Vapor Cave Quest Is Gaining Steam
Century-old Mine May Harbor Treasure
|by Patrick O'Driscoll
Denver Post Staff Writer - 1993
CARBONDALE – The hole in the hillside was hardly big enough for a man’s fist, but the steam wafting up mysteriously
from within was hard to miss. “I finally came to the one with heat,” Robert Congdon remembers thinking that winter
day about four years ago.
Guided by a page he had read in a book about Colorado caverns, the Glenwood Springs man had tramped around the
Crystal River Valley south of Carbondale for 10 years, looking for a set of long-lost “vapor caves” – natural,
subterranean steam baths said to rival Glenwood’s famous Yampah Vapor Caves.
The wisp of steam led to a century-old mine portal. Beyond lay a long-abandoned tunnel, unexpectedly warm and humid.
At the end of one branch of the tunnel, a vein of silver-bearing ore mysteriously disappeared into a deep hole
that 19th-century prospectors apparently had filled in with rock rubble.
“It’s got to be it. It’s very unusual for miners to stop following a vein,” says Congdon, who believes they backfilled
the hole to keep down the heat from the vapor caves so they could continue working the mine. Now Congdon is slowly
digging out the hole to see if it leads to the elusive caverns. He believes he’s really close right now.
So does Nick Petmezas, a veteran Glenwood Springs spelunker who has visited Congdon’s hard-to-get-to find. Jumping
and stomping on the mine shaft’s dirt floor, he told Congdon that it sounded “hollow,” a tantalizing sign that
the caves may lie below. “That mine of his is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen,” gushed Petmezas.
He said its crystalline formations and growths are “really unusual for just 100 years,” a short time for such features
to form inside the tunnel.
Congdon, 39, came to Colorado’s Western Slope in 1978 as a young coal miner. That occupation played out as most
of the mines closed. But his interest in the area’s geology grew, even as he turned to non-mining work to make
While reading the book “Caves of Colorado,” he was hooked by the tale of vapor caves south of Carbondale, discovered
in 1899 by miners blasting a tunnel not far from the Crystal River Railroad, whose tracks paralleled the trout
Congdon and his brother bought a set of lapsed mining claims in a promising spot, not far from Penny Hot Springs,
a thermal outlet in the river near Redstone.
After seeing the plume of steam, Congdon returned whenever he could, packing picks and shovels on a four-hour hike
over a mountain behind the mine because a riverside landowner wouldn’t give permission to cross his bridge on the
Crystal. On the far bank, the mine’s boulder-strewn access road still zig-zags uphill to the mine and other abandoned
Congdon eventually dug out the mine portal and crawled through. He found the temperature inside was unusually warm
for a cave or tunnel – nearly 80 degrees – another sign he may be close.
At the end of the tunnel were finger-like young stalactites on the ceiling, a white calcium flowstone wall and
gypsum needle crystals. They were geological suggestions that Congdon might be near the vapor caves, which had
first been described in a March 15, 1899 article in the now-defunct Denver Times:
”The caves are five in number, one being very large, all of them filled with magnificent crystals and the walls
hanging thick with stalagmites and stalactites, producing a beautiful and entrancing effect, rivaling in their
splendor anything yet discovered in this part of Colorado.”
The account said steam and “noxious gases in great volumes” poured from the opening when the first miners accidentally
blasted into the vapor caves. Congdon suspects that miners eventually re-sealed the vapor-cave entrance and dug
around it to continue their search for silver, copper, zinc and other ore.
He said a friend with air-testing equipment checked the mine to make sure it was safe. But when Congdon breaks
through to the vapor caves, “if we get any hissing or pressure, we’re going to get out real quick.”
Congdon doesn’t know what he’ll do if he finds the lost caves. He meets later this month with a new riverfront
landowner in hopes of negotiating bridge access so he can use the proper equipment to excavate and explore. But
he hasn’t considered yet whether the caverns could ever be developed like the Glenwood Springs caves, where healing
and rejuvenating properties
made them a Ute Indian “spa” for centuries before European-Americans came to Colorado.
