Creede’s Underground Mining Museum

Article by Marcia Darnell

Mining – November 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT’S FINE TO DO SOMETHING that requires bringing a coat, unless, of course, you forget one. The Creede Underground Mining Museum thoughtfully provides a rack of cold-weather gear for its visitors who didn’t think they’d need a parka.

Open year-round, the museum really is underground, and is a brisk 51°, meaning it’s toasty warm in January and wonderfully frigid in June. About 13,000 people a year take the plunge into its dark, rocky, and utterly authentic atmosphere.

Creede flourished as a mining town from 1892 until 1985, when the last mining company closed its doors — and its shafts. The town turned to tourism for its livelihood, with success. The picturesque village boasts restaurants, galleries, festivals, and the Creede Repertory Theatre.

Although the town has a historical museum, it had no mining museum and wanted to pay homage to its origins. In 1990, a few of the good townsfolk got together and formed a museum board. The first fundraiser was a fish race, at which participants bought artificial fish which “raced” down the Rio Grande. That effort netted $1,500, which was enough to dazzle the state Department of Local Affairs into a $70,000 grant. Boettcher and Gates grants followed and, with countless local fundraisers, ultimately snowballed into $300,000 in funds and another $450,000 in in-kind donations.

The real work took 18 months, when Tom Payne, Robert Hosselkus, and Chuck Fairchild, former miners, built the underground structure.

“We drilled, loaded, blasted, and mucked,” says Fairchild, who serves as the museum’s director. A video in the gift shop documents their efforts.

The museum was ready in 18 months and opened for business on July 3, 1992. Plaques throughout the complex acknowledge the donors and volunteers who made the dream a reality.

The 600-foot loop tour starts with a list of mining terms (better learn ’em — there are pop quizzes throughout the tour) and a 1903 survey map of the mines in the San Juan volcanic basin.

The 21 exhibits in the tour feature equipment and methods of mining from the 1890s to the 1960s. With one exception, the tour guides are all former miners, so in addition to describing the gear they can demonstrate its use. Mannequins are in place to give the “mine” a realistic look.

Visitors get a real feel for the painstakingly slow progress of early mining, as well as the fatigue, disease, low pay, long hours, and pure danger involved in the work.

Fairchild and the other examiners exhibit single-jacking, double-jacking, mucking and loading, as well as slopes, winzes and “widowmakers.” Visitors can check out tracks, trams and a powder magazine filled with pre-1950s hard boxes.

Everything is realistic, from the warning signs to the improvised chairs miners created in their “lunchroom.” Fairchild shows how to load and wire dynamite (and how to make a safe getaway). Blacksmithing, a big part of mining, is also exhibited. Guides offer tips on how to pick the best shifts and when to respect a Tommyknocker.

The tour begins and ends in the gift shop, which is also underground. The same mountain houses the town’s firehouse and community center. A recreation center is in the works, to include an archery range and miniature golf course. That will fill the mountain. Future dreams will necessitate a new site.

For the people of Creede, though, anything is possible. The courage and industry of the early miners lives on, above ground and deep within a mountain.

The Creede Underground Mining Museum is open all year. Winter hours,for self-guided tours only, are 10 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors 60 and older, $3 for kids ages 5-16, and free for children up to age 5. Call 719-658-0811 for more information.

Marcia Darnell lives and writes in the San Luis Valley. She dreams of building an underground home someday.