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Provided by: Gardner Family Collection

Contributed by: Richard Gardner on 9/8/2006

Today I write from Breckenridge, a town in Colorado with an unusual amount of history connected with Golden, from its founder George Eliphaz Spencer being one of our winter gold rush residents to Breckenridge owning and housing the largest piece of Golden history outside of Golden, the Reiling Dredge. Today I am pleased to tell all that the remains of this great machine, owned and run by a Goldenite, built by Golden carpenters and beginning operation over a century ago on Clear Creek, is available for folks from its place of origin to come and see. It is too delicate for most to come aboard to be certain, but the Town of Breckenridge and Summit County have constructed good access for everyone to come view it from the shores of its pond.

Like all seaworthy vessels, the dredge is a lady, and her name was Eleanor. She and her twin sister Eleanor (they were #1 and #2) began their existence on the shores of Clear Creek around the area of today's McIntyre Street in 1904. There that year mining industrialist Herman J. Reiling, head of the National Dredging Company, purchased many acres of Clear Creek bottomland that comprised the already historic Arapahoe Bar, a gold-laden placer sand bar mined as early as 1834 that helped spur the gold rush in 1858, site of northern Colorado's fourth town of Arapahoe City. The bar had been mined intermittently since then with new and experimental mining technologies, and Reiling decided to use one of a whole new caliber. The gold dredge, invented in the 1890s, was a barge which bucket lines that would scoop the river bank and sift out the gold. Soon Reiling had twin gold dredges being built on each shore of the river.

"Well, I like Golden all right, but you might stay here twenty years and never see a steamboat coming up Clear Creek!" were the words that came to Colorado Transcript editor George West's mind when he took the first photo of the gold dredge Eleanor #1 in 1904. This sight was the yearning of West's friend, Italian immigrant hotelkeeper Charles Garbareno, who had earlier lived in St. Louis and saw many a grand riverboat there. Now, 19 years after his death and one year short of his prediction, West knew how his friend's longings had been fulfilled.

These dredges were unlike anything Goldenites had seen before. Each measured 118x42 feet, with a line that featured 75 buckets with razor sharp edges, with capacity of 7 cubic feet per bucket, weighing 1,200 pounds apiece. Each was capable of dredging 3,000 cubic yards of earth per 24 hours. Their machinery came from the Bucyrus Company of South Milwaukee, Wisconsin, powered by electricity strung out from Denver via Welchester, among the first electrically powered dredges in existence. On August 4, 1904, Eleanor #2 was christened with a champagne bottle smashed across her bow, and on August 9th Eleanor #1 was christened herself.

The sisters had quite a competitive spirit, quickly charging up each side of Clear Creek to keep pace with the other. Eleanor #1, on the south side, made more money than Eleanor #2, on the north side, and captured more of the limelight, showing up in an extensive feature offered by the Denver Post. This may be because Eleanor #1 was nearer the tramway line, which named a stop of its own after the twin ladies on the river. Many people came out to visit and tour the Eleanors, coming away suitably impressed. Except maybe one gentleman, who accidentally fell overboard at Eleanor #1, requiring 3 men and a horse to pull him out of the pond!

Superintendent Charles Finding, an earlier hydraulic miner of Arapahoe Bar, placed one of the dredges in charge of William H. Gay, an experienced Blue River miner who earlier managed the Church Brick Works at Golden. Millions of dollars worth of fine flour gold beckoned them from Clear Creek, where where the black sands were "lousy with gold" as editor Oscar Webb Garrison of the Golden Globe put it. These sands deep beneath the river assayed for $400 to the ton, and each dredge was estimated to yield $3 to $5 per cubic yard in a day's work. However, these sands held a curse: much of the gold was too fine for the dredge machinery to save all of it.

Nevertheless, the Eleanors' keepers persevered, and in the next few years acres and acres of Clear Creek bottomland were turned upside-down, inside-out in the search for gold. A prospecting drill went ahead of the dredges to help steer them in the directions they needed to go. However, while Eleanor was good for the area economy at a time in the post Silver Crash era when it really needed it, the price was indeed considerable. Editor Garrison put things in perspective: "The dredges down at Placer are at work gobbling up everything in front and spoiling everything behind, like a goose."

