When my father and I began hunting for mines above our small town, we didn’t know the extensive history of mining there, nor the fact that the district had been dubbed, romantically, Sierra Madre. Passive weekend aficionados, we wandered, hoping to happen on something big, unsure of what we were looking for. Our first search above North Ogden left us stranded in the latter end of a rocky, boxed labyrinth—Parry Canyon. The sun glared down; we stared upward at cliffs soaring hundreds of feet into dry desert sky blotched with cirrus clouds; the darkness of the rock absorbed sunlight, warmed the surrounding air, and sent blustery drafts rising toward the eastern saddle of Ben Lomond Peak three-thousand feet above. Found no mines that day—just chalked one up to bad luck as we watched crows circling above. I learned that day what a tick looks like.
Later, my father discovered a written history of Sierra Madre.* It claimed a comprehensive narrative of mining in the area, along with detailed maps and pictures. Compiled by two brothers raised at the foot of the Sierra Madre, the book rekindled our interest. Intrigued with the abrupt boom and equally swift cessation of mining, we wanted to see first-hand the remains of that forgotten age. We were drawn on, too, by the allure of a hobby with such challenge and inherent danger. Gruesome lore circulates the West, rumors of people falling down fifty-foot vertical mine shafts, tumbling into dens of rattlers, happening on discarded blasting caps and losing a foot, getting pinned under a shattered wooden beam in some capricious cavern.
Illinois Tunnel was one of three major mines on Napoleon and Maghera Copper Mining and Reduction Company’s claim in Epidote Canyon; Epidote sits immediately southeast of Eldorado Canyon, which contained another of the district’s most extensive productions. The territory came under the scrutinizing eye of prospectors and eastern investors in the 1860s, when Mormon prophet Brigham Young still ruled the territory. The amount and quality of ore extracted around Ogden suggested the region would pour out marketable metals and unbounded profits. Mines near Salt Lake City—in Park City, Bingham Canyon, Rush Canyon, and the Tintic Mountains near Eureka, Utah—were producing millions of dollars in ore. Many believed Sierra Madre would become the next Park City or Bingham. Picturesque names were given: Copper, Eldorado, Sylvania, Pine Canyons—Inca, Prince of India, King Solomon, Queen, Mexican, Santa Maria, Clara Belle, Uwanta, Southern Pacific Mines.
However, worthwhile profits never materialized, in part due to difficult terrain and an absence of processing smelters. Low-grade ore was shipped to refineries elsewhere—an expensive and hardly justifiable task. After years of peak activity, from 1908 to 1912, the nation saw a slump in prices of metals, followed by an exodus of miners from Utah. Mining came like a flash flood, pouring into the canyons, churning and roiling, swiftly dissipating, leaving only the flotsam and jetsam of the trade. Some miners turned to farming, holding hopes for gold, chipping away at small prospects during brutal winter months when the land lay dormant.
Though the history book recaptured our attention, an entire year passed before we set out for Epidote Canyon. We committed to wake early on Friday after Thanksgiving so the entire day would be ours. We drove west through North Ogden and Pleasant View, north through Willard, and turned east off the highway toward the mountain. Stopping outside Parson’s gravel pit, alongside the Pineview Water Company canal, we bypassed parked excavators and their heinous scarring, walking in silence. My father and I are inherently reticent; we say little and express less. Periodically we stopped to inspect some relic ditched in the wash―a sun-bleached timber, maimed by iron spikes and discarded in the channel; remains of a barbed-wire fence; a pull-tab beer can rusting under a stone. My mind was heavy. In the past week my grandmother had been confined to her bed. Ill as she was, nobody expected her to stay—her ailing mind and body were inextricably stuck between her home and a realm unknown.
At the mouth of the canyon, we glimpsed an unmistakable sign of any mining enterprise: a giant antiquated iron ore bucket cast off in a stand of scrub oak—tipped on its side, perpetually pouring away an unrefined load down the mountainside, toward the valley floor. Pale sunlight suggested a clear day—the type that relieves the strain of long Utah winters, which edge in on fall and spill over into spring.
