A Colorado landmark that moved from productive gold mine to tourist attraction has now closed its doors to the public.
Gold was pulled from American Eagles mine in Victor from the time it opened in the late 1800s until 1940. Then, in 1995, the highest mine in the area at 10,750 feet was transformed into American Eagles Overlook and Historic Mine, a popular tourist destination.
But the final public tour of the mine took place on May 21. Dozens of locals and tourists took the trip organized by the Newmont, Cripple Creek and Victor mining company and the Southern Teller County Focus Group, a non-profit focused on area history. After that, access to the site was closed.
Before the tour, visitors put on required personal protection equipment, including hard hats, construction vests and safety glasses. The reason for all the safety gear?
The American Eagles Overlook and Historic Mine sits in the middle of the active Cresson surface gold mine. Owned by Newmont CC & V, it’s the largest of its type in Colorado.
And that's a problem.
Newmont spokesman Brad Poulson said the surface mine is expanding and tourists trying to get to the historic site would have to share the access road with massive rock-hauling trucks. Those trucks can carry up to 400 tons of material, and Paulson said they’re as tall as a two-story house.
“God forbid if there had been an accident,” Poulson said. “It could have put this operation out of business. We employ 580 people whose average salary is about $79,000 a year with benefits. That would have a tremendous impact not only on the miners who are part of this community but, indeed, it would have a big impact on the community in general.”
It’s windy at the American Eagles site. And the view is truly Coloradan. Big weathered timber mine structures sit atop the overlook with snowcapped mountains visible in the distance. The active surface mine is below.
Former Newmont miner and historian Gary Horton said from the top of the overlook you can see for hundreds of miles.
“The far, snowcapped peak down there is Blanca Peak," Horton said, adding that the mountain is near the New Mexico border.
One of the dozens of people making the final trip to the overlook was Liz Hunter. Her parents, Cherry and Ed Hunter, were well known in the area. Her father has a building that bears his name in Cripple Creek. Under the 60-foot tall American Eagles Mine headframe sits a commemorative bench placed in her parents' honor. An inscription reads, “May all your labors be in vein.”
Hunter held a personal ceremony at the overlook, taking a bag of flower petals and sprinkling them on her parents' bench. The strong winds carried them over the entire mine site.
“It’s sad that it’s closing. It’s such a wonderful place,” said Hunter. “It’s so beautiful to come and just look at the beautiful Sangre De Cristos, Pikes Peak, have a picnic lunch, see the mines. Be close to mom and dad."
Another visitor was 68-year-old Dick Crow. He’s been giving tours at the American Eagles Overlook for the past six years.
“It’s the highest point, and the view up here is spectacular. It’s a wonderful old mine,” Crow said.
While he’s sad the overlook is closing forever, he’s comforted knowing Newmont has a plan.
“They’re going to move the mine buildings so people can still see that,” he said.
The company is going to move all of the historic structures of the American Eagles Mine, piece by piece, and reassemble them somewhere else. Crow said it’s been done a number of times with other historic sites as the Cresson surface mine expanded.
“The mine has stabilized and or moved over 25 mine structures so the public can see them, at a tremendous cost. And that’s not something the mine has to do,” he said. “It’s something they want to do. And it makes me really proud of the company.
Newmont believes the structures are an important piece of the area’s history, but not necessarily where they made history.
But that doesn’t quite satisfy Mona Campbell. “It’s just such a loss,” she said. Campbell works at the local history museum. She teared up as people left the overlook for the last time.
“You don’t replicate these kinds of views, with historic mining and modern mining. It’s a package. It’s all here,” said Campbell. “And we never get to see this again, it’s just going to be gone. So, it’s going to be sad.
Dee Djung agrees. Her business is tourism. She’s led mine tours around Victor and Cripple Creek for years and visited the American Eagles Mine as a little girl.
“How are you going to close the mine?” said Djung.
“People come here from all over the world to see not just the new mining, because this is relatively new, but [also] walk and see the headframes of the old mines. This is as big as California gold, and sometimes bigger,” she said.
Newmont spokesman Brad Poulson understands those concerns but says keeping the historic structures on the overlook open just isn’t feasible any longer.
“You can go to the International (mine), which was preserved and relocated by CC & V and is open to the public on trails. You can drive up to the Hoosier where you can get magnificent views of Pikes Peak and that historic mine,” Poulson said.
Bottom line, he said the American Eagles Mine will be re-created somewhere new. But when?
“What we need to do is establish where [the structures] are going first,” said Poulson. “And then move them to that location in a safe manner. And we’re just not sure what that timeframe is at this point.”
While he can’t move the impressive view of the American Eagles Overlook, he says the structures will be restored and open to the public, “certainly within 10 years.”
One of the proposed sites for the American Eagles Mine structures could be outside the mining district all together.