Calamity Camp, CO 2021
Calamity Camp, CO 2021

Calamity Camp, CO 2021

Calamity Camp, CO 2021

Calamity Mesa, outside Gateway, Colorado, held valuable vanadium, uranium, and radium. Calamity Camp was home to mining families who lived a harsh and dangerous life in order to mine the heavy metals critical to WWI, WWII, and Cold War efforts. Today, the site is on the National Register, and Calamity Mesa remains a stunning outdoor recreational area for those willing to go the extra mile!

PROJECT PARTNER:  Bureau of Land Management

SESSION DATES:  September 19-24, September 26 – October 1, and October 3-8.

Project Site Description & History

Miners in Calamity Camp, which is located on historically Ute land, extracted uranium, vanadium, and radium from Calamity Mesa from 1916-1980. Uranium is found in several places around Colorado, but 77% of the state’s of uranium and vanadium is found in “numerous and relatively small mines in the Uravan mineral belt located in Mesa, Montrose, and San Miguel Counties” (Colorado Geological Survey). Colorado’s last uranium mine closed in 2005. Today, uranium is used in many industries, especially nuclear power generation. Historically, though, its use was primarily military. During WWI, molybdenum (“Molly B”), which was also mined in Colorado, was critical to the weapons manufacturing (primarily artillery guns and weapons requiring strengthened steel). When the Central Powers suffered a shortage of molybdenum, they turned to ferrouranium alloys as a substitute. Hence, uranium mining became an important part of the war effort. This use of uranium continued until WWII’s Manhattan Project, and later Cold War, which instead required significant quantities of uranium for fission research and nuclear weaponry (learn more). By the 1980s, however, demand for uranium was down and Calamity Camp became a ghost town.

The miners who lived in Calamity Camp lived harsh lives, and exposed themselves to significant dangers. They worked with heavy machinery and explosives, they breathed bad, dusty air, and although it wasn’t entirely known at the time, they were regularly exposed to radioactive materials. Not only during the work day was life hard: back at camp, there were minimal amenities. Minimal transportation infrastructure made it hard to access resources, and it is reported the camp did not have electricity until 1950.

Uranium mining touches on almost all aspects of society, from warfare, to economics, to health, to social discrimination, to justice. Looking at the impact of uranium extraction through the lenses of public health and environmental justice can offer a critical perspective on this broad topic. As a starter read, check out the 2019 AP article “Mining camp alive in memories of Navajo uranium victims” and go deeper with Brugge and Goble’s 2002 article, “The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People,”  And, you can dig into the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) to learn how the Department of Justice is handling compensation for victims of the externalities of uranium mining.

In 2007, the BLM, in partnership with the Museum of Western Colorado and the Gateway Canyons Resort, worked to stabilize and protect some of the camp’s buildings and structures. Four years later, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. By preserving Calamity Camp, we ensure future generations can continue to learn from the legacy of uranium mining activities in Colorado.

Today, the site is located near splendid Western Slope recreational opportunities, including Jeeping, hiking, mountain biking, and more. It is highly likely volunteers will get to enjoy the beautiful, yet fleeting “turning of the aspens” during this project. Sign up today!

This cabin is one of the more well-preserved buildings in Calamity Camp.

See the chimney in this cabin? A proper fire would be critical to surviving cold winter nights!

There’s no experience quite like seeing sun and shadow course over the mesas of Colorado’s Western Slope throughout the day. The night skies are sure to be brilliant at this remote location!

Location and Logistics

PROJECT PARTNER: Bureau of Land Management, Gunnison Field Office

SESSION DATES:  September 19-24, September 26 – October 1, October 3-8. Please plan to arrive at our campsite no earlier than 5pm and no later than 7pm on the first day of your session.

ACCESS:    Tent camping only 

Medium- or high-clearance vehicles required. Something like a Subaru Forester or Toyota RAV-4 will be fine. The final quarter-mile requires 4WD, but, volunteers without 4WD can leave their cars just below and either ride up with HistoriCorps staff or walk up. Those with confident driving skills and something like a small teardrop trailer can also access this site.

