Life in Calamity Camp had its ups and downs
For over one hundred years, the cliffs high above Gateway have been home to carnotite mining. Carnotite is a radioactive mineral that contains the elements radium, vanadium, and uranium. Each element was sought after at various times but all are found in the Morrison formation that caps the sandstone cliffs of the Uncompahgre Plateau.
While there were several organized camps on the Plateau with colorful names such as Outlaw, Maverick, and Arrowhead, one in particular, Calamity Camp, still amazes visitors today.
The first claims on the Calamity Mesa were most likely filed by A.H. Ward and Henry Reams in 1913. At this time a radium boom was sweeping the region as the medical purposes of the element were made famous by the French scientist Marie Curie.
The Radium Co. of Colorado filed dozens of claims on Calamity Mesa and by 1922 a small community consisting of stone and wood cabins, stables, a reservoir and numerous families sprang to life.
Conditions were harsh. Supplies were hauled by massive mule trains up the Pickett Trail outside of Gateway or up Blue Creek. Ore was packed back down to be sold and miners often times were not paid until the sale was complete.
Walter Casto mined at Calamity in 1938 and later recalled receiving no pay for his hard labor but felt fortunate just to have room and board at the time.
After the market for radium cooled, efforts shifted to mining for vanadium. Vanadium was used to strengthen steel and became an import commodity during both world wars.
As World War II came to a close, it was discovered that uranium had huge potential in both the military and private sectors. The Atomic Energy Commission made secret surveys of the carnotite on the Uncompahgre Plateau to see if uranium extraction would be possible. In the second half of 1948 more than 47,000 feet of core drilling samples on Calamity and Outlaw Mesas were taken by the government to test for uranium.
This created the third and final boom to Calamity Mesa, which would last into the 1970s. The stone cabins were once again used by the families of miners and eventually electricity reached the mining camps. Trailers and Quonset huts were brought in and large companies such as the United States Vanadium Corp. and Climax Uranium Co. hired miners to work the area.
What makes Calamity Camp and the other carnotite mines on the Uncompahgre Plateau unique is the strong sense of community each camp had. A school was constructed on Outlaw Mesa during the mid-1950s that eventually taught up to 20 students, who were bused from surrounding camps. A school was even opened for a few years on Calamity Mesa and was taught by Mrs. Gertrude Day, who also taught Sunday school and organized Halloween and Christmas activities for the entire camp.
Even a voting precinct was established for the miners in the 1960s. Margie Foster recalls making quilts and baby blankets for other mothers in the camps and fireworks on the 4 of July. Those were, “things that made life worthwhile up there.”
By the 1970s mining on the Uncompahgre slowed down to a crawl. Time has taken a heavy toll on Calamity because it has sat vacant for decades. Most of the wood roofs over the stone cabins have long-since collapsed and each year the log cabins slowly crumble to the ground.
The Museum of Western Colorado and the Bureau of Land Management undertook preservation efforts in the past by restoring the roofs on three of the stone cabins but more work is needed. On Aug. 7 a group organized by the Friends of Northern Dolores will undertake much needed trail work at the historic site followed by an evening lecture and dinner in Gateway. Volunteers are needed to help keep this important piece of history alive.
Zebulon Miracle is the Curator of Anthropology and Collections for the Museum of Western Colorado. He also serves on the City of Grand Junction Historic Preservation Board.