Captain Jack Superfund Site and Left Hand Creek’s Legacy of Mining

Following the discovery of gold in Denver in 1859, it did not take long for miners to work their way up the creeks into the mountains, panning for gold and searching for the veins from which the nuggets came. In that same year gold was discovered at Gold Hill south of Left Hand Creek, and miners used pans and sluices to sift the sediments of the creek.

Ward was settled in 1865, around mines that eventually produced millions in gold and silver. Gold was discovered in the Jamestown area in 1865, and that town was established in the 1870s. As technology developed, there were three separate gold mining booms in the Ward area. In addition to Gold, the Jamestown area produced fluorspar, lead, silver and copper. By the early 20th century the mines had played out, and most were abandoned.

The mines and waste rock piles were left exposed to the elements, leading to extensive acid mine drainage and associated leaching of metals into the creek. By 1938 the Left Hand Ditch Company, which furnished water to irrigators and a few domestic water users, had formed a Pollution Committee, and filed suit against some of the remaining mines for the damage they caused to the creek.

For decades the creek was considered to support no aquatic life at all. In the late 1990s large parts of the watershed were being considered for listing on the National Priorities List for restoration under the Federal Superfund Program. Local interests sought, for most sites, alternatives to Superfund listing, that would still result in creek restoration. This process led to the establishment of LWOG, and to voluntary clean-up projects at many mining sites.

In the head of California Gulch west of Ward, however, Superfund listing was approved in 2003 for an area that included several sites: the Captain Jack Mill Site, the Big Five Tunnel, and several mines including the White Raven.

Clean-up of the site has occurred in two phases, under the direction of USEPA and CDPHE. During the surface phase in 2012-13, waste rock piles were moved away from the creek, stabilized, covered with soil, and re-vegetated. Surface runoff was diverted away from these waste rock piles.

During the subsurface phase in 2016-17, mine drainage from the Big Five Tunnel was treated. Crushed limestone was piled up in the tunnel to adjust the pH, and a bulkhead was installed to allow the tunnel to fill with water and thereby exclude air. Without the oxygen from the air, there is less formation of acid. Many precautions have been taken to ensure the safety of this operation, and creek water is being monitored by the contractors and by LWOG to document the hoped-for reduction in impacts to the creek.