Efficiency was an essential part of Gilman’s longstanding commercial success as a company town. The company began buying and tearing down all the old cabins and by 1919, erected dozens of uniform houses placed in rows down the hill from the shaft house. These utilitarian houses, with black tar paper roofs and gray paint, were well insulated and had electricity and hot water. One early resident, Vesta Coursen, would later write:
“We had to come out to the wilds of Colorado to find modern improvements such as we had not enjoyed in the civilized East!”
The company maintained total ownership of Gilman, including the housing, school building, post office property, and all of the town’s retail space. The company built a two-story clubhouse, with a pool hall, basketball court, and library-lounge, that served as the hub for recreation. They also built a hospital, a general store, and a dormitory, and a mess hall which could accommodate 60 men.
The clubhouse often brought the whole community together for monthly dances, sing-a-longs, Hollywood movies, and holiday celebrations. Further entertainment was found during the winter when residents enjoyed sledding down the steep hillsides on cardboard, garbage can lids, coal shovels, and toboggans, sometimes all the way to the base of Battle Mountain. Skiing was introduced to the community by Scandinavian workers in the 1920s, long before the nearby ski resorts were founded. In these early days, the skiers utilized plain wooden skis without fancy boots or bindings and made poles with broomsticks rammed through coffee can lids. The residents also enjoyed the unspoiled wilderness around Gilman for hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping.
The company not only owned Gilman’s properties, it also organized many aspects of life for its residents. It controlled the school board by appointing members from its own ranks, screened Hollywood movies before they were shown in the clubhouse, and provided high-quality healthcare for all employees and their families.
Due to the precarious route over Battle Mountain to reach Gilman and Red Cliff from Leadville or Minturn, a new road over Battle Mountain was completed in January 1923. Following the old Kelly’s Toll Road, the job took two years and required the removal of 75,000 cubic yards of rock. It wasn’t until the winter of 1929-30, that the road was able to stay open. This route became Highway 24 and in 1929, it became open year-round, reducing the self-contained entertainment in Gilman. But, bigger factors would affect the town at about this time.
Zinc remained the economic