Volunteers working to preserve one of Colorado’s most photographed pieces of history

Al Johnson was there


It is one of the most iconic images of Colorado. The Crystal Mill is the centerpiece of numerous photogenic scenes that appear in photographs and paintings. And like so many buildings from a century ago, it is deteriorating. So a group of volunteers including some local engineers have tried to address the issue.

Matt Hutson, a project manager with SGM Engineering who used to live in Crested Butte and now lives in Salida, has had a connection with the owners of the mill for decades. They are longtime family friends. About 15 years ago, the owners had asked Hutson to become its caretaker.
“The Mill is owned by Treasure Mountain Ranch (TMR), a family owned business. My family has been friends with their family for over 40 years. TMR also owns most of the town of Crystal, including Al Johnson’s cabin,” Hutson explained. “There is always work to be done on the structure and SGM’s structural engineering team took an interest in the project and asked if they could help me out.”
Each year SGM selects a community service project or two to work on. However, the Crystal Mill has been a multi-year event for SGM. This year, most of the volunteer team from SGM came out of the Glenwood office to assist Hutson. On Sunday, August 11 eight SGM employees spent the day on a variety of projects. Repairs and maintenance were done on the Mill’s main structure, the gearhouse, and the penstock this year, among other items.
Hutson said that several projects have been completed over the last several years. “Last year’s project included coating the entire structure with a UV resistant wood preservative and the clearing of trees near the mill, which created a passive defensible fire space,” he said. “The mill had never had any sort of wood preservative applied prior to last year. The roof was replaced in 2009. This year’s work included sealing up the mill to prevent unauthorized entry, removing some additional trees adjacent to the building, and rip-rapping the concrete base of the penstock.”
This year the cost of materials came in at only about $100. SGM staff donates tools, chainsaws, rappelling gear, gas and oil.
It’s not all easy work for the volunteers. “Fortunately some of our guys are experienced rock climbers, and being able to rope off while working on the mill has been important these past two years. Our structural engineers are working on ways to ensure the stability of the penstock – the long wooden thing that goes down to the water. The penstock is very heavy and old,” Hutson explained. “SGM works one day per year, while myself and others do reconnaissance and measurements as needed at other times. I also do any repairs that may crop up in the interim.”
And being one of the most photographed sites in the state, those photographers sometimes show up during the workdays. “We see lots of photographers when we are working on the mill,” he said. “A lot of them aren’t very happy about it, but I figure we are preserving something for future generations of photographers. Mill work usually only consists of two days per year.”
As for a fall project in Crystal, Hutson said there is one on the schedule that would be close to the hearts of many Crested Butte telemark skiers. “We are planning to replace part of the rear wall of Al Johnson’s cabin in Crystal during September,” he promised.
Donations for the mill’s preservation can be made at the store in Crystal City, or by mail to: Treasure Mountain Ranch, Crystal City, CO 81623.

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