Each Eleanor was indeed quite goose-like; not only did she eat a lot and leave waste behind, she floated on the water and even had two metal "legs" to anchor her from moving freely in the water. As Eleanor or her twin moved forward, one "leg" was taken up, while the other was lowered down, ensuring that the soil-scooping bucket lines could stay on target. The gobbling geese of Clear Creek did have one thing backwards, though; what appears to be the tall head of the dredge, the gantry, is actually the tail, while what looks like the tail is actually the head, a stout metal framework that could suspend the heavy bucket lines over and into the river bed in front of the dredge.

How do you tell the sisters apart? One way you can tell is by how close the dredge is to the bench land overlooking Arapahoe Bar in the photos. But if you didn't have that visual aid, there is another small way to be able to tell the twins apart. Like human identical twins, there is still a subtle physical difference between them: a couple windows were closer together on one than the other.

From a modern point of view each Eleanor could seem a menace to be locked up, a destructive lady whose insatiable appetite for gold turned Clear Creek into an ecological disaster area. Such as it was; the river had long since been rendered lifeless by the mines upstream, so the idea never occurred to anyone. Regardless, Fairmount area farmers saw what the dredges were doing to the bottomland, and when the dredge company's $16,000 option on the land of Paris Lewis came up for renewal, he refused to renew it. This earned Garrison's public praise, saying "We believe he is correct as the soil is rich and will produce good crops for a century while one month's dredging would make it a howling wilderness." However, Lewis's old farm couldn't keep geese away forever; today it's home to a flock of Galloping Geese, the automobile rail riders of the Colorado Railroad Museum.

Although each dredge cost $80,000 to build and were state of the art, that did not necessary mean they always operated smoothly. Their machinery was complex, and occasional breakdowns could stretch out for weeks. In the end, although they made money at Golden, they were not meant to make some wages; they were meant to make their owners a fortune, and the time had not yet come where the technology was advanced enough to save the maddeningly elusive gold. So, Reiling (pronounced "rye-ling") dismantled Eleanor #2 in 1907, and took her to the American River at Sacramento, California, where the fate of the dredge remains uncertain. Eleanor #1 he dismantled in 1908, and took her to promising new bars of coarser gold at French Gulch, near Breckenridge. Reiling, who'd hired Golden carpenters to originally assemble it out of old growth lumber, hired them again to reassemble the dredge, in a slightly modified form, and the heavy fir timbers came back together in 1909. For 20 years after the Reiling Dredge as it was now known, made its owners dreams come true, churning up millions from the gulch bottomlands. Its career finally came to an end in 1929 when the dredge encountered worthless gravels on the south side of the gulch. The company took out its machinery, and left it there in its pond where it stopped.

Today, Eleanor yet lives at her adopted home in the high country, among the fields of cobblestone dunes she churned up. The dredge is now a picturesque rustic ruin unexpectedly high up the south slope of French Gulch, 3 miles north of Breckenridge up Colorado 9, 5 miles southeast up French Gulch road. It has partially sank, with many pieces of its hull scattered around it beneath the water, and other pieces, cables and more strewn about. The tall gantry tailframe stood until the turn of the 21st Century, when it was finally felled by a strike of lightning. But soon it and the dredge will rise again. Recently the Town of Breckenridge and Summit County jointly purchased it and surrounding lands as open space, and aim to stabilize, partly restore, and even float the dredge again. The largest portable piece of Golden history will be able to welcome visitors aboard again.

The Reiling Dredge holds a unique place in Colorado history, not only being among the few remaining gold dredges in Colorado, but also the only one to work both sides of the Continental Divide. It is of major significance to the histories of both Jefferson and Summit Counties, and both value highly the preservation of this relic that has played a colorful role in both of their histories.
The Reiling Dredge, in French Gulch above Breckenridge, with me aboard, taken September 6th, 102 years after its launch on Clear Creek near Golden.
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