It was early June 1929. The retreating winter snows were still visible on the sides of Arrastra Gulch as workers watched an Erie steam shovel clank into position on a grassy hillside overlooking the old Silver Lake Mill. The excavator operator kept one eye on Charles Mayotte, construction supervisor with the Sterns-Rodgers Company and one eye on the grade stakes. Standing behind the engineer stood a rather tall, thin gentlemen whose grey Homberg hat and stiff celluloid shirt collar tipped the workers that he was the “big-boss” of the new project.
Carefully the operator aligned the shovel bucket and with a nod from the supervisor and a sharp toot of the whistle, he took the first bites in the still moist gravel soil. Amid the rapid chufa-chufa of the 2-cylinder steam engine and whining of the cables no one heard the soft click of the camera shutter as the tall gentleman in the Homburg recorded the event with his vest pocket Kodak. Surely no one present could imagine their handiwork would still be standing 90 years later, but stand it does, a monument to the many unknown workmen who built it, and the one man who conceived it and photographed its birth, Charles A. Chase, General Manager of the Shenandoah-Dives Mining Company.
The project had its start in the summer of 1925 when a small group of Kansas City investors sent Chase to Silverton to find a new gold and silver mine. After all, it was the peak of the “Roaring Twenties”, the economy was booming and metal prices were high. Chase was no novice in the San Juans as he had run the very profitable Liberty Bell Gold Mine in Telluride for 20 years. Chase conceived a bold plan to consolidate three small mines, the Mayflower, North Star, and Shenandoah, into one large low-cost producer. After three years of testing and sampling, the company began selling stock in May of 1929 to raise the $1.25 million dollars needed, including $375,000 for the new mill and $85,000 for a two mile aerial tram needed to bring the ore to the new mill. But construction couldn’t wait for all the shares to be sold, summers were short in Silverton. Work began at once. Surely with the stock market booming, raising the funds would be no problem. Good ore was in the mine ready to be shipped and milled.
Chase built to a long term plan as he knew this would yield cost savings later. The mill building was twice the size needed to allow for future expansion. Unlike previous mills built in the cold, shady bottom of the river canyons for access to the railroad, Chase placed the new mill on a sunny hillside along the county road and bought a large 4-wheel drive truck to haul heavy supplies to the mill and mine, the first 4x4 in the county. The mill was built from 12x12 Oregon fir timber, precut so it would assemble quickly. Likewise the tramway was a radical design, using fewer tall steel towers instead of many short wooden ones. This allowed the cables to span the many avalanches that plagued Arrastra Gulch. Mine shops and equipment were built underground impervious to weather and snow. An all-electric boarding house was built at the Mayflower mine portal and a similar office and assay laboratory built at the mill. Locals were shocked that these buildings had flat roofs. How would the heavy snow slide off? Chase, who was no stranger to San Juan winters maintained the wind would blow the snow off, and it did!
Framing of the huge building started at the bottom of the mill while concrete was still being poured at the top of the mill. Trucks brought a steady stream of supplies and timber up from the rail yards in Silverton. Even mules were used to haul long timber pieces from the staging areas along the county road to the upper sections of the mill. By Saturday, October 12th, 1929 the building shell was complete. Even today with modern machinery it would take an effort to build a structure of this size so quickly.
The rapid pace of construction also meant the corporate office in Kansas City had to keep up with the ongoing financing needed to pay the bills until cash flow could be generated by the new mill, scheduled to start before winter hit. But calamity struck barely two weeks after the building was completed when the stock market in New York crashed on October 24th and financing dried up! Now with both a Depression and winter approaching it became a race against money and weather. Would the company’s funds and suppliers last until the mill began processing gold ore? The lack of funds slowed down construction. Chase convinced Sterns-Rogers to take company stock and bonds instead of cash on the promise of a profitable mine. But other suppliers wanted cold hard cash as the country’s economy collapsed.
By January 1930 winter snows hit hard and progress had been slow. The 4-wheel drive truck could not get to the mine and the tram was not yet complete. Chase wrote company directors on January 16, “…we have had full exhibit of the ruin we risked when our deliveries ran into winter.” A week later he writes, “Delay and disappointment are always with us. … I have just come from a talk with Maffey, proprietor of the French Bakery (Grocery) to whom we owe about $8,000. We shall have to get him money between now and the first of the month. .… He is the one merchant here of considerable character and ability and we cannot afford to lose him at all, to say nothing of being contributory to his downfall.” Chase knew it was the small merchants and vendors who needed the most help. (Kansas City sent $3,000.)
Company stockholders were meeting on March 3rd and Chase was expected to be there bringing good news, not requests scarce cash. Finally on February 10th, ore began shipping down the tram to fill the mill bins. Two days later Chase writes “…I think Mr. Mathews will try his [mill] machinery this afternoon or at latest, tomorrow morning. It is a relief to feel that we are finally on our way.” After a few more days of adjustments, the Mayflower Mill would “be on its way” and continue to run through the Great Depression, a bitter labor strike, World War II, the Korean and later Vietnam wars and would not finally shut down until 61 years later!
Now in its 90th year, the Mayflower Mill is a National Historic Landmark and is the largest and most complete historic ore processing mill in the US. Visited annually by thousands, it remains a tangible link to a bygone era in Silverton’s history that all started with one shovelful of dirt!
By Bill Jones