The Joker Tunnel

By Don Paulson

Curator, Ouray County Museum


The Red Mountain mining district was booming in the 1880s with millions of dollars worth of silver ore being mined each year. However, in the early 1890s the price of silver began to decline, so to help the US silver mining industry, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was passed in 1890.

This act required the US government to buy a total of 4.5 million ounces of silver each year and placed the US monetary system on a silver standard. The amount the Sherman Act required the government to purchase was equal to all of the silver produced in the US and was thus a boon to the Red Mountain Mining District. However, by early 1893 it was apparent that the government was buying more silver than needed, and in October of 1893 the Sherman Silver Purchase act was repealed. The price of silver, which had been on a downward trend for several years, immediately plummeted to 50 cents an ounce.

The San Juan economy suffered a severe blow from the 1893 depression, and it was not until the American Nettie, Camp Bird, and other gold mines came along that Ouray began to recover. The low price of silver along with flooding of the mines and decreasing ore values caused most of the Red Mountain mines to close by the mid 1890s.

In 1902 George Crawford, former director of the Silverton Railroad and owner of the Yankee Girl Mine, incorporated the Red Mountain Railroad, Mining and Smelting Company. He purchased the bankrupt Silverton Railroad for $40,000 and removed the tracks from Ironton to the Albany Smelter. He also replaced the original 30-pound rail (30 pounds per yard) with 45-pound rail and used the smaller rail in his Joker Tunnel project.

The Joker Tunnel was not a mine per se but a long tunnel designed to access the lower levels of the Guston, Genessee-Vanderbilt, Robinson, Yankee Girl and National Belle Mines. The ore in these Red Mountain mines followed vertical chimneys rather than veins and had very deep vertical shafts, which by 1900 were completely flooded. The silver ore in the mines was rich in sulfur, and the resulting sulfuric acid in the water corroded the pumps required to keep water out of the mines. The Joker Tunnel, being cut at a much lower elevation would also drain these mines by gravity and allow access to the lower grade ore at depth.

Construction of the Joker Tunnel began in 1904, and by 1907 it had been extended 4800 feet into Red Mountain No 2. The tunnel was ten feet wide and had a grade of 0.25%. The portal was located adjacent to the Silverton Railroad tracks so that the ore could be delivered directly to the railroad. The tunnel never reached the National Belle on the knob above Red Mountain but it did successfully drain the Yankee Girl, Robinson, Guston and Geneses-Vanderbilt Mines, allowing them to be successfully mined until it was closed in 1914. However, the Joker Tunnel was used sporadically by leasing agreements until the early 1940s.

The Joker Tunnel portal is located across Red Mountain Creek just below the first switchback on the final ascent of Red Mountain Pass. The water draining from the tunnel is still somewhat acidic, but it contains a thriving community of acid-loving algae (bottom photo). The boarding house used by the workers who drove the tunnel still stands next to Highway 550.


Joker Boardinghouse

Joker Tunnel