The Crystal Mill is a Colorado icon and the subject of countless postcards – a rustic, wooden building from 1893 that sits atop a rugged rock outcropping with the Crystal River rushing below, aspen trees standing nearby, and mountains looming in the background. Most of the photos show yellow aspens in the fall.
The mill is located six miles east of Marble on a rough, narrow, four-wheel-drive road that is open only in the summer. It also can be reached on foot, by mountain bike or through guided jeep tours. It is accessible on horseback, but the road is rocky and busy with vehicles.
The other route listed for the trip, Forest Service Road 317 from Crested Butte, is not recommended. The route starts over Schofield Pass but then takes motorists through a treacherous, steep and narrow four-wheel-drive section known as the Devil’s Punchbowl that has been the scene of fatal wrecks far too often.
The Crystal Mill generated power to run drills in the Sheep Mountain Mine. Miners drilled holes in the walls of the mine, placed dynamite into the holes, detonated it, and carried out the silver ore freed by the explosions. The mill was built by mine promoters George C. Eaton and B.S. Phillips.
The powerhouse had a wooden water wheel and a penstock that reached down to the river. Jets of water drove the wheel, which turned a driveshaft that transmitted the power to a gear house in the front of the building and then to a leather belt that drove a compressor. Compressed air powered the miners’ drills and a ventilation system in the mine, which stretched more than 1,500 feet into the mountain.
There was a sleeping room for the operator in the back of the building, plus a privy in the overhanging corner of the mill that emptied directly into the river.
The mill began operation in 1893 despite the 1893 silver panic, and it continued running until the 1920s.
It is privately owned and closed to the public. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been maintained with the help of volunteers and grants from governments and historical societies.
The ghost town of Crystal is adjacent to the mill. The area drew miners as early as the 1860s, with silver, lead, copper, iron and zinc deposits. The town was incorporated in 1881, reaching a peak of 400 residents, with two hotels, a pool, hall, a men’s club, a barber shop and two newspapers.
There are a few summer residents living in cabins in Crystal, which has a small general store and public outhouse.
Six miles east of Marble on Gunnison County Road 3