The elevation afforded an exceptional view of the valley. Between the foothill where we stood and the mountains in the west―the Oquirrh, Pilot, Newfoundland, and Promontory Ranges―an ever-changing patchwork quilt rolled southward, soaked at one end by Great Salt Lake. At our feet lay the dry wash that drains the southwestern face of Willard and Ben Lomond Peaks via Eldorado and Epidote. The wash meanders downward before being enveloped in a gnarled mass of scrub oak, which spreads for nearly a mile to the uppermost border of Parson’s gravel pit. Past the pit, the canal and vast orchards divided by the highway—the so-called Fruitway. West of the orchards, the train tracks, the interstate freeway, power lines, the southern end of manmade Willard Bay. In the southwest, carrying to the upper reaches of Great Salt Lake, are pastures and marshlands. Antelope Island and Fremont Island, and Little Mountain to the north, hover above the flat expanse of the valley, among saw-edged distant peaks, which stood that day against the watery-blue morning sky.
A freight train rumbling toward the city let out a tired cry, and I peered at the track line, watching for motion from that anemic life-supplying artery of Ogden—this fading entity once the force that built the city and bolstered constant and often senseless development. Growth along the Wasatch Front is perpetuating the passing of an age, I thought. The age of community building and farming is receding to join bygone ages of mining, settlement, trapping and trading, Spanish exploration, native inhabitation, wilderness. The hillside provided a still-frame picture of what the West has become―a once-wild setting unalterably changed, homogenized by ever-increasing development. Sagebrush long ago cleared, cheatgrass and thistles plowed under, large expanses of marshland drained and filled. Farmland confined to a consistent grid, precisely fenced to protect cultivated fields, to prevent migration of wildlife, livestock, and trespassers alike. The grid is divided severely by streets, highways, and freeways, and filled steadily from the eastern bench westward to the edge of Great Salt Lake. Packed with tracts of houses, one-stop shopping centers, strip malls, movie theaters, car dealerships, gas stations, industrial parks, railway yards, a twelve-hundred-acre defense depot. Immense portions of land are now topped by parking lots and landing strips, including an air force base in itself the size of a small city. Undeveloped land in the valley is almost non-existent, except in the west, where marshland gives way to briny lake and briny lake gives way to arid mountains.
I entertained a thought that day: few people have seen the interior of the Sierra Madre. The chasms and towering precipices constitute a domain practically impossible to develop. They are difficult to access, and I fear their rugged grandeur goes largely unappreciated. To view the mountains from the valley floor, they seem solid, unbroken, and impenetrable. Without gaining a different angle, it is hard to gauge the deepness of the canyons. The stony face of the mountain appears as one dark, escalating mass―a spired fortress free of obvious entryways. The monoliths we rested beneath, Willard and Ben Lomond, climb nearly five-thousand vertical feet in roughly two miles of horizontal—indeed inaccessible, except for a handful of ravines that breach the mountainside. The canyons cut into the cliffs so abruptly, climbing so steeply and at such sharp angles, that the valley is swiftly hidden from view and utter quiet pervades the air. Surprising to think the depth and beauty of these colossal formations is, for the most part, neglected, though the seclusion generally honors their quiet, rigid greatness.
Continuing upward, we stepped back into shadow and into a four-inch cover of snow. Pushing on into shaded gray-whiteness, the air was surprisingly dark and cold. The foothills below see sunlight all day; any minor dusting of snow that falls there tends to melt away hurriedly. The unbroken crust in the canyon told us nobody had been there since the snow fell, save marmots, pack rats, mice whose tracks traversed the canyon and disappeared into stony crevices or snarls of dying alder bushes.
A game trail, chiseled into the hillside by deer hooves, cut down the eastern hillside and climbed west toward the canyon entrance and a large rock prominence. Going was slow, as the canyon is steep, and the blanket of snow necessitated diligence with each step. Through one of the steepest sections, the canyon bottom is choked with a massive rockslide; we slowed to a literal crawl, dragging ourselves over snow-caked rocks and boulders. Water trickled deep within the confines of the slide. We debated a retreat, but the electricity of Napoleon and Maghera drew us on.
