Anvil Points mine: Decades of boom, bust |

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Anvil Points mine: Decades of boom, bust

When I first moved to the Rifle area I lived and worked on a cattle ranch 11 miles up West Divide Creek from Interstate 70. The only man-made light I could see from my porch at night was a tiny speck from a dusk-to-dawn light way up on the face of the Book Cliffs.

Later, I learned the light was, and still is, located at the opening of the massive Anvil Points mine that was the focal point of the oil shale boom of the late 1970s. Anyone who has lived here long enough knows the story of the great financial bust that crippled the area's economy for more than two decades when the gates to the mine were suddenly closed on May 2, 1982, known afterward as Black Sunday. However, the story of oil shale and the Anvil Points mine go back long before this.

Although the Ute tribes of the area were well aware of the "burning rock," it didn't take long before the earliest European settlers discovered its properties. Local legend has it that one man built his cabin west of Rifle and used the abundant black shale rock to construct the fireplace. Upon lighting the first fire the house burned down.

Oil had been produced from shale for a number of years in countries such as France and England, but America was going through its first great oil drilling boom in the late 1800s and early 1900s when scant attention was paid to the burning rock. It wasn't until the dawn of World War I and the U.S. Navy's conversion from coal to oil-fueled ships that it became a national interest to obtain a secure supply of oil.

According to the University of Colorado – Boulder's Center of the American West, President Woodrow Wilson withdrew from public domain 45,444 acres divided between two sites in Colorado and 86,584 acres across the border in Utah, designating the land as the naval oil shale reserve in 1916. This triggered the area's first boom with a stampede of speculators grabbing up all unsecured shale-bearing properties using antiquated mining laws. With no developed technology to convert the shale to oil, the speculators soon lost interest and left.

Realizing its mistake, Congress passed the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, which set a competitive bidding process to obtain a lease and then required royalty payments on the minerals extracted. The act also required the reclamation of the site. By 1922, 100 companies had formed to experiment with oil shale, but none came up with an economic way to extract the oil. By the Great Depression, they were gone.

In 1925 the Federal Bureau of Mines opened up an experimental mine and processing facility 11 miles west of Rifle on naval oil shale reserve land at Anvil Points. This adventure was short lived and closed the summer of 1929.

Interest in oil shale stayed dormant until 1944 when Congress passed the Synthetic Liquid Fuels Act authorizing federal demonstration facilities to produce synthetic fuels from coal, oil shale, biomass and anything else that might produce fuel. It was the height of World War II, citizens were on strict gas rationing and the government had to supply a massive war machine with dwindling supplies of gasoline, diesel and oil. The intent was to discover a method that would become commercially viable so the government could get out of the business.

The Bureau of Mines reactivated the Anvil Points experimental station in 1945. This time the money flowed into the project with an initial investment of $6 million. According to the book "Rifle Shots," "An entire complex for scientific study was erected under the shadow of Anvil Points; a village of prefabricated houses for living quarters of scientists and technical staff, huge retorts, laboratories, offices, and a depot and warehouse was built near the old Rulison railroad siding."

The crowning point was the construction of 5½ miles of switchback road rising 2,000 feet up the cliffs to the mine. This is the location of the 73-foot-thick Mahogany Ledge, the richest part of the shale cliffs. Before the road to the mine was built, the government hired local packers to move supplies by mule to the mine across the top of the Roan Plateau from Piceance Creek. Miners rode to work on horseback. A portable air compressor was pulled up the face of the cliffs by man and horsepower in the early summer of 1945. They needed compressed air to run the tools needed to start the mine.

Once the road to the mine was completed, the latest in heavy equipment and technology of the time was employed. With one scoop, an electric shovel could pick up 3 tons of shale and load it into a truck capable of hauling 15 tons. The Rifle mine, according to a May 1952 Department of the Interior report of the operation, produced and average of 148 tons of mined shale per man in an eight-hour workday. This was unprecedented at the time.

The mine itself became a set of huge caverns. The 1952 report said the mine ceiling ranged anywhere from 27 feet high to 73 feet high. In 1946, a test room of 50 feet wide and 100 feet long was opened to determine how large rooms could be made without danger of ceiling failure. The width was increased periodically by 10-foot intervals until it was 80 feet wide. Then the length was extended to 200 feet. In 1951, a slab of shale 20 inches thick fell from the ceiling crushing the electric shovel and air compressor. It was then concluded the underground rooms would be less than 80 feet wide.

The Anvil Points experimental plant also had a refinery, and usable oil, gasoline and diesel was produced on site. Diesel from Anvil Points was used to power a passenger train on a round trip between Denver and Salt Lake City, as well as the asphalt to pave many of Garfield County's roads. It also employed hundreds of Rifle area residents, one of which was Fred Hodge, an amateur photographer who took the photos of the plant seen with this article.

With all the success of the Anvil Points oil shale demonstration plant, the government project failed to attract any commercial interest in oil shale production, and in 1956 Congress suspended funding for the facility. The mine and facilities were then mothballed until the 1970s when the Arab oil embargo once again prompted the government to pump money into the project, this time through private enterprise. That will be a story for another time.