MONTE CRISTO — More than a century after the last gold and silver mines here closed down, a cleanup of arsenic and other toxins left behind is set to begin.
The federally mandated project starts this month with the felling of a half-mile of tall, old trees north of Barlow Pass. In their place will be part of a new 2.5-mile access road for the excavators and dump trucks that will haul 18,000 cubic yards of contaminated mine tailings, rock and soil away from water sources near Monte Cristo, 34 miles east of Granite Falls.
People who enjoy the hike to Monte Cristo on the old road from Barlow might want take advantage of what’s left of the sunny weather to take a last look around.
During the actual cleanup, from spring 2013 to summer 2015, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest plans to close the mining ghost town. With so much work taking place, people who value the old mining town worry that some history will be wiped away for good.
The same year Washington became a state, a lode of gold and silver ore was discovered in the mountains of eastern Snohomish County.
The prospectors were money hungry, scratching out a living in the new boomtown of Monte Cristo.
Mining involved expensive drilling and blasting, which contaminated the headwaters of the South Fork Sauk River.
From 1889 to 1907, Monte Cristo’s half-dozen top money-making mines produced about 310,000 tons of ore that included copper, zinc, gold and silver worth millions of dollars. The mines also produced tons of tailings loaded with naturally occurring, but now exposed, lead, mercury and arsenic.
A railway, built with the sole purpose of transporting mined ore to market, was completed in 1893. Trains delivered the ore to a smelter in Everett. When the railroad came in, the area was clear-cut and Monte Cristo sprouted hotels, saloons, stores, a newspaper, a school and homes scattered in the area of the hillside thoroughfare named Dumas Street.
Eventually, most of the mines were sold to Seattle and New York financiers, including John D. Rockefeller, at the time the richest man in the world.
Asarco, organized in 1899 as the American Smelting and Refining Company, bought the Everett smelter and the mines in 1903. But in 1907, after a national economic panic, mining at Monte Cristo was finished and the mines were abandoned.
Tourism became the mainstay at Monte Cristo after that, but by the Great Depression, it was a ghost town. For awhile after World War II, people operated a lodge, a cookhouse and museum there. And then when Snohomish County added campsites and improved a road over the abandoned railway, people flocked to the old mining town. Every summer weekend in the 1960s and ’70s, cars filled with families created a huge dust cloud over the gravel road.
Like the Big Four ice caves on the Mountain Loop Highway, Monte Cristo was one of the most popular destinations in the county. It all turned sour, however, in the 1980s.
A flood washed out the road and it wasn’t repaired. The lodge burned down. Vandalism was rampant.
In 1983, a nonprofit group called Monte Cristo Preservation Association stepped in to save and restore the historical site. In 1994, Monte Cristo and much of the surrounding area, minus a few pockets of private ownership, were turned over to the U.S. Forest Service.
For decades people scrambled up to the mines to peek in and search for their own specks of gold, trying to imagine the hard-scrabble days of the mining era.
Few realized that the arsenic and lead left behind from that time exceeded human health and environmental limits. Water washes down the mountains, through mine tailings and into the creeks and streams that feed the South Fork Sauk. Joined with its north fork and other rivers, the Sauk then drains into the Skagit River, which wends its way out to the Skagit Bay north of Stanwood.
Even before the area was annexed into the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, people concerned about water quality and the heavy metals in the tailings began calling for a cleanup of the old mining area.
In 2006, the Forest Service was sued by the Washington Environmental Council under the federal Clean Water Act for failing to move fast enough on cleaning up the mine tailings. A judge ruled in favor of the Forest Service, but public pressure was on to get Monte Cristo cleaned up.
Three years later, the Forest Service and the state Department of Ecology filed claims in Asarco’s bankruptcy proceedings. Together the agencies were awarded $11 million, which is expected to pay for the Monte Cristo cleanup project.
The public was invited to comment on the plan in 2011. Some people expressed concerns about the proposed new access road to be laid out east and north of the river. They worried about the harvesting of old hemlocks to make way for the road. The forest there is a nesting habitat for a small seabird called the marbled murrelet, considered a threatened species.
Just as important to many people was the future of the access road after the cleanup. The era of vandalism and misuse was still fresh in the minds of many who did not want to see it repeated.
Ahead of the start of the cleanup project this month, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie’s new national forest Supervisor Jennifer Eberlien, an archeologist by training, wanted a look at Monte Cristo.