For now, friends and eager spelunkers such as Petmezas have begun to trek in with Congdon on weekends to pick away
at his dream. “We’re all excited, like little kids,” said Petmezas. “We have the potential to be the first people
in there in 100 years.”
The century-old Denver Times account said the Crystal River Railroad intended to develop the caverns as a tourist
stop, with a large bathhouse, swimming pool and a “modern and commodious hotel.” For reasons unknown, it never
Copyright (c) 1993 Denver Post
Vapor Trail Leads to Caves Lost For
|by Steve Lipsher
Denver Post Staff Writer - March 15, 1998
CARBONDALE – For 15 years now, Robert Congdon has been chasing a ghost. Like one of those old sourdoughs from the
1800s, he spent his time mining with pick and shovel, digging for a treasure so ethereal that it vanishes when
brought out to the open.
For 15 years now, Congdon has followed wisps of steam, pursuing one dead end after another in search of the “lost
vapor caves” of Pitkin County mentioned in an 1890s newspaper article.
Now, he believes he has finally uncorked a genie of fog that promises to thrill scientists and tourists alike if
it withstands the heat of the debate over the use of public lands.
“I’ve probably explored over 75 mines in our area,” Congdon said last week, barely able to contain his excitement.
“You dig and dig just for the thrill of the search, and then, finally, you hit something like this.”
In a shallow draw on the shadow of Mount Sopris, Congdon dug through 6 feet of backfilled rock and burst into a
mine untouched for at least 80 years. “When I broke through, big whiffs of steam hit me in the face. I had to let
it cool for about a day before I could go inside.”
Joined by partner – and future brother-in-law – Nick Kuhlmann, Congdon followed the old passage south into the
hillside where he believes he’s on top of a set of subterranean steam baths said to rival Glenwood’s famous Yampah
“There’s been a lot of people looking for this over the years. Some people in Aspen even hired a psychic to look
for it,” he said. “We think we’ve found it.”
Congdon envisions some type of offbeat tourist attraction that would combine the delights of a hot spa with educating
visitors about mining history and geology. He would like to build a yurt-style hut near the entrance as a staging
area and offer guided tours through the mines.
Less than receptive
Not since the mines are in the White River National Forest, he would need to get a special-use permit like those
granted to ski areas and will have to defuse private landowners along the Crystal River who have been less than
receptive to interlopers.
“We’re still a long way off,” Congdon conceded. Although he’s broached the subject with assistant district ranger
Gary Osier, the plans remain as elusive as billows of steam.
“Whether or not that will be approved, I can’t even begin to tell you because I don’t know what he wants to do,”
Osier said. “Plus, we’re in the midst of a forest-plan revision, so we don’t even know whether this fits in with
the way the forest will be managed.”
In 1899, the Denver Times wrote about five caves “filled with magnificent crystals … the walls hanging thick with
stalagmites and stalactites, producing a beautiful and entrancing effect, rivaling the splendor anything yet discovered
in this part of Colorado.”
But apparently more interested in valuable ore than unbearable heat, the miners sealed up the hole and left no
indication of its location. Over the years, Congdon claimed the rights to about 20 mines in the area and, one by
one, reopened them in search of the vapor caves. In 1989, he knew he had gotten close, striking the first in a
chain of increasingly hot mines.
“I was walking past here about eight years ago, and there was this little wisp of steam coming up by this bush,”
Congdon said, pulling back a tarpaulin to reveal a 3-foot hole in the hillside.
A splash of warm, moist air surged out into the single-digit night air, condensing in a cloud of steam. At 7,800
feet, the expected temperature in the mines would be about 45 degrees year round.
“Normally, a mine like this … would be unbearably cold,” Congdon said, stripping down to a T-shirt and crawling
into the fog. Illuminated by a miners’ headlamps, water droplets gleam like diamonds from the rough surface of
the ceiling. Then, as visitors’ eyes adjust to the darkness, they see a Technicolor array of frostlike aragonite
crystals and red ocher granite, lime-green copper paint and mud-brown baby stalactites. Soft gray clay, suitable
for modeling, fills pockets in the rock, and sprouts of rare gypsum “flowers” ooze from pinholes like toothpaste.
