OURAY — Before the million-dollar homes, ski hills and film festivals, Colorado’s high mountain towns were home to the first white settlers who came prospecting for gold, silver, and other precious metals.
There is a saying, “if it’s not grown, it’s mined,” referring to all the minerals and metals that are used in our daily lives — including the device you are using to read this story.
The legacy of hard rock mining in the San Juan mountains is as deep as the ore veins that run through them. Each summer men and women, their families and friends gather for the Highgraders Holiday to celebrate a heritage passed down to them from generations of people who worked the mines.
This year’s gathering in Ouray Miners Park drew the attention of nearly everyone, from the out-of-state vehicles creeping along to get a view, to those curious enough to venture from their Airbnbs to wander over to take pictures on their phones of something they had never seen or heard before.
Miners doing miner things.
The competition of endurance and brute strength, in technique and passion celebrates the 146 years of mining history, just in Ouray alone.
The Highgrader’s Holiday, which wrapped on Sunday afternoon, features events based on the work done in mines. Think spike driving, where competitors drive large steel spikes into thick wooden timbers. And hand and machine mucking to simulate removing dirt and rock from a mine using hand tools or a small air-powered machine on rails. And single and team drilling, using an air-powered rock drill to bore into hard granite or conglomerate rock. And single and double jack drilling, which dates back to the old days when driving strikes into hard rock was done by hand.
Most of these events emulate work that is done deep underground. The purpose of drilling into the rock, for example, was to create deep holes so they would be packed with explosives. Once the rock was blown apart the miners would then muck the debris to get access to the valuable ore which was usually gold or silver.
Currently, there are only four of these events still operating in Colorado, in Leadville, Creede, Silverton and Ouray.
“There used to be a lot more,” said Ouray resident Steve Martinez, who worked off and on in the mines of Ouray and Silverton for 25 years.
Martinez said the holiday in Ouray died out in the 1970s due to a lack of enthusiasm and organization. In the mid-1980s the event returned and has been held each summer since. Ouray stands out, Martinez said, because the Highgraders Holiday has the largest purse.
“On a weekend if a guy does it right, he can walk away with about 1,800 bucks,” Martinez said.
The mines in Ouray are shut down at the moment. And that can usually affect attendance at these games. But miners come from all over the region and as far away as the gold mines in Nevada to compete. Miners can use these events as practice and qualifiers for other larger events that are held around the country.
Ouray County resident Chris Scott worked underground until the only remaining silver mine in the area closed in 2021. Just the week before the Ouray Highgraders, Scott won best all-around miner at the Silverton holiday. He is a typical miner in the San Juans where his father and grandfather before him also worked in hard rock mines underground.
“Last year we had a lot more people because the mine was still going. This year we have fewer people, but it’s still going and that’s all that counts,” Scott said. “Ouray was built off mining. Telluride was built off mining. Silverton, Lake City, Creede, all these little towns in Colorado are here because of mining, and these competitions are a reminder of what it took to build these places.”
Mining is an incredibly dangerous profession, and so are the competitions that mimic the underground work. Scott said he’s seen broken bones, missing fingers and injuries so severe competitors needed immediate medical attention.
Montrose resident and former silver miner Shayne Christianson said the Highgraders Holiday is meant to keep the respect for mining and the history of the area alive. Christianson uses the drilling competition as an example, explaining that the act of taking an air-powered, 125-pound jackleg drill to bore a hole into rock is becoming less of a learned skill due to an increase in mechanized mining.
“It’s a lost art for sure, and it’s getting to be a lost trade,” Christianson said.
The old timers
At one point in history, Colorado was one of the richest places on Earth thanks to the silver boom of the 1880s. Silverton resident Terry Rhoades is also a third-generation miner whose grandfather Clifford Rhoades came to Colorado to be part of that silver boom. Rhoades said his family has mined hard rock in Colorado for well over 100 years, and that his son Trent worked in the last silver mine in Ouray before it closed.
In the old days, the miners didn’t have mechanical drills to bore holes. They used steel spikes and drove them into the rock by hand all day, every day.
“Those guys were tough,” Rhoades said.
Rhoades, 67, has served on the committee of the Silverton Hardrockers Holiday since he was 18 and said keeping these competitions going is important to maintaining the identity of the San Juan region.
“My favorite holiday of the year is the Hardrockers and this one,” Rhoades said with a smile.
Over the course of a weekend in Ouray, as it does every year, the beer flowed freely and so did the smiles. The wholesome camaraderie among the miners and their family and friends was genuine. For some of these hard rock miners, having people around to celebrate the work they do, or once did, is a reward itself.
Some of the hardest working people pounding steel into rock while pounding beers under a late Colorado summer sky is about as good as it gets.
And while the season of miners’ competitions is over until next summer, there is little debate about how much gold and silver is left in the towering mountains overlooking Ouray.
“They haven’t even scratched the surface,” Martinez said.