Resort mining structures facing demolition by neglect
September 4, 2015
Over the years, attempts to preserve historic mining structures at Park City resort have been marked by both celebrated successes and agonizing failures.
On one hand there was the bold move by local businessman Vince Donile to uproot the 1896 Silver King boardinghouse, which was scheduled for demolition, and trundle it up the mountain in September 1987 (with the help of seven bulldozers) to a new location overlooking the Pioneer Lift. Today it’s one of the most popular lunch spots on the mountain.
On the other hand there was the furtive 1998 demolition of the weathered skeleton of the 1903 Kearns-Keith mill by United Park City Mines. The loss of that iconic structure, which stood near the bottom of the Pioneer Lift, infuriated local preservationists and triggered a plan to prevent such deliberate destruction in the future.
Today the remaining structures are facing a different threat: neglect. In recent years, skiers and mountain bikers have reported the collapse of a large section of the century-old California Comstock mill near the bottom of the Thaynes Lift. A pair of old ore bins on the Jupiter and Claimjumper runs are succumbing to gravity and water damage. And a redwood water tank near the top of the Town Lift — one of three that once stood at the site — may not survive another winter, according to local contractor Lance Kincaid.
"One has already collapsed," Kincaid said. Two others are still standing, but one is in "horrible shape," he said. Since the two are connected with a heavy steel pipe, the collapse of one could also bring down the other, he warned.
Over the past two decades, Kincaid has become intimately familiar with the threats facing the old water tanks and other mining structures. In the mid-1990s he was hired by Marianne Cone, then director of the Park City Museum, to stabilize a pair of tanks on the resort’s Silver Queen run, which were starting to deteriorate.
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Kincaid explained that the tanks were made of vertical redwood boards held in place with steel bands. "Water usually holds all of those boards (in place) and expands them. Redwood expands (when it’s wet) and, let’s say, tightens the rings. Once they’re drying, then they collapse. There’s no real pressure holding them out."
Kincaid said he reroofed the tanks and designed a system of spokes that radiated out from the center columns in the tanks to hold the redwood boards in place. Today, more than 20 years later, his repairs are still doing their job.
"Those two tanks are in great shape," he said. "They’ll be up there for a long time."
Unfortunately, the owners of the resort had more pressing priorities over the past two decades, according to Kincaid and Sandra Morrison, current executive director of the Park City Museum.
When the resort was annexed into Park City in 2007, Morrison said, the annexation agreement required Powdr Corp (the owner of the resort) and Talisker Land Holdings LLC (owner of much of the underlying land) to create a plan to stabilize all the historic mining structures.
"So that hasn’t happened," Morrison said. "And in the meantime, things start falling down."
Fast-forward to the spring of 2015 when the new owner of the resort, Vail Resorts, approached the city for permits to build a gondola and replace the Snow Hut restaurant.
"They come in under this 2007 annexation agreement, because it’s an MPD (master-planned development) already in place," Morrison said. At that time, she said, city staff revisited the terms of that 2007 agreement.
"That’s when the conversation comes around to (the fact that) none of this preservation work on the historic mine structures has happened," she said.
As one of the conditions of approval for the new Mine Camp Restaurant and Quicksilver Gondola, Vail was required to do an inventory of all the historic structures on the mountain by October 2015 and prepare a preservation plan by March 2016.
"Vail said that they would also put together a five-year capital campaign plan to raise the money to do all the preservation work," Morrison said. "And Vail also said that they would spend $50,000 by October 1 of this year on the structures because the planning commission was very concerned about some of them (being) in imminent danger of collapse."
Morrison emphasized that the goal of the program is simply to stabilize the existing structures.
"All of these projects, it’s about arresting the decay. It’s not about adaptive reuse, it’s not about renovating them, any of that," she said.
To help Vail raise money for the campaign, Morrison enlisted an old ally, Sally Elliott, who has served terms on the Park City Council, the old Summit County Commission, and numerous other boards. Elliott is also a student of Park City mining history and, while working as a ski instructor for Park City Ski Area, prepared a brochure for a self-guided tour of mine sites at the resort. She also worked with the museum staff to prepare about 40 interpretive plaques that were installed at mine sites around the Park City and Deer Valley resorts in 1999.
"Vail, actually, has been the best partner for preservation, interpretation, recognition of history," Elliott said. "The people that Vail brought in have been phenomenal to work with. They’re very positive."
In an email to The Park Record, Bill Rock, the resort’s chief operating officer, said that the company is doing its part to help preserve the historic structures. "Park City (resort) is committed to working with partners like the City, Park City Museum and the community to determine the focus and prioritization of resources on the historical preservation projects that most impact our community," Rock said.
A prime candidate for the $50,000 infusion is the California Comstock mill, one of the most visible and photographed of the historic structures at the resort. Weather permitting, a crew could still get to the site this year, stabilize the standing structure and begin picking up the fallen timbers, according to consulting engineer Jonathan Richards, who has been monitoring the mill for the past decade.
"The biggest problem is getting the equipment up there to be able to pull that material off, because it’s such heavy duty – heavy timbers, heavy weighted material," Richards said. "The stuff that’s on top that’s failed looks pretty bad and pretty rotted, but underneath a lot of the timbers have been preserved." Ultimately, he said, they may be able to use some of the salvaged material to rebuild some of the collapsed section.
Contractor Lance Kincaid uses superlatives when describing the workmanship in the old mill, which was assembled using massive timbers and very few nuts and bolts. "Everything was (done) with pegs, dowels," he said. "And right now there are pieces hanging in the air connected only by dowels. It’s just a magnificent structure. The beams that that they used, they’re like 16 or 18 inches square."
Kincaid is nervously monitoring the weather forecasts while waiting for Vail to give him the green light to begin the repairs on the mill. But there is a fly in the ointment. As Morrison pointed out, the site of the California Comstock is not included in the boundaries described in the 2007 annexation. So the question became: Could Vail use that $50,000 for a project outside the city limits?
At Thursday’s meeting of the Park City Council, Planning Director Bruce Erickson answered that question. He said the $50,000 could be used on other mine structures at the resort, but not the California Comstock, without a master-plan amendment. However, Morrison said Friday that the museum may be able to use other funds to begin stabilizing the old mill.
Kincaid hesitated to prioritize the preservation projects, but did volunteer that the two ore bins would be the cheapest to tackle. "It wouldn’t take much for those, while the other ones (would) take a lot of financing."
The water tanks near the top of the Town Lift would take a lot of work, he said. "It would be, probably, a week just getting it (the tank with the most damage) safe – getting inside it, cleaning it up, supporting it so people could go inside and work, (putting) scaffolding on the outside so people could actually be leaning on the building to put up the roofing, because the whole roof needs to be redone." He also noted that these tanks are not as visible as the other candidates for preservation.
After four years of drought, skiers and resort owners are looking to the heavens for tons of snow. But for those who are passionate about saving fragile mine structures like the old water tank, that’s the worst possible scenario.
"The whole building is ready to fall," Kincaid said. "If we have a heavy winter, it won’t survive."
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