The race to preserve the historic Crystal Mill in the Elk Mountains near Aspen is on. A foundation is trying to raise $10 million to save it. (Crystal Mill Foundation)
The Crystal Mill, a beautiful relic of Colorado’s colorful mining past, has stood crazily on a rock outcrop above the Crystal River in the Elk mountains since 1893. But after withstanding more than a century of harsh winters in a rugged, remote setting near the ghost town of Crystal, its days may be numbered.
Historic preservation efforts to save the structure through the intervention of a non-profit foundation are underway, but Crystal Mill Foundation president Heather Leigh said $10 million must be raised by next June to purchase it from the private family that owns it and secure its future, otherwise the owners are likely to sell it.
“We really believe that making it a non-profit and putting it in a place where it is preserved and protected for the next century will help get it into the right place, and we have a very small window to do it,” Leigh said. “We have to get this done within the next year, or it rolls back to the family and they will sell it to the highest bidder. If you’re a billionaire and you want a quiet retreat place to go, you (can) knock down the mill and no one will ever come on that road again.”
That’s because it’s not easy to get to the Crystal Mill, which is 6 miles west of Marble. The last 4 miles is on an extremely rugged road, making it a destination mostly limited to hikers, mountain bikers and 4×4 vehicles.
But it’s only 17 miles southwest from Aspen as the crow flies — a few minutes by helicopter — so Leigh fears it would be an attractive property to a billionaire wanting to demolish the mill to discourage visitors and build a home nearby. That’s why Leigh spent a year setting up the non-profit foundation to save it so visitors can continue to make the trip.
“It looks fake,” Leigh said. “It looks like a Hollywood movie set façade, out in the middle of nowhere. You think you’re never going to see it, you’re never going to find it, and then there she is. She is sitting up on this precipice of a rock outcrop, this silent majestic symbol of the American West, of Colorado and the determination of people when they set their mind to something. I think that’s what brings people back.”
Despite its name, it wasn’t actually a mill. It was built beside a dam with a water-wheel turbine to operate an air compressor that served mines in the area. It closed in 1917.
At its peak, the town of Crystal was home to more than 600, but now there are only six residents, all of them summer-only.
The foundation’s website has letters of support from several entities supporting preservation, including White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams, Colorado Preservation Inc. director Kim Grant and Aspen Valley Land Trust executive director Suzanne Stephens.
Leigh said $5 million is needed to acquire the property, while another $5 million will be needed to install toilets, provide a source of drinking water and restore a series of steps from the structure down to the river below.
“We need to be halfway there by December, or the family is probably going to list the property for sale,” Leigh said. “We have to have the $10 million before June of 2021 or they get it back. The race is on.”
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