On a late August morning, Darrington District Ranger Peter Forbes and Joe Gibbens, the Forest Service’s regional expert on abandoned mines reclamation, accompanied Eberlien to the old mining town.
From Barlow Pass on the Mountain Loop Highway, the group walked down the old county road to the river.
Not far from the gate that blocks it to outside traffic, the road slumps away from a hillside of clay. A storm in fall 2006 left the road unstable.
It would cost more to repair it than to build the new access. Most of the trees to be cut down are not saleable, Forbes said.
At the river, the bridge is washed away, a victim of flooding. To get across, one must walk carefully over a large, slippery hemlock log.
Back on the road, the Forest Service employees passed the site of the Weden House, originally a miners hotel and a later a tourist trap for people headed to the Monte Cristo resort in the 1920s.
The road is built atop the old railroad bed. In places where the road has eroded away from flood damage, one can see the tracks sticking out about five feet below the road bed.
The spot where the new access will meet the old road is marked with survey flags. Not far from there is the 3-acre site of what will be the mining waste repository. Crews will dig a big hole, line it, fill it, seal it and plant native bushes on top.
The repository will be monitored for leaks for years after it is established.
At Monte Cristo, a big sign for the former lodge is propped up against a boulder on the trail. A few hundred feet away is the railroad roundtable, the power house, picnic tables and Forest Service cabins used by volunteers who take care of the townsite in the summer.
Up the hill on what used to be Dumas Street, the preservation association has installed informational signs, highlighting the hotels and sites of some homes. Further on are the remains of the 5-story concentrator mill where ore was crushed and gravity separated the minerals.
A thick canopy of 100-year-old trees keeps out the light from the forest floor where mining equipment lies where it was left.
“Our goal is to accomplish the cleanup but preserve as much of the historical components as we can,” said Gibbens, the mines rehab expert. “Because we must control the scatter of high concentrations of hazardous waste in the process, the cleanup will be as labor intensive as the original mining effort.”
Along the trail, one can see the water spilling down the solid rock face at the opening of the Justice Mine. There the Forest Service must divert the water and install a water filter.
“It’s a crystal clear stream,” Gibbens said. “But it’s high in arsenic, a real danger to human health.”
According to federal law, the U.S. Forest Service must ask the public for comments about the future of the new access road to Monte Cristo. Should it be gated, closed or opened for anyone?
“For now, however, we are intentionally trying to focus on the cleanup,” said Forbes, the Darrington District ranger. “We have an entirely separate process to talk about how we will manage that access.”
The comment period most likely will start in spring 2014, after the cleanup has begun, Forbes said.
One of the people who plans to make his voice known is Rod Olson, of Trafton.
He’s concerned about access to the area during the cleanup and after it’s done. And he’s worried that the new road will attract people to the area. A Vietnam war veteran, Olson likes the solitude of winter snowmobile rides and the isolation of snowshoe hikes on the trail to Monte Cristo.
“I grew up in the mountains. I don’t like to go as much in the summer when the hikers are there,” Olson said. “In the winter, I keep an eye on things for the Forest Service.”
He mentions that there are plenty of people who own land within the forest and the Forest Service must provide them access to their property.
“I want access, but I would just as soon the Forest Service not promote it,” Olson said. “In some ways I hate to see the cleanup project come in. I hate to see any disturbance to what already has been asleep for so long.”
David Cameron grew up in Snohomish County. The retired Cascade High School history teacher did some seasonal work for the Forest Service in the Monte Cristo area when he was a young man. He and others started the Monte Cristo Preservation Association in the early 1980s.
“We don’t have any control over this cleanup project, and we know the Forest Service is under order to get it done. It’s clear that it can’t be stopped,” Cameron said. “Our concern is to preserve as much history as possible.”
Association members have volunteered to get safety training in order to be on hand to keep an eye on things while Monte Cristo is closed to the public. They want to help maintain the new access road, which Cameron believes should be gated and opened only with permission of the Forest Service. And the group has made all its historical resources available to Gibbens and the cleanup program team.
The aim is to be helpful rather than confrontational, Cameron said. Still, three years of work with heavy machinery is sure to cause some damage.
“We know, however, that some unique historic things are sure to be destroyed in the cleanup process and that leaves us with a feeling of sadness,” Cameron said. “When it’s all over, what will we find?”
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; email@example.com.