Built in 1892, the Crystal Mill is a log-and-frame structure atop a rocky outcrop along the Crystal River in northwest Gunnison County. At the time of its construction, the “mill” served as a powerhouse for local silver mines, allowing both the mines and the town of Crystal to stay afloat despite the crash in silver prices during the Panic of 1893.
The mill shut down with the mines in 1917. Treasure Mountain Ranch Inc. acquired the property in 1954, and in 1985 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. On account of its scenic setting, the Crystal Mill remains one of the most photographed historic structures in the state.
Town of Crystal
In 1874 geologist Sylvester Richardson surveyed marble deposits in the Crystal River valley. Because he was trespassing on Ute land, the remote location could not be settled or developed.
In the early 1880s, after the Ute people were removed from western Colorado, silver prospectors began settling the Crystal River valley, hoping to replicate the success of places like Leadville. In the spring of 1880, a group of these prospectors set up a camp along the river several miles east of present-day Marble. They named their camp Crystal City after seeing outcroppings of quartz crystals nearby. With some twenty cabins, Crystal City incorporated in 1881.
Few prospectors spent the winter in Crystal City during its first two years, as the town was too isolated to maintain supplies of food and other necessities. That changed in 1883, with the completion of a wagon road from the mining camp of Schofield to the south. The road helped Crystal’s population grow to nearly 600 by the end of 1883, and it hovered between 200 and 400 until 1893. In 1886 a post office opened in the town, and with its saloons, two general stores, a pool hall, a stage line, and two social clubs—one for mining men and another for ski enthusiasts—Crystal of the 1880s resembled most other successful mining towns in Colorado.
Silver mines fueled the growth of Crystal, especially the prosperous Lead King, Black Queen, and Sheep Mountain Tunnel. In 1893 George C. Eaton and B. S. Philips, owners of the Sheep Mountain Tunnel, sought a more efficient way to extract silver ore from the surrounding rock. They dammed the Crystal River near the opening of the tunnel and built a twenty-by-fifty-foot powerhouse, originally called the Sheep Mountain Tunnel Mill, next to the river. A waterwheel powered an air compressor that pushed air through pipes to air-powered rock drills in the mine. The structure featured connected compressor and gear houses, as well as a privy and an attendant’s quarters. In addition to Sheep Mountain, the powerhouse served the nearby Inez and Bear Mountain mines, and later on, a dynamo was installed to power electric lights in the mines.
With rich lodes and the Crystal powerhouse turning water into drilling power, the mines on Sheep Mountain could stay afloat, even after a crash in silver prices in 1893 forced most of Crystal’s other mines to shut down.
The closing of other mines and a lack of access had put the town of Crystal on the path to abandonment by the turn of the twentieth century. After a brief revival of silver mining in the area around 1916, the Crystal Mill shuttered for good in 1917.
In 1954 Treasure Mountain Ranch Inc. acquired the Crystal Mill with an interest in restoring the dilapidated property. In 1976 a Bicentennial grant of $2,500 and local donations paid for a new wood-shingled roof on the structure, and in 1984 several volunteers installed cables inside the building to prevent the gear house from falling into the river. The mill was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
Today the mill is accessible from Marble via an extremely rough County Road 3 or by guided Jeep tours. The US Forest Service warns that the road to the mill from Crested Butte—Forest Service Road 317—should only be driven by highly experienced four-wheel drivers in small high-clearance Jeeps or similar vehicles.