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Just mining our business in Horse Gulch

This old chute, or slide, may have been used to load sandstone blocks onto trucks at an old quarry site in Horse Gulch. (Courtesy of Hmmmm)

Dear Action Line: Durango is such a unique town in a million ways. Many interesting things grab our attention such as the old generator on Florida Road, Malfunction Junction, all the sidewalks to nowhere, those funky antennas on top of Perins Peak, etc.

Here’s another: Every time I utilize the Horse Gulch trail, I notice a few oddities (rusted-out car, discarded refrigerator …), but there is one particularly interesting artifact about a quarter-mile up the main trail. My first guess is this “chute” might be mining related, but the support poles holding it up seem relatively new. The rock cliff right below the object in question seems to rule out any type of jump (gelande?). Any insight would be greatly appreciated. – Things That Make You Go Hmmmm

Dear Hmmmm: After 30-plus years here, you would think that Action Line would have noticed this metal slide, or chute. But please cut Action Line a break: That’s a steep, rocky section of trail, a bit technical on the bike, and you need to focus on what’s in front of you.

Bad excuse?

This area is known colloquially as the “Old Quarry.” But how long has it been there, and who used it? It has not operated for at least 40 years.

So, Action Line did some digging. For sources, that is.

“Yes, there was a stone quarry at that site and one about 100 meters south of Sonic on the ridge,” said David Gonzales, professor of geosciences at Fort Lewis College. “The sandstone was quarried as a local source of material for some of the stonework at FLC, which still covers some of Berndt Hall.”

Gonzales said the old metal-and-wood structure might have been used for loading sandstone blocks onto trucks. “At that site you can still find the drill holes and blasting fractures in the sandstone.”

It would take some serious derring-do to luge down this metal slide. (Action Line)

Gonzales also pointed out that this area was mined for coal starting early in Durango history. One of the town’s founders, John Porter, arrived in 1875 via Horse Gulch. He told the story of how he hauled two saddlebags of coal with him, according to Duane Smith’s book “Rocky Mountain Boom Town,” but found in Horse Gulch abundant outcroppings of coal. He’d carried the heavy coal for no good reason, and emptied the saddlebags into the arroyo in disgust.

“The coal was a source of fuel for residents, but also for the mine smelter that was located at the base of Smelter Mountain,” Gonzales said.

Mining for more information continued with Nik Kendziorski, Center of Southwest Studies archives manager.

“After some additional digging I was able to find this,” Kendziorski reported.

His find was the minutes from an April 13, 1955, meeting of the Colorado State Board of Agriculture. From the minutes:

“Upon a motion and second, authorization was given for leasing at $1 per month approximately the 12-acre undeveloped Horse Gulch quarry site from La Plata County.” The state board, representing FLC, ultimately purchased the site that year, apparently for $100. Also, a nearby quarry owned by W. Dudley Ewing – the one on the ridge south of Sonic – was leased at that time by the state board. (Durango Mesa Park was once known as Ewing Mesa.)

By 1955, plans were going full-speed to move the college from south of Hesperus to the mesa above Durango. The most significant new structure planned was the “Academic Building,” which would later be renamed Berndt Hall in honor of school president Rexer Berndt.

The Academic Building was constructed in 1956-57 and opened, along with the rest of the new campus, in fall 1957.

Fort Lewis and the state board didn’t easily let go of the quarry site. From minutes of the June 29, 1973, Colorado State Board of Agriculture meeting:

“President Berndt informed the Board a group of Durango developers has inquired about the purchase of the quarry site purchased by the Board in 1955. This land was originally purchased as a permanent source of sandstone to be used in the construction of buildings on the Fort Lewis College campus. While the Board has other land holdings from which sandstone can be acquired, this site is relatively close to the City, with easy access, whereas the other holdings are more difficult to reach. Upon motion and second, the Board agreed that the land is not for sale.”

Somewhere between 1973 and 1983 the quarry was abandoned for good. To finish the story, eventually the Board (FLC) sold a bunch of Horse Gulch land to the city of Durango. That was good, too.

The city has since gobbled up more land (1,000-plus acres) from the State Board of Agriculture and private owners to preserve it from development and to allow public recreation in Horse Gulch. The city and its residents have a voracious appetite for land where trails can be built, in case you hadn’t noticed. Personally, Action Line is all for this predilection.

This should go without saying, but Durangoans are kind of crazy, so it better be said: Action Line does not recommend using this old quarry chute for either a luge run or BMX jump.

Email questions and suggestions to actionline@durangoherald.com or mail them to Action Line, The Durango Herald, 1275 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301. Don’t feel too sorry for John Porter. He did all right here.

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