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Could Smelter Mountain be the next Krakatoa?

If you were walking along this section of what is now the Animas River Trail say 80 years ago, you might not be so nonchalant. You might be dodging a hot river of debris. (Action Line)

Dear Action Line: I was hiking the Animas River Trail, just north of Nature’s Oasis, and came across a mysterious outcropping of rocks. The rocks look like they are volcanic, such as a lava flow, or they could be a byproduct of the smelter operation from many years back. You can see the mysterious rocks extend from the west side of the river trail down to the river. Could it be a pile of radioactive tailings that was missed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission? – Rockhounder George

Dear George: Let’s just hope there isn’t an active volcano up there on Smelter Mountain that no one bothered to tell us about. If you get up close with the rock, it looks very similar to the lava flows you would find in, say, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Action Line stopped to revel in past memories of a great trip to the Big Island, then got to work. This seemed like the kind of thing that a longtime Durangoan with a geology background might know. Who could that be? Ah, yes. Jerry Zink.

Zink, co-founder of Durango-based StoneAge waterjet tools, is a local native with a master’s in mining engineering. This is what he told Action Line:

“There were two smelters operating across the river from Durango for a time,” Zink wrote. “I forget what years, but before the milling of radioactive ores. They each dumped slag in their own place. One place is described by Rockhounder George, the other is on river right at Smelter Rapid.”

An up-close of a piece of the lava-like smelter slag. (Action Line)

The superheated slag – waste from the smelting process – was placed on rail cars, taken to a dumping spot, then sent down an embankment.

Zink said that when his mother, Ruby Nelson Zink, was boarding at a home in south Durango during high school, she often witnessed “the glowing river of fresh-dumped slag.”

If you’re curious to see a video of this, google “smelter slag dumping.”

A map from around the turn of the last century (19th to 20th) appears to show a spur line from the smelter ending at about this spot. It all adds up.

The potato truck

It was just one throwaway line last week about a potato truck, but it elicited as much response as any column item in the last year. Action Line was aghast to be informed that the driver died, and felt horrible for making light of the incident.

So, just to set the record straight, here’s what really happened, according to a front-page story by Barry Smith, then city editor, in the Thursday, June 25, 1987, Durango Herald. This is a fantastic tale on so many levels. To recap:

Neal Fox of Colorado Springs was driving a semitrailer with about 60,000 pounds of potatoes down Hesperus Hill on U.S. Highway 160 when he lost use of the brakes. Miraculously, he managed to steer the truck through the curves, hitting only a couple of vehicles at Francisco’s used car lot. At the bottom of the hill, at the intersection with Highway 550, the stars began to align for a whole lot of people.

Fox fortunately had the green light. He went straight across 550 at an estimated 70 to 80 mph, up an embankment, through a chain-link fence and toward the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad yard, where mechanics John Hood and Gilbert Sanchez were making sure Engine No. 473 was good to go that morning for the run to Silverton. Hood happened to look over his shoulder, saw the belly of the truck as it came over the embankment, and shouted for Sanchez to skedaddle.

The truck slammed headfirst into No. 473, knocking it off the tracks and sending potatoes raining down on Hood and Sanchez. It took rescuers 45 minutes to extricate Fox from the crushed truck cab, but his worst injuries were a broken leg and foot. The presence of No. 473 kept the semi from continuing toward a scattered group of milling passengers.

Smith wrote an award-winning story, and former Action Line writer Mike Smedley (then a Herald editor) wrote a brilliant headline, “Potato truck mashes train.” Both were among those who contacted Action Line after last week’s item appeared.

And, by the way, Action Line also learned from that Herald front page that a few tickets for the Grateful Dead show coming to Telluride will go on sale Sunday morning at Southwest Sound. Please note there is no sidewalk camping allowed.

Action Line was momentarily excited to learn about this upcoming Dead show, until snapping out of the reverie caused by the Hawaii memories, and realizing that it has probably already happened.

No bumper cars in Durango?

Action Line has made a semi-veiled plea for someone to open a bumper car track, which Durango obviously badly needs. Reader John Parker pointed out that there already is one:

“Is it possible that the current sage of this column has never been to the north City Market parking lot; or, has something changed there that missed me?”

As a veteran of the north City Market parking lot wars, Action Line gets it and does indeed stand corrected.

Email questions and suggestions to actionline@durangoherald.com or mail them to Action Line, The Durango Herald, 1275 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301. The 100,000 Durangoans at that Dead show STILL talk about it.

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