Jonathan Thompson's The Land Desk: Rico Reprieve
This story was originally published in The Land Desk on April 23, 2023.
I’ve long been intrigued by Rico, a former mining town of about 300 people in the western San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. On paper, Rico looks a lot like Silverton: It was platted in the 1870s on Ute land as a mining hub and flourished during its early years; it sits at about 9,000 feet in elevation, surrounded by high mountains; and it was serviced by a railroad built by Otto Mears.
Yet Rico, just 20 miles as the crow flies from Silverton, ultimately followed a far different trajectory. The 1893 Silver Panic hit both towns hard initially, but Silverton ultimately recovered and its mining industry continued to support a fairly healthy population until the early 1990s. Rico, not so much — the population in 1890 was about 4,000; by 1900 it had shrunk to 811 and continued to ebb, bottoming out at just 75 in 1980.
Mining in Rico didn’t collapse after the Silver Panic by any means. Throughout the decades, big and little firms gouged and tunneled, drilled and blasted, stoped and mucked, milled and smelted in the Rico Mountains. Sulfide-bearing iron pyrite — the active ingredient in acid mine drainage — is abundant here. So much so that in the 1950s the Rico-Argentine Mining Company and Vanadium Corporation of America began mining pyrite to produce sulphuric acid at a plant at the St. Louis Tunnel. The acid was used mainly for uranium processing at mills in surrounding lowlands¹. In 1980 Anaconda, a subsidiary of Atlantic Richfield, bought the Rico Argentine Mine site and surrounding lands with an eye toward molybdenum mining, but never actually pulled any ore out of the ground.
All of the mining activity permanently scarred the land, sullied the waters of the Dolores River, which passes through town, and contaminated town soils with lead. But it was never enough to revive the town’s early glory or population². Rico lost the Dolores County seat to the powerful Dove Creek pinto bean and Grange lobby in the 1940s, and the Rio Grande Southern railroad abandoned the community shortly thereafter.
Silverton, meanwhile, held onto its branch of the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad, helping that town to become the backdrop of many a mid-century western film and a major tourist attraction. And the relatively prosperous mining industry there had left behind infrastructure to support the new economy. Despite its scenic location, mining history, and proximity to public lands, Rico never developed a strong tourist economy — perhaps by design. In 1990 Silverton’s population was about 800; Rico’s was roughly one-eighth of that. But what Rico lacked in economic development it made up for with a rough and rustic sort of charm.
Over the years, various entities have hatched economic development schemes. In the 1980s, the Rico Development Corporation bought most of the Anoconda/Atlantic Richfield land and other property, compiling 1,800 acres of patented mining claims and hundreds of in-town lots (and in so doing took on responsibility for water treatment at the old Rico-Argentine mine site, which didn’t end so well). Real estate developer Rico Renaissance acquired the land in the mid-1990s and worked with Rico officials to come up with a grand plan to revive, spiff-up, and build out the infrastructure needed to substantially grow the old mining town. Meanwhile, economic exiles from Telluride — 26 miles and one mountain pass away — began moving in and opening a few businesses, including a live music venue that attracted folks from around the region.
Rico Renaissance’s plans fell apart in 2007 for various reasons, and they tried to sell the land to Bolero Mining, which wanted to build a molybdenum mine nearby, to the dismay of some and delight of other locals. The effort failed, in part because the global financial crisis diminished demand for minerals, in part because opening a new mine in this day and age ain’t easy. As if to drive home the point, in 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) to clean up the Rico-Argentine Mine site just north of town; it had been oozing high concentrations of zinc and other heavy metals into the Dolores River since the mid-1990s. The company has spent at least $63 million on the effort so far, even though it never made any money off of the property³.
What was left of Rico Renaissance became Disposition Properties, which continued to toy with developing the properties, but never progressed very far. Meanwhile Rico’s population has continued to grow, albeit slowly, and real estate prices have climbed. There are no homes in Rico listed for sale on Zillow, just a couple of lots priced around $200,000. But a 12-bedroom log-cabin monstrosity a handful of miles downriver from town is priced at $2.95 million. Still, the place isn’t what I’d call gentrified in any pervasive way; it retains its small-town funkiness. I passed through there last Fourth of July and was delighted to see the aftermath of a down-home parade and just dozens of folks milling about the sidewalks eating burgers (as opposed to the thousands that mob Silverton on the Fourth).
Last April, Disposition finally threw in the towel and put 181 parcels covering 1,146 acres on the market for $10 million. Telluride Properties, the listing agent, marketed the property — and its potential — aggressively. It touted its geothermal properties (hot springs resort), the space for 300 new homes, potential for a land swap with the Forest Service, a parcel for a riverside lodge, and so on. It even suggested the possibility of building a chairlift, perhaps to access a Silverton Mountain-esque backcountry ski area. It did not mention the Superfund site or lead contamination; lack of infrastructure; floodplains and other geologic hazards; or Rico’s 2004 master plan objective of avoiding a “predominant resort character.”
Many locals were not amused. A resort and hundreds of new homes would certainly bring jobs and money to the area, but it would also completely overwhelm the existing community and smother its scrappy spirit. Rico townsfolk only needed to look around the region to see that amenity-economy-based prosperity has its downsides, ranging from housing crises to the widening abyss between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else.
Rico still may get gentrified, but the threat of it becoming a glitzy destination resort appears to have subsided. On April 5, the Dolores County clerk recorded a real property transfer and a special warranty deed conveying dozens of Disposition Properties’ parcels to Atlantic Richfield. While the property transfer document remains under wraps — it’s labeled a “sensitive document” — the warranty deed includes a list of what appears to be all of Disposition’s remaining properties. The transfer fee is listed as $778.94, indicating that the sale price was about $7.79 million.
We weren’t able to get in touch with anyone at Atlantic Richfield — now the valley’s largest landowner — about the purchase or their intentions. We can rest assured, however, that they aren’t going to be building a Rico Mountain mega-resort. Rico Town Manager Chauncey McCarthy said the mining company likely will hold onto contaminated and mining-impacted claims in order to remediate and reclaim them (which is probably why they bought the property in the first place). They may sell off other parcels and have expressed an interest in working with the town to make use of the in-town properties. The Montezuma Land Conservancy reportedly wanted to buy the property and put conservation easements on some parcels while possibly building affordable housing on others. Those kinds of scenarios seem far more likely now.
Rico, undoubtedly, will continue to grow. But what that growth looks like and how fast it will occur seems now to be far more within the control of the community and its residents.
1: The acid plant sometimes spewed nasty sulfur dioxide gas into the air and acidic liquids into the water, killing vegetation and aquatic life. This reportedly led to the “Acid Plant Incident” of 1964, when two employees launched an armed revolt. The plant shut down shortly thereafter.
2: But the Rico-Argentine Mining Company did build a movie house and cafe on Rico’s main drag in the early 1950s.
3: In 2020 Atlantic Richfield sued the corporate descendants of companies that had mined the site, hoping to recoup some of the costs.