Above the rockslide, we greeted a stretch of tangled brush in the low-lying canyon bottom where the earth is perpetually saturated with water. I chose to sidestep the thicket on the high western side of the canyon. My father pressed through on the low eastern side where a clearing cut through clumped box elders, blue elders, and green mountain ash. My route proved quicker and I came upon a steep, exposed face topped by the notched outcropping several minutes before him. Stopping, I tried to formulate a picture of the vanished tramway. Epidote was unique because its relative straightness allowed for a direct line from the mouth of the canyon to the mining camp. Timber towers that once marked the line rotted, broke off, washed along the canyon floor. Other more permanent reminders of the tramway included the flywheel above and sections of cable strung about the ravine. I had seen a picture of the wheel; it posed with foliage growing through its spoked center—impossible to gauge its size without anything to compare it against.
When my father reached the spot where I perched, he studied the slope and recalled the book’s statement that a scanty trail marked the way to the tram terminus. It was not apparent to us. Now he chose to take the high road, the seemingly nonexistent trail to the terminus. Mine was the low road, straddling and hopping over the slow flow of water that trickled along in the November cold. I wanted to see how the water carved the rock and was curious to know where the ruined pipeline began
I figured we were right on Napoleon and Maghera’s camp—rusted metal scrap and segments of cable peaking through scant snow and brush, decrepit pipeline running along the rock face on the western side of the ravine. I shouted to my father, visible just then, breaking through the treeline and ascending the hillside. Startled jays, lurking in surrounding pinions, squawked in response, and I felt bashful for breaking the stillness of the late-November winterscape. We were interlopers, disturbers there.
Eons of upheaval and erosion exposed the rock in this portion of the canyon in a peculiar way. From above, the water is blocked by and sluiced around an enormous notched outcropping. Season after season, water wends its way around this bottleneck obtrusion, around and down the stone face that rose to my left. Figuring the tramway passed through the notch above, I remembered seeing in the guidebook a giant flywheel at the terminus there. Worn-out miners hastily pulled out of the canyon and likely saw no purpose in removing the mechanism.
I stumbled onto Illinois unexpectedly in my rush to find it, while looking for the telltale mark of most mines: large, unnatural heaps of tailings. However, so much ore was removed by cart and burlap sack, and sent down the tramway, that the remaining tailings were negligible. And enough soil has sloughed off above the opening, and given root to brush, that the tunnel is virtually disguised. As I waited for my father to arrive at the notch above and behind me, I spotted the entrance thirty feet above the gully floor, and noted a faint trail that switch-backed to the small spot of blackness there. I wondered at the tunneled scarring left by Napoleon and Maghera’s men and the fact that, in my mind, I could not begin to compare it to the offensive strip-mined gravel pit below, the result of Parson’s men and their tireless excavators.
I shrugged my shoulders, rolled them forward and back, tilted my head to feel for soreness inflicted from my pack. I held myself that way, regarding the azure crescent of sky above, hemmed in by brown-slate cliffs and white-capped coniferous trees. Small spots of cloud-cover infringed on blueness. Having peeled off my bag, the sudden exposure of my sweat-soaked shirt to the wintery air induced a quick convulsion of shivers. The furnace of my body was cooling after a three-hour slog up the mountain. Though the sky above moved steadily eastward, as evidenced by approaching cumulus, the air was windless and hushed in that deep gully.
I forced hot breath from my lungs, watched its vapor condense in a colorless burst, then disappear. I saw my father on the hillside opposite and down canyon from me. Passing the tramway terminus, he stopped to admire the gargantuan flywheel. He disappeared behind a small stand of aspens and dwarfed cottonwoods now separating the terminus from the tunnel. Shortly, I heard him rustle through the trees, hands on shoulder straps, smiling as he strolled along the angled trail. We had no intention of exploring any further; the guidebook said Tunnels 1 and 2, higher in the canyon, were collapsed. Also, bunkhouse, machine shop, and engine house had been disassembled and packed away. Nothing left, only a ceaseless cascade of scree inching downward.
