Tucked into a redrock canyon in the remote western reaches of San Miguel County, four miles downstream from the confluence of the Dolores and San Miguel rivers, you’ll find a remnant of history that’s as baffling as it is amazing. There, a tidy row of wooden beams protrudes from the soaring sandstone walls, sometimes as high as hundreds of feet above the river below, for several astounding miles.
Welcome to The Hanging Flume, the longest historic structure in Colorado and most intact hanging flume left in North America.
What the heck is it, you ask? The Hanging Flume is what happens when mining heyday hubris mixes with a bit of ingenuity and what must have been incredibly hard labor.
Back in the late 1800s, when the mining frenzy was at its height in the San Juan Mountains, people began finding wealth in the placer deposits washed downstream from Telluride-area mines. But to make these claims profitable, miners needed to divert water for the sluicing and washing of the minerals.
One of these mining claims, known as the Bancroft, lay just out of reach of the flow of the nearby San Miguel and Dolores rivers. So mining bosses decided to build a flume. Which wouldn’t be unusual for a placer operation, except that this flume necessitated an incredible feat of engineering; to complete the entire 12-mile route at the proper gradient, it would have to cling to sheer cliff faces for seven of those miles.
Few documents or photos remain from that period, but this much is known: construction of the flume took three years at a cost of a staggering $100,000. Most of the wood used was logged from local mountains, and workers suspended from ropes chiseled iron rods and trestles into the rock to support the flume box. At six feet wide and four feet deep, that box was capable of conveying 80 million gallons of water a day while in use.
Despite the lofty ambitions and huge costs that went into it, the flume was only used for three years before it was abandoned, rendering it a failure in the realm of placer mining.
Today, much of the flume has disappeared or fallen into disrepair. But preservationists rebuilt a small section of the flume in 2012, and what remains serves as a stark reminder of the crazy things humans will do for a buck.
Katie KlingspornKatie Klingsporn is a former Arts and Entertainment editor at the Durango Herald, as well as involved with DGO in its very early days. She’s real great.