The hanging flume is a three-sided, six-foot-wide and four-foot-deep wooden trough that is suspended for ten miles along sandstone walls 150 feet or more above the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers. During late nineteenth-century gold rushes, many Western mining companies built flumes to get water to their mines, but most others ran along the ground, not suspended from the side of a canyon. Completed in 1891, the flume soon proved unprofitable and was abandoned, but portions still hang in the canyon and continue to attract visitors.
The hanging flume was built between 1887 and 1891 by the English-owned Montrose Placer Mining Company, for the purpose of furnishing water for hydraulic mining at the Lone Tree Placer Mine along the banks of the Dolores River. In addition to the ten-mile hanging section, the original flume continued for three miles in a ditch dug into the ground. Initially estimated as $75,000 project, the flume took three years for a team of twenty-five men to build, and its costs eventually ballooned to $173,000.
Supplies and lumber for the flume were hauled over an early road built by Buddecke and Diehl, which connected Montrose with the rim of the Dolores Canyon. In connection with their mercantile business, Buddecke and Diehl built roads into newly opened mining areas wherever a promise of extended business presented itself. Mrs. Diehl, when interviewed in Montrose in 1936, said that Buddecke and Diehl “got out the lumber” to build the flume. They were assisted by Elisha Darling, a skilled sawmill man, who made his home for a time with the Buddecke family in Montrose.
The company began to cut timber on Pine Flats west of Buckeye Reservoir, just over the Utah line. The timber there was of immense size—so large that lumber could be obtained without knots. After one season of cutting in that location, the Utah State Land Board made Buddecke and Diehl move back about a mile and a half into Colorado. Their last lumber was sawed north and west of Paradox on Carpenter Ridge.
The lumber was hauled by bull teams down Carpenter Ridge, then down Buddecke and Diehl Canyon to a river ford. (The name of the canyon later was changed by the US Geological Survey to the Red Canyon.) From the ford it was hauled on up to the east canyon rim to the actual construction site. One old bull corral is still on Pine Flats and remnants of another are on Carpenter Ridge.
Elmer Anderson worked on the flume and explained how it was constructed. The work was carried on from the top of the cliff, not, as one might suppose, from the floor of the canyon below. The lumber was let down in bundles by means of a cable controlled by a winch. A contraption consisting of a series of rollers set in a frame that extended out over the cliff was used to ease the lumber over the cliff and down to the flume bed.
In the canyon, the river meandered back and forth from cliffs on one side to cliffs on the other so that the instrument man needed to ford the river innumerable times. The rod-man carried no stakes, but marked the flume line on the sandstone wall from a rope swing, called a bosun’s chair, let down from the top of the cliff.
The work was done one section at a time. To start a new section, a long loose platform on the floor of the flume was pushed out to the point where the work was to be done, then securely fastened down at the other end. From this platform the frame of the next section was put into place. To hold the crosspiece that was to support the floor of the flume, an iron bar was drilled diagonally downward into the sandstone wall. Each iron bar was driven eighteen inches deep into the sandstone. The exposed part of this rod extended horizontally outward for a short distance then turned sharply upward. The vertical end of the rod was slipped through a hole in the crosspiece, thus holding it in place. A diagonal brace was then strung from the outer end of the crosspiece to a hitch in the sandstone underneath. The man who cut the hitch and secured the brace did his own work from a bosun’s chair lowered from the platform. Once the bracket was complete, the floor could be laid and the sidewalls built up.
This procedure was not without its hazards. Some imaginative person, seeing the flume later, concocted the story that it had been built by Chinese workers, a thousand of whom were killed in the process. Erroneous as that tale was, the men who worked on the project had some harrowing experiences. For instance, one day Billy Albrecht, in helping to lower the lumber from the top of the cliff, ventured too close to the edge and slid off. His companions were too terror stricken for a moment even to look down. When at last they summoned the courage to peer over the precipice, they saw Billy. He was sitting precariously on a narrow ledge only a few feet below them, in the act of lighting his pipe—to steady his nerves, no doubt.
It has been said that the hanging flume was a fizzle since no water ever passed through it. There is, however, evidence to belie this statement. At the foot of the flume’s terminus, huge mounds of gravel—now overgrown with sage—which only hydraulic mining could have heaped up, show that water from the flume was once used in placer mining.
The flume operated for three years, but the area’s gold consisted of fine flakes rather than large nuggets, making it hard to separate from the river gravel. As a result, the flume was abandoned as unprofitable. The dry flume became a local curiosity; some adventurous people walked it. Eventually the most easily accessible parts of the flume were ripped out for use in constructing houses and uranium mines.
That so much of the flume has survived sun and weather for more than 125 years may be attributed in part to the dryness of the climate and in part to its being out of reach of vandals. Sections within climbing distance have been demolished long ago. Rockslides have knocked out other parts. Not much of the remaining flume is completely intact. The brackets and floors are there, but most of the sidewalls have fallen away.
In the early twenty-first century, the Fort Collins wood scientist Ron Anthony has led a revival of interest in the hanging flume. In 2005 he headed a yearlong study of the flume that was paid for by the State Historical Fund and involved the work of archaeologists, scientists, historians, engineers, and land managers. The study resulted in a report detailing the condition of the flume and discussing how to preserve it for the future. The study found that the remaining sections of the flume are still quite strong. Protected by the canyon, the flume’s wood is weathered but not rotted, and the iron bars that workers drilled into the canyon wall are still sound. The study also demonstrated that the flume would have had the proper length and drop to create enough hydraulic pressure to separate gold from river gravel if the area’s gold had occurred in nuggets instead of fine flakes.
In 2006 the nonprofit World Monuments Fund placed the hanging flume on its “100 Most Endangered Sites” list, which highlights historic sites in urgent need of preservation funding and protection.
In April 2012, Anthony led an effort to rebuild a forty-eight-foot-long section of the flume to test theories about how it was built. The project was funded by grants of $100,000 from the Kaplan Fund and $25,000 from the Hendricks Family Foundation. Workers used ropes to lower 200-pound frame pieces and planks to men who had rappelled 100 feet down the canyon wall to assemble the trough on the flume’s original wooden braces.
Despite the recent studies and reconstruction efforts, much about the construction of the hanging flume remains shrouded in mystery, including how workers could have driven eighteen-inch holes into the canyon wall in an age before power drills.
*Adapted from Ellen Z. Peterson, “The Hanging Flume of Dolores Canyon,” Colorado Magazine 40, no. 2 (1963): 128–31.