We retrieved headlamps and stuffed our packs under a bush. I ducked low into the tunnel, simultaneously switching on my lamp and greeting six inches of standing water. The mountainside was permeated with water, which filtered through to drip incessantly from the broken, irregular ceiling, pattering softly, drearily. The plip, plip, plip traveled away from us, deeper into the mine as droplets at subsequent points broke free and fell to pools below. I ran the tips of my fingers along the uneven wall, feeling damp coolness—foreign compared to the relative warmth of the air within the mine. I bent close to examine the wall under the unnatural glow of my lamp. What were prospectors and miners looking for? Did they know it when they saw it? My eyes certainly couldn’t perceive anything differentiating.
From the entrance, Illinois curves gently to the right, from a western to a northern direction, running nearly seventeen hundred feet. At about half that distance, we came to a collapsed section of rock and timber, and decided this was an appropriate time to make our exit. Before we started back, we switched off our lights and listened to the eerie sound of dripping water in perfect blackness. The scent was cool, earthy, slightly metallic—the exact smell of the root cellar under Grandpa’s faded red barn—it sparked a childhood memory of digging my initials into the hard-packed earth behind antiquated tin storage bins full of sprouted, rotten potatoes in the amber light of a cheap plastic flashlight. Perfect blackness now, sniffing, waving a hand inches from my eyes, seeing nothing.
I thought briefly of Tunnel 1 as I had read about it in the book. From that tunnel, a winze was started in a downhill direction with the intention of tapping Illinois through four hundred feet of solid rock. Tunnel 1 followed a rich vein believed to form a large X within the mountain; the miners figured a connection with the Illinois would trace that vein and produce large yields of quality ore. As the vein was bled from above and below, the miners realized the ore was not so rich as originally suspected. In time, the primary passage of Tunnel 1 collapsed and the off-shooting winze was sealed off. Trying to imagine this cavern—stopped up in utter darkness, slowly channeling water through the mountain—I shuddered to think of being trapped in utter blackness and I felt an overwhelming urge to return to fresh air.
Outside, I switched off my lamp and laughed to myself to think how swiftly the darkness of the tunnel played games with my mind. I again rolled my shoulders and stretched my arms toward a sliver of sky, increasingly overcast, as clouds moved from northwest to southeast. The early afternoon air was lit with pale November light, and I pictured the sun, far south, passing its zenith and curving toward the ragged horizon.
We replaced our lamps and walked through the aspens and cottonwoods to the enormous flywheel. Roughly five feet across, composed of two wheels connected on a long spindle five inches in diameter, outer wheel geared to receive the driving teeth of a cog powered by a steam boiler, inner wheel channeled deeply to receive a cable as thick as my wrist, name of the manufacturer, Broderick and Bascom, stamped into one spoke. I ran my fingers along the teeth of the outer gear, placed both hands against it, leaned in, marveling to think of dragging, pushing, lifting, rolling this behemoth up the mountain, this integral part of a mechanism that allowed the miners further progress on Napoleon and Maghera’s claim. Inching the tramway round and around, enabling supplies to be carried up and crude metals down, creating a continuous, circular procession of provision and extraction. Like the tunneled rock and the raw ore it produced, the flywheel is a vestigial component of this stripped, skeletal landscape; discarded in the bushes there, it embodies a revolving history of boom and bust.
The loading station that once cradled the wheel, and the boiler that drove the wheel and the ore carts, were long ago dismantled and removed. The site of the tram terminus is bare, returning slowly to a more natural state. We turned from the flywheel and began glissading down the shale face at our feet. As I paused to view the tram course, to scout the clearest route through the brush and trees below, a goldfinch flitted past us, upslope, toward the mining camp we had just then abandoned.
* Holmes, Mike and Steve. Sierra Madre West: The History of the Mines Below Willard and Ben Lomond Peaks. Sandy, Utah: Sunrise, 2007.
Lee Olsen is an English master’s student and managing editor of Bellingham Review at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA. Growing up in the mountains and canyonlands of Utah, he learned early to appreciate rugged landscapes and stories of the people who inhabit them.