LOCATION:

COMMUTE: There will be a short daily commute between the project site and campsite.

ABOUT VOLUNTEERING: HistoriCorps projects are free for volunteers! HistoriCorps will provide all meals, tools, training, equipment, and a campsite. Volunteers are responsible for their own transportation to the campsite, sleeping equipment, work clothes and boots, and other personal gear.

Scope of Work

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY:  

HistoriCorps is committed to educating and training volunteers in preservation skills, with an overarching mission of inspiring a preservation ethic in all those involved. Learning and working alongside expert HistoriCorps field staff, volunteers will learn the skills necessary to preserve and stabilize two miner family residences at Calamity Camp.

  • Construct internal framing to redirect roof load from sandstone walls – 15%
  • Stabilize sandstone walls of residence – 5%
  • Repoint cracks in sandstone walls – 10%
  • Restack/repoint chimney stones – 10%
  • Repair and replace roof sheathing – 20%
  • Reroof two buildings with rolled asphalt – 25%

When we finish the above scope of work, we’ll tackle these small tasks: 15%

  • Restack sandstone walls of a small miner’s cabin
  • Reconstruct latilla roof system including installing ridge log and purlins and latillas to cover roof
  • Constructing a skeleton roof framing system for interpretive purposes on another miner’s cabin

Please note: Tasks vary by day and by week, depending on a variety of factors including: weather, project priorities, previous groups’ work, and more. Though it is likely you will get to learn and practice most or all of the above tasks, it is not guaranteed. The higher percentage of the scope a particular task is, the more likely you will get to practice it.

Sign Up!

We’re thrilled this project has inspired you to volunteer! Choose your session and register below:

You will know your registration was successful when you receive a confirmation email. Contact volunteer@historicorps.org for assistance.

HistoriCorps does not charge for its volunteering projects. HistoriCorps relies on donations to continue engaging volunteers to save significant historical sites across America for generations to come. Your donation of any amount will make an incredible difference! Increase your impact – make a generous gift today.

Volunteer Logistics, Policies, and Advice

We’re so glad you’re interested in joining this project! If you’re new to our community, review the Volunteer FAQ first! Please note the following logistics and policies:

  • Review our COVID protocols here
  • Volunteering with HistoriCorps is free! We will provide all meals, tools, training, equipment, and a campsite or shared indoor lodging. Dinner is not provided on the first night.
  • Volunteers are responsible for bringing their own gear, sturdy work clothes and boots, and appropriate sleeping equipment. Check the average temperatures before you start packing – the nights and mornings may be colder than you anticipate! Then, read this advice about how to stay warm when tent camping in colder places.
  • Campsite accessibility varies by project. Some projects can accommodate tents only; others can accommodate small RVs. Please review the project site description above for more information, and if you’re still not sure, email volunteer@historicorps.org for help.
  • If this project does not offer showers, you might want to consider bringing a solar shower or research other methods to clean up after the work day.
  • Volunteer crew sizes generally range from 4-8 volunteers, with two HistoriCorps staff that lead and train volunteers in the work.
  • Safety is one of HistoriCorps’ top priorities, and volunteers can contribute to a safe working environment by ensuring their physical fitness is adequate for the work. See above for this project’s scope of work and difficulty level. Please, call us if you are not quite sure if a project is a good fit for your skills or fitness level. We may be able to suggest a project more suitable and enjoyable for you.
  • Dogs are generally allowed to accompany their humans in project campsites (actually, we love having dogs join us around the campfire!). Dogs are not permitted on the job site for everyone's safety. HOWEVER: HistoriCorps also follows the rules and regulations of our project partner. If the project partner does not permit dogs onsite then HistoriCorps is no exception. Please ask HistoriCorps or the project partner directly if you have any questions about whether Fido is welcome.