Minerals in zones
Each of the minerals coats the walls in different zones, according to where they precipitate out of the vapor as
it cools. Copper, for example, shows up almost exclusively near the entrance, the coolest part of the cave.
“We’ve basically created a cave out of a mine,” Congdon said. “I think the conditions here are just right to stimulate
Until a recent visit, he and Kuhlmann hadn’t been in the mine in a year, and they marveled at the phenomenal crystal
growth since their last trip – and the seemingly inexplicable lack of footprints in the thick, loamy sand that
coats the floor like ash.
“It’s like we’re walking on the moon,” Kuhlmann said, “I can’t believe there ’s no sign of us ever being in here.”
Congdon breathlessly compared new cauliflower like calcite crystals to “piles of cotton.”
“It grows like crazy. None of this was here when we were here a year ago. This is incredible! I’ve been in many
mines and never seen this kind of growth.”
As spectacular as that find was, it wasn’t until Congdon opened the next mine that he found what he was seeking.
Amid the creosote scent of old railroad ties, the level, uniform passage travels a couple of hundred feet south
before piercing a sinewy cavity – a sizable cave that blasts heat like an oven.
“What really amazes me is the amount and source of the heat,” Congdon said.
Common in Yellowstone
Gary Ohloeft, a geophysics professor at the Colorado School of Mines, said such hot spots occur commonly in places
such as Yellowstone National Park, where magma from deep inside the earth boils up through the crust.
The source of the heat in a lot of these cases are old, dying volcanoes or things that haven’t become volcanoes,”
The magma that wells up also carries heavy metals and other minerals, which eventually cool in the form of veins.
“That a vapor cave would be found where people had been mining is not surprising. The same processes that made
the ore … are the same processes that make the vapor caves.”
The early miners apparently turned back at the heat, sealing off the passage. It was up to Congdon and Kuhlmann
to decipher that as they dug through the backfill.
With his neatly trimmed goatee and round wire-rim glasses, Congdon appears more like a professor than a former
coal miner, and his quiet nature, appreciation of Western history and philosophical approach to his task lend to
“Is man a part of nature or not? Do we just look at nature and don’t touch, or do we interact?” Congdon mused while
considering whether his passion would stand the tests of environmental concerns. “I consider this more mining than
cave. It was mining that encountered the cave.”
Plunging into the darkness of the cave, Kuhlmann used a cotton rope for balance to negotiate a 25-foot makeshift
ladder – inch-wide wooden blocks nailed to a 2-by-6.
At the bottom, a 20-foot mine shaft climbs obliquely at a 35-degre angle, each foot along the way hotter than the
one before it, ultimately reaching a toasty 102 degrees.
“This right here is going to lead to a lot more secrets about this place,” Congdon said at the top of the shaft.
“We are going to follow the hard rock down, and we’ll hit another cave where all this heat is coming from.” From
this point on, Congdon said, he’d probe farther toward the heat only with the help of dynamite set off by remote
“You put a pick in the wrong place up here and it comes blowing out at 95 mph, well, you wouldn’t fare as well
as that bat,” Congdon said, pointing to one of several perfectly preserved dead bats.
Someday, he hopes to bring tourists to a unique attraction that may require them to travel by snowshoe or horseback.
“We want to give people a real sense of what it was like back then,” Congdon said. “It wasn’t glamorous.”
The miners were paid $2.50 a day and typically put in 12-hour days swinging sledges and hand drills.
“They were hard workers,” Congdon said. “But the cooks outside were paid more than the miners were because it was
harder to find good cooks.”
Most were lead mines
Active from the turn of the century through the World War I, most of the mines in the area churned out lead, which
was sent to the smelters in Aspen for silver production.
But after 80 years, just finding the old, sealed-up mines was a challenge that required Congdon to search old county
records and maps before tramping through the hills.
Some gave themselves away by their tailings piles, old abandoned equipment or depressions in the earth.
A 2-foot piece of protruding rail was the only thing that tipped off Congdon to the hot mine, one of a string of
holes pocking a gentle draw.
“A lot of the old miners then were pretty secretive,” he said.
Copyright (c) 1998 Denver Post