The coal storage silo at the Oxbow Mine got taken down Friday morning, marking the end of an era and, some said, a way of life.
Shortly after 9:30 a.m. the silo, built in 1969 in the heart of Somerset, collapsed with a thunderous boom and a dense cloud of coal dust after 300 pounds of dynamite demolished the structure.
Gunnison County Sheriffs were on hand for traffic control and local fire departments provided three engines if necessary. Highway 133 was closed at both ends of Somerset during the demolition, which in all took about 10 minutes.
Bringing down the silo was just one of the final steps in a long process of closing and reclaiming the mine.
"The demolition and the reclamation has been taking place since last Fall," Oxbow Mining President Mike Ludlow said. "Once all of the coal-handling facilities have been removed, we'll reclaim the topography. We'll put it back to approximate original contour, topsoil and seed it. All the coal that you see here will be removed and buried onsite."
As reclamation efforts continue, part of the mine complex will remain as an industrial site. Oxbow has permission to leave the office building and warehouse as well as shop buildings that are still being used.
"And our coal mine methane facility that's generating electricity up here above us will stay," Ludlow said. "So that's permitted to stay also."
As the mine's physical skeleton slowly gets dismantled piece by piece, so too is a skeleton crew of workers left behind to complete the closure.
"We have four employees with Oxbow right now," Ludlow said. "And it's varied from four to 15 contractors onsite to do the demolition and the removal of the coal-handling facilities."
In the last three years, Ludlow said, he has seen the number of coal miners in the North Fork Valley go from over 1,000 to less than 300 now.
"I think that there's always been a little bit of hope that the mining in the valley would come back," Ludlow said. "But our reserves were almost completely depleted here."
In the end, the rapidly declining market for coal all around the world signaled the end of the Oxbow era in Somerset.
"The market for coal is so poor right now and the outlook for the next few years is so poor we decided to go ahead and close this mine permanently and reclaim it," Ludlow said.
Oxbow continues to have interest in exploring and drilling around the Oak Mesa area north of Hotchkiss. Those reserves are Federally owned and would require a lease.
"There is mine-able coal north of Hotchkiss," Ludlow said. "If the market turns around, we could look at opportunities at Oak Mesa or other reserves within Colorado or the western United States."
The seventh annual Eckert Crane Days, the annual viewing of the sandhill cranes migrating north from New Mexico through Colorado's West Slope, will be March 16-18. Representatives from the Black Canyon Chapter of the Audubon Society (BCAS) will be at the viewing site east of Eckert at Fruitgrowers Reservoir, 9 to 11 a.m. each day, to answer questions and provide binoculars and spotting scopes.