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History shafted in Grand Canyon mines

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – Keith Schoeman leaned against the pickax he was using as a walking stick and pointed out a conspicuous hole in the side of the Grand Canyon.

"We found an old ore cart in there," he said. "Feel bad for the mule that had to bring that thing down here."

Four miles down the Grandview Trail and over a half-mile below the rim of the canyon, there are many such reminders of the miners that worked here for a roughly 10-year span at the turn of the 20th century. These remnants are now tougher for Grand Canyon visitors to see, however, as the National Park Service just completed a project to close off several of the mines here.

"This is primarily a safety issue," said Deanna Greco, a spokeswoman for the park. "For example, one of the shafts was right by the trail, and was almost a 50-foot sheer vertical drop."

That shaft, near Cottonwood Creek, was one of several in the Grandview Mine Historic District that Schoeman and his team of laborers filled with polyurethane foam and topped off with a mixture of sand and stones. An iron pulley, which they found nearby and laid on the surface of their completed project, is virtually the only clue that the shaft had ever existed.

Schoeman and his team work for RMC, a mining closure and reclamation company contracted by the park service in part because of its work on similar projects in the region.

For three nights this month, Schoeman and a team of four workers camped in tents near Horseshoe Mesa, as temperatures dipped overnight into the 20s. They were assisted in their efforts by an archaeologist and a cultural resource specialist, who ensured that the work was completed in a way that preserved aspects of the site's heritage.

"Before the crews get started, these specialists go in and look for certain cultural artifacts," explained Greco. "We try not to mess with the whole historical feel of these sites."

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Though they can scarcely be seen from the viewing areas along the rim, mines thrived within the canyon in the early 1900s, as camps extracted copper and gold from more than 40 sites. The ore at the Grandview Mine was over 70 percent pure copper, and won an award at the 1893 World's Fair for its purity.

But the mines were nearly all abandoned by 1910, as tourism supplanted mining as a more profitable industry at the Grand Canyon. Traces of this mining heritage still remain, however, though they've been disappearing in recent years as tourists have taken artifacts as souvenirs from the mine sites.

"Small little items seem to walk off in people's backpacks," said Greco, who noted that miners' picks, lanterns, newspapers and even cans of food had vanished from the historic sites. The park service is trying to head that off by gating some of the mines, another facet of the project.

"The idea is to preserve the cultural heritage, and sometimes you have to put gates up to keep things intact," Greco said.

Installing gates at mine entrances also helps preserve the canyon's bat colonies. Restricting visitor access to these habitats should mitigate the spread of white-nose syndrome, an affliction responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million bats.

Work on the park's abandoned mines concluded the morning of Nov. 18, when a helicopter hoisted the workers' gear from the campsite and toward a spot on the nearby South Rim.

Scott Babinowich, a ranger at the Grand Canyon, said he expected the project to immediately benefit the park and its visitors.

"From a safety perspective, I'm glad we addressed the considerable dangers posed by these mine shafts," said Babinowich. "There aren't enough rangers to keep an eye on all of the visitors here, so sealing off these old mines will help to keep them safe when we're not around."

Greco said officials are not aware of any deaths or serious injuries in the abandoned mines. For her, the project represented a balancing act between preserving the canyon's heritage and maximizing the safety of its visitors.

"We want people to be able to go and see these things," said Greco, "but we want them to do it safely without impairing the history and wildlife that live down here as well."

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Grant Martin/Cronkite News Service

Keith Schoeman, director of an effort to block access to old minesin an area of Grand Canyon National Park, stands next to what had been a 50-foot-deep mine shaft. The effort’s goals include keeping visitors safe, safeguarding bats that have colonized some mine shafts and preserving artifacts in the mines.

Facts about Grand Canyon mines

  • Date to approximately 1000 B.C., when the region's inhabitants were using turquoise, coal and other minerals.
  • In the 16th century, Spaniards established several gold and silver mines, which were abandoned following a Pueblo revolt in the 1680s.
  • From 1956 to 1969, uranium was mined from the Grand Canyon for the Cold War nuclear weapons program.