that effort involved hosting a pair of open houses.
During those community forums, “the vast majority of people who came felt that this was a site worth saving,” O’Neil said, explaining the dredge represents “the best example we have of the dredge-boat industry that operated here in Breckenridge for almost 50 years.”
It’s possible some light equipment — like a small Bobcat — could be used at some point, O’Neil said, but the work crews won’t be driving any machinery down the trails that hasn’t already been on them before.
“This project is not going to impact the trail network,” O’Neil declared. “You’re not going to see a giant backhoe out there.”
Many critics also feared working on the dredge, with part of its deck underwater, could mean draining the pond, one of the only still-water pools for miles up- or downstream.
The pond won’t be drained, but its water level will be lowered by about 2.5 feet by decreasing the height of its spillway. The spillway will be rebuilt and the pond refilled once the repairs are made.
While this could reignite some of the criticism, the application says the National Parks Service Submerged Resources Team was asked to evaluate lowering the pond, and “they did not advise against the pond lowering or foresee any related issues with the lower water level.”
Additionally, a hydrologist determined that lowering the spillway likely won’t disturb any mercury or metal sediments in the pond but warned against using a pump to lower the pond because it could mandate “significant oversight measures” and “continuous maintenance for more than a year.”
“We’re not here to interpret only the good, beautiful history but also the parts that are controversial and give us that moment to think about where we came from and where we are today,” O’Neil said, even if it was a giant mining machine that once scooped up as much as 2,000 yards of earth a day.
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