It’s said to be the most photographed structure in the state of Colorado. That’s saying a lot, considering the goat trail that you drive to get there. The Crystal Mill has to be one of the coolest places in the state, and I don’t mean temperature. The town of Crystal City is just up the hill, but that’s another Colorado Photo Story. First, let’s start with the history of the Mill by Oscar McCollum.
This old structure located at Crystal City, Colorado, is said to be the most photographed building in Colorado. That’s saying a lot considering how difficult it can be to get here by vehicle. It was built in 1893 by George C. Eaton and B.S. Phillips, promoters of the Sheep Mountain Tunnel and Mining Company, as a power plant for the Sheep Mountain Tunnel. It was first known as the Sheep Mountain Tunnel Mill and the name was commonly shortened to ‘Crystal Mill’, though some still call it by other names such as ‘Lost Horse Mill’ or ‘Dead Horse Mill’. The building contained a horizontal wooden water wheel turned by two one-inch water jets at the base of the penstock shaft at river level which powered a large air compressor. Power was transmitted via a steel drive shaft up to the gear house on the front of the building and then to the compressor by a wide leather belt. The air was carried to the mine entrance by a three inch iron pipe across the river and up to the base of Sheep Mountain. This compressed air powered the air drills and provided ventilation for the tunnel that extended over 1,500 feet into the mountain in 1893. The Crystal Mill had a one-seater privy in the overhanging corner which emptied directly into the river. The back end of the building contained a sleeping room for the attendant. The mill began operation in December, 1893 and continued sporadically until sometime in the 1920’s.
River water from the Crystal River powered the water wheel and a wooden dam above the falls raised the water level to the top of the penstock shaft. High water runoff in the first spring after construction washed out the dam. The dam was rebuilt and washed out a second time. The third time was the charm as water was then obtained by building a long wooden flume which tapped the river quite a ways upstream.
As the mine began to produce rich silver ore a stamping mill was built just the west (your right as you look at the Crystal Mill) to crush and concentrate the ore for shipping. The stamping mill had three large timbers tipped with iron which were raised and dropped to crush the ore which were powered by a 12-inch wide leather belt from the power house (Crystal Mill). You can still see evidence of crushed ore across the river and also where the stamping mill used to set. Contrary to many, this structure never contained a saw mill and the Crystal Mill itself never had an electric generator.
The Crystal Mill is privately owned and sits on private property. The owners have taken great efforts to keep the old structure from tumbling into the river and are happy to share this one-of-kind scene with everyone. A new roof in 1976 and again in 2009 and in 1984 several volunteers installed supporting cables inside the building to raise and secure the gear house which was pulling away from the main building and in danger of falling into the river.
Please respect the private property when going to the mill and do not attempt to cross the river and enter the mill. After all, it is an old building that is not safe to walk around in. Besides that, no one would be surprised if you were shot in the butt with rock salt for poking your nose where it should not be.
The above text was re-written from a writing of Oscar McCollum, Jr., Historian for Marble, Colorado and the Frontier Historical Society, 1996, from a United States Department of Agriculture paper.
Oscar does not advocate the shooting of people in the butt with rock salt, but many others do.
I have no idea who the photographers were for the photos above and would give credit to them if I did. Thanks to the Marble Historical Society for the use of the images. The Mill today can still be found hanging onto the rocks with a little help from steel cables, concrete, a lot of hard work and a new roof that was put on in 2009. You really need a high clearance, 4×4 to safely navigate the road to the Mill. No doubt you’ll hear somebody brag how they drove their ‘regular’ car to the Mill without any problems. Yeah, right. You could have done that in the 70’s when the road was maintained, but not anymore. I’ve seen rental cars sitting alongside the road at various points with either a busted axle, oil pan leaking, etc. I’ve made it without using the 4-wheel drive on my Jeep, but if you don’t have a high clearance vehicle, check out Crystal River Jeep Tours, it’s what they do for a living.