Colorado’s Marble Motherlode
In a deep canyon in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, there's an old mining town that once provided marble for some of America’s most famous memorials. It's now enjoying a new life—in both industry and the arts.
Written by DENISE MOSS
Photography by DENISE MOSS and TODD OPPENHEIMER
The cutoff into Marble from Colorado’s Highway 133 is a windy, wild, luxurious 6 miles that follow the Crystal River, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the state. Lining both sides of the river is a series of jagged mountains with snowy peaks topping 14,000 feet. This geography has created a deep canyon that encourages long days of sun, which yield lush aspens and meadows painting the earth green all summer and the sky gold in September. As I drive the narrow road that leads into Marble, there is no population number on the traditional town entrance sign, just the elevation: 7,950. There has been too much boom and bust over the last century for the head count to matter.
When the town of Marble was founded, in 1889, it got its name, not surprisingly, from the marble that still threads through these mountains like a motherlode of white gold. This stone, which has an uncommonly pristine purity, has drawn waves of high-mountain explorers over the years. Many of those newcomers were Italian immigrants whose names and spirits are now hidden in the wild grasses that cover the town’s hillside cemetery. Marble’s economy has seesawed so much over the last century, it has left a patchwork of mill remnants, refurbished historical buildings, and new vacation homes; towering above on both sides are steep, rocky slopes, blanketed in conifers and aspens. Just down the road are a popular BBQ joint, the community church (circa 1908), two art galleries, a town museum, a K-8 charter school, and an increasingly well-known marble sculpting symposium that’s held here every summer.
As in any town, however, there are people who are at home in all of these domains, and can explain the bridges, or the conflicts, between the subcultures that form around them. Marble’s locals told me about one such man, an eclectic sculptor named Greg Tonozzi, known in the Crystal Valley as “Mr. Marble.” So I went looking for him.
During my next visit to Marble, I wander, unannounced, onto Tonozzi’s property, a sloped, wooded chunk of land sandwiched between the main road and the river. Walking down the driveway, I immediately notice one marble sculpture after another, some incomplete, some beautifully refined, scattered among large clusters of raw, lily-white stone. Along a rock wall, next to an abstract, 6-foot twist of stone, there’s a marble arm, polished and precisely carved, the fingers on its hand slightly curved.
In one corner of the yard is a white tent that appears to be Tonozzi’s shop. Its entry flap partially hides a woodstove, a sort of crystalline carpet, and benches stacked with myriad dust-covered tools. Inside the tent is a woman’s torso, her head thrown back, rough strands of marble hair reaching down her smooth back.
I head back to the dirt driveway and walk past a pickup truck, which is missing a tail gate and hosts too many dents on its bumper. A stone picnic table is tucked under spruce boughs. Hummingbird feeders are numerous and well used. At the end of the driveway, amidst an array of mechanical odds and ends, are two Airstream trailers, both so small I’m unsure if they’re actually livable. Hoping I am wrong, I tap, with some trepidation, on one of the trailer’s windows.
When Tonozzi comes to the door, I feel like I’ve met the mad hobbit: glittering eyes, unruly white curls on a stocky build, and a face with obvious enthusiasm for conversation. Tonozzi is wearing a white, button-down shirt, which seems a bit out of context in a world of forest and stone, but perhaps not in Tonozzi’s corner. Peering past him, I notice a sculpted hand in the trailer’s kitchen sink, and books stacked everywhere.
Tonozzi tells me that he first came to Marble in the early 1970s to visit his parents after they had moved here from the Midwest. After taking a class from a local sculptor (Frank Olsen), he became infatuated by the area’s pure white marble; so, he says, he “started coming here to steal large chunks of it.” There’s a brief mention of the sheriff always watching for him, but I let that one pass. In 1984, he finally bought this piece of land, which sits next to the town’s abandoned railroad line, because so much marble had been dumped here “free to carve.” As we survey the piles of white stone that still sit on the riverbanks, it’s clear that he knows each block intimately for its flaws as well as its potential.
One piece sitting in the tall grass—a large, perfectly-curved stone—catches my attention. When I ask about it, Tonozzi explains that it’s one of many pieces strewn on his property that are leftovers from making the Lincoln Memorial. In 1922, when the memorial was constructed, along the lines of Greece’s famous Parthenon, the builders turned to Marble to find material for the memorial’s façade, upper steps, and columns. Those columns were cut out of marble blocks, a process that left behind a collection of white stone curls like this one. “I want to carve one of Obama’s quotes in this piece and donate it to his library,” Tonozzi says.
The sparkly white marble in these mountains, with its homogenous texture, is only found here, in Yule Creek Basin, which lies above the town of Marble. Those luminous qualities, which have granted this stone its own name (Yule Marble), come from its chemical composition: 99.5 percent calcite. Some 350 million years ago, shells and bones from an inland sea that covered most of what is now central Colorado began to decompose, creating a thick bed of limestone. Known as the Leadville Limestone, this relatively soft stone took 35 million years to form; this is why hikers often find fossilized shells at 10,000 feet. When periods of uplift and erosion ensued, the sea drained into streams and rivers, leaving behind a drying bed of rock.
Some 300 million years later, a dome of magma pushed up massive layers of rock and limestone. In the process, the magma super-heated and compressed the limestone, recrystallizing it into glistening white marble, and tilting the entire stone bed into what is now Colorado’s Elk Mountain Range. Although the Leadville Limestone deposits cover hundreds of square miles, the only marble in the region is here, in the Yule Creek Valley. The white vein constitutes a three-mile-long seam of glittering stone 300 feet thick, which today is being quarried, below ground, at 9,500 feet above sea level. The magma that was left behind from this process (called “contact metamorphosis”) solidified into some of Colorado’s most magnificent granite peaks.
In the late 1800s, when European explorers realized there was marble in this valley, it failed to interest businessmen and entrepreneurs. Several decades later, gold and silver miners finally took some notice, but were still uncertain that all this white rock could ever become useful. The convoluted and constant transfer of mining leases, combined with the difficulty of mining at a high elevation in a remote corner of the Rockies, meant that investors came and went for years without success. Finally, in 1906, a railroad reached Marble from the neighboring coal-mining community of Redstone, and a tramway was built to transfer the multi-ton blocks from the mine to the valley floor. On its way down Marble’s steep roads, the tramway occasionally got out of control, sometimes tipping over or tossing miners to their deaths.
Soon, both the mine and the town grew, peaking in the decade prior to the First World War with a population of 1,500. During those years, hundreds of skilled laborers arrived from Italy—where marble quarrying techniques had been refined for generations, primarily in Carrara, home of the famed marble that Michelangelo used for his sculptures.
Then came The Great War, and the marble market collapsed as Italians were called home to join their country’s forces. The vibrant mountain town, which had begun to buzz with churches, a movie theater, five general stores, two hotels, two pool halls, two newspapers, six saloons, a schoolhouse, and a bootlegger (during its dry phase), nearly emptied. By 1918, just 50 people remained.
Over the following decades, the mine intermittently floundered and succeeded, though on a smaller scale. (During periods of success, Yule Marble helped build a variety of state capitol buildings; and, in 1930, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.) Then, in the 1940s, the mine shut down completely when materials that miners needed, such as metal and railroad ties, were turned into scrap for the Second World War. After that war, the East Coast market for marble, where quality had long mattered more than cost, never revived. Yule Marble was simply too far away, and by then building technologies had advanced toward stone veneers and glass skyscrapers.
Today, the town of Marble is a mere shell of its former self. Its Main Street is a rutted dirt road surrounded by a few rotting, timbered buildings (including the former jail) that intermingle with a scattering of new vacation homes. Down by the river, the remains of the mill loom like Roman ruins. Huge marble walls that once housed a vibrant immigrant community are yellowed and crumbling, offering little more than hideouts for marmots, foxes, and deer. Near town, the riverbeds of Yule Creek and the Crystal River are tiled with marble chips, as if they were the palace floors for mountain gods, shining through liquid glass. Multiton marble blocks, the discarded slag from a century of mining, border the riverbeds, forming white boulder fields along the upward climb toward the mine, through Yule Creek Valley.
Until 2011, when the mine was purchased by RED Graniti, an Italian mining company based in Carrara, you could hike past the road’s end to boulder hop and peer into one of the ghostly caverns. Looking in from above, you could feel the cavern’s cold, wet air exhaling into the narrow valley. Over the years, miners and adventurers on rope slings carved their names into the soft stone. An array of immigrant names from the 1910s and ‘20s still make their own mosaics across the veined walls. On one wall, someone wrote “I like Ike”—a relic, no doubt, from one of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential campaigns in the 1950s. That cavern, or gallery, known as “Little Italy,” has since been filled in for safety reasons.
In the early days of marble quarries, blasting was common. To cut the stone into blocks, miners used twisted steel wires. Now, they avoid blasting and use diamond wire saws and 13-foot diamond-blade chainsaws—faster, more precise, less waste.
As with mining operations for any material—iron, coal, precious metals, and so on—what’s inaccessible today can become very accessible tomorrow, once someone develops new methods of extraction. One of those new methods is called “dropping the ceiling.” This is done when a gallery’s usable marble has been extracted, and all that remains is the ceiling, which is also the floor of the gallery above. To avoid leaving all that gorgeous marble behind, RED Graniti’s miners slice up the ceiling into oblong blocks that can be 30 feet long. As the blocks fall onto the floor below, they generally topple over without cracking, thanks to a bed of gravel that cushions the stone as it falls. “I’ve seen them drop 5,000-ton rocks out of the ceiling,” Tonozzi told me one day. “And by the way, only the Italians can make those kinds of cuts.” He taps his table to accentuate this statement. [You can watch RED Graniti’s workers pull this off in our accompanying video, “Miners ‘drop the ceiling’ in Marble, Colorado”.]
RED Graniti’s redevelopment of Marble’s mines is being led by two mining veterans: Jean St-Onge, a French Canadian who is the operation’s general manager; and Stefano Mazzucchelli, an Italian quarry master with 40 years in the business. “It takes finesse and the experience of living it and doing it, as well as understanding the sequencing, to become an expert in marble mining,” St-Onge says.
At the company’s current extraction rates, roughly 5,000 tons a month, St-Onge estimates there’s enough marble left in the Yule Creek deposit to sustain another 65 to 100 years of mining. Cutting that much stone requires a lot of water to keep the miners’ saws cool—a challenge with obvious environmental implications. However, St-Onge points out, “We do not pull water from Yule Creek. Instead, we use the water at the bottom of older galleries that have been flooded, which act like basins or tanks.” That water is then pumped up to higher levels and reused. “There is a natural process of rain [and] snowmelt water seeping through the marble bed to act as a water supply.”
Despite all these advances, there is no technology, so far, that can help with what might be this mine’s greatest challenge: location. Its remoteness, its elevation (10,000 feet), the harsh winters—these are all factors that create challenges not seen at other marble mines. As but one example, the road to the mine, which winds sharply, is sandwiched between the creek bed and miles of steep mountains. Swaths of downed trees, like a giant’s game of Pick Up Sticks, offer vivid illustrations of the damage that powerful avalanches cause in the Rockies. To protect workers as best as it can, RED Graniti equips all its vehicles with avalanche transponders; the company’s crews also get avalanche emergency training every year. But those measures can only go so far. When big storms hit around here, even the locals don’t venture up or down these roads.
During one of my visits to Marble, just before I entered town, I hear the high-pitched whines of machines on stone, and the noise seems to be coming from somewhere near the river. After following the sounds down a steep, dirt road, I come upon a collection of pop-up tents scattered through the woods. Sculptors, covered in white dust, traipse along narrow paths as they head to workshops, the outdoor kitchen, or to visit each other. All around them, the air glistens with crystalline, gossamer clouds. It feels like another planet, eerie and full of exhilarated, ghostly souls. This, I soon learn, is the town’s annual Marble/marble Symposium—a series of three resident workshops, each of which span eight very full days every summer. The symposium was launched in 1989 by Tonozzi, in partnership two fellow sculptors and another Colorado artist, Madeleine Weiner, who is still the symposium’s director and driving force. [See Marble’s Mountain Workshop, our sidebar on the Marble/marble Symposium.]
The symposium has brought some fresh energy to the community, which is palpable to people like Mario Villalobos. Forty years ago, Villalobos landed in Marble (population at the time: 16), after leaving “hell,” his reference for his hometown in the upper Midwest. “I was on my way to work on the Alaska pipeline with a friend,” he says. “We stopped here, and I never left.” Villalobos owns The Marble Gallery, a small, modernish building that showcases the work of many of the sculptors from the symposium.
As we chat about the evolution of the town’s mine, he muses about changes that the original miners would never have dreamt of. In 1906, life and work here was just about survival. There were no trees on the mountainsides like there are today—the miners had cut them all down for houses, firewood, and to build the mill. Everyone knew the stone here was valuable, but the concept of an average person learning to sculpt, or that works of marble could create such a vibrant local art community, was not in the 1900s’ lexicon. Marble was a surface, a building block, the floor in a miner’s log cabin, a provider. And, for a while, it gave those hardy souls a town to live in.
At the moment, Marble is in another boom phase, and it’s difficult to determine if locals are happy about it. Every summer, tourists flood the town. There are long lines at Slow Groovin’, Marble’s to-die-for barbeque joint, and a constant string of ATVs heading into Lead King Basin, disturbing the tranquility of the White River National Forest. During the summer, The Inn at Raspberry Ridge, one of the few lodgings still operating, houses sculptors trying not to leave white footprints on the carpets. As the sculptors and tourists come and go, the schoolhouse and antique church maintain a quiet but sufficient persistence for the town’s 133 year-round residents.
During the symposium, even amidst the noise and dust, there seems to be a sense of peace. A century of mining has left its mark on the craftspeople, creek beds, and an eclectic town tucked among towering mountains and random blocks of crystal stone.
As I come off the road from the mill site ruins into the symposium, I see a doe and fawn a few feet into the brush. Neither one is afraid of me—the machinery used today to carve stone seems to create a background noise that the deer have gotten used to. A marmot is peeking out from between marble slabs near the tool tent, and a sculptor tells me that a female fox has stolen a shoe maquette, and is regularly attending the morning workshops. It’s as though the crystallized air has a kind of magic that even the animals have come to appreciate.