This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Current members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
IDAHO SPRINGS — Intrepid miners more than 125 years ago carved a nearly 5-mile tunnel into the mountains here to collect and mill gold valued at more than $1 trillion.
Those hardy miners are long gone, and the Argo Mill hasn’t processed gold for more than 75 years. But that audacious entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well as plans unfold for a gondola climbing from Idaho Springs to a network of city-owned trails above the historic Argo Mill and Tunnel.
The Mighty Argo Cable Car — unveiled by developer and Idaho Springs native Mary Jane Loevlie on Wednesday — will climb 1.2 miles from the EPA Superfund site at the Argo Mill where she and her investment team plan to develop a hotel, homes and commercial village on the banks of Clear Creek.
“We are marrying outdoor recreation and heritage tourism at a reclaimed EPA Superfund site,” said Loevlie, sipping a glass of wine with her growing team of engineers, landscape architects and planners after a community meeting announcing the state’s newest scenic gondola on Wednesday. “You know what, we are putting the fun in Superfund.”
Three years ago Loevlie, who developed concrete-spraying Shotcrete Technologies in Idaho Springs, corralled a group of investors including Denver’s Dana Crawford with a redevelopment plan to mine for more tourist dollars in a city that has spent decades trying to thrive in the windy wake of 22 million cars passing on Interstate 70 each year.
They sketched plans for a hotel, convention center, housing for all incomes and a village of stores and parks surrounding the historic mill.
The city has approved the Argo redevelopment as a planned development, with an overarching design standard and special zoning for the entire project that serves as an access point for the city’s 450-acre Virginia Canyon Mountain Park. City leaders last month gave final approval to developing more than 14 miles of new, year-round hiking and biking trails in the park.
Final development plans for the gondola require approval by Idaho Springs planners and city council. If all goes as planned, Loevlie hopes to have the tramway running by next summer.
The gondola wasn’t part of the initial Argo plan. But as Lovelie’s team explored the project alongside the city’s plans for the Virginia Canyon Mountain Park, they saw an opportunity to integrate recreation into their projects, which revolves around the historic Argo Mill, where tens of thousands of miners scratched gold from mountain mines at the zenith of Colorado’s gold rush. In the past year, Loevlie negotiated with miners who owned claims on top of the mountain for a 30-acre parcel to anchor the top of the gondola.
“This community was built by people who had dreams. It was built by people who were not afraid. They were not afraid of change. They were not afraid of progress. We are still here and we are the legacy of that community and we see an opportunity at the Argo to celebrate that spirit,” said Travis Cook, an engineer on Loevlie’s development team who grew up in Idaho Springs and helped found Icelantic Skis almost 15 years ago with Loevlie’s daughter, Annelise, who is CEO of the Colorado-made ski company.
The hotel, homes and village remain a critical part of the plan, but they have been bumped to later phases. Why?
“Because this is such a huge revenue generator,” Loevlie said of the gondola, which she expects will grow tourist traffic to the Argo Mill and Tunnel from about 50,000 visitors a year to more than 400,000.
A hydraulic disaster in January 1943 closed the Argo Mill and its 4.2-mile tunnel, which stretched nearly to Central City, draining 250 miles of gold mine shafts in the renowned “richest square mile on Earth.”
The mill and tunnel were dormant for nearly 30 years before a group of local investors renovated the Argo as a tourist attraction. It was placed on the National Historic Register in 1977. In 1983, the 400-mile drainage around Clear Creek was named a Superfund site and since the early 1990s, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment and Environmental Protection Agency spend about $1 million a year filtering heavy metals from water that flushes from the tunnel at about 300 gallons a minute.
Repurposing EPA Superfund sites is a 20-year effort that has seen locations across the country converted to tourist and recreation destinations as well as wildlife refuges, industrial parks, hospitals, shopping centers and neighborhoods.
Superfund cleanup sites in the EPA’s Region 8 states across the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains — including Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah — host businesses that provided 28,715 jobs and contribute $2 billion in annual pay as well as generating $23 million in annual property taxes for local communities.
The 18-square-mile California Gulch site in and around Leadville, for example, is now home to the 12.5-mile Mineral Belt Trail, a public sports complex built on a former zinc smelter, a skatepark, Gold Medal Water fishing on the Arkansas River and an under-construction 250-home neighborhood on an old railyard.
Businesses on the Leadville-area Superfund site, which is 80% remediated, employ 1,200 people and generate $48 million in annual income, according to the EPA’s Superfund redevelopment report for 2018.
“Certainly for a lot of our mining sites out West, recreation and heritage tourism is one really viable potential reuse,” said Fran Costanzi, the Superfund Reuse Coordinator for the EPA’s Region 8.
Aerial tramways were common at the turn of the 20th century in Colorado, hauling ore and people across rugged mountain terrain. Today, aerial tramways in Colorado and the United States are mostly deployed for fun at ski resorts like Telluride, Vail, Breckenridge, Aspen, Keystone and as tourist attractions in Estes Park, the Royal Gorge, Monarch Pass and Glenwood Springs.
Idaho Springs is joining the mix as more urban areas consider gondolas and tramways to float pedestrians over clogged city streets.
Built by Grand Junction’s Leitner Poma of America the Mighty Argo Cable Car’s eight-person, bike-hauling gondolas will float 600 people an hour up 1,300 vertical feet for a 10-minute ride to a mountaintop plaza with event spaces, decks, a park, interpretive trails and restaurant.
Loevlie is planning a three-story parking garage at the base of the Argo Mill and will offer free passes for Idaho Springs residents and discounts for Clear Creek County residents.
She is promising to share revenue from the gondola with the city for trail construction and maintenance. When questioned about the impacts of traffic, Loevlie said the cable car could see busy summer weekends with 1,500 visitors a day and she is engineering the Argo Mill site to handle 400,000 visitors a year or more. She pointed out that the city’s famous pizza restaurant Beau Jo’s, where she unveiled her plan to a few dozen local residents, hosts about 420,000 visitors a year in the city’s two-lane historic downtown.
“We are aiming to make this place as big of an international destination as it was at the turn of the 20th century,” she said, recalling her team’s initial dream to celebrate the historic mill and link it into the creek and open space. “We wanted to take something that no one thought anything could be done with and turn it into an amazing tourist attraction. We have gone out of the box a lot here to make something you can be proud of and we hope this will be a great economic generator.”
The gondola will access 12 to 14 miles of bike and hike trails in the city-owned Virginia Canyon Mountain Park. Known locally as Area 28, the park is laced with social trails that have lured downhill mountain bikers for more than a decade, even hosting unsanctioned races with some of the biggest athletes in the downhill scene.
As Front Range trails grow dense with hikers, bikers and runners — all treading historic trails that have been tweaked to handle changing uses — Clear Creek County is establishing itself as a destination for directional trails, purpose-built for hiking and biking.
That bike-friendly reputation started with the social trails in Area 28 but will grow as new trails sculpted by mountain bikers blossom in Virginia Canyon Mountain Park. The development of the Clear Creek Greenway, stretching from Golden through Clear Creek Canyon and Idaho Springs next to the Argo Mill, will only further grow the recreational appeal of the city, Loevlie said.
Mountain bikers can use the gondola to access trails that they will share with hikers on the uphill, but a selection of one-way trails will be solely for mountain bikes on the downhill.
Clear Creek County’s new 1.3-mile Sluice trail atop Floyd Hill was built for downhill mountain biking, and the plan for year-round trails around the Argo gondola and in Virginia Canyon Mountain Park will take that built-for-bikes trail plan to the next level, said Gary Moore, the executive director of the Colorado Mountain Bike Association, which is helping Idaho Springs carve the trail network in the new park.
“This is our opportunity to create separation by user and separation by speed with directional trails,” Moore said. “These trails will improve the experience for everybody. They talk about 22 million cars a year passing by Idaho Springs and how they can get people to stop and spend some time, this trail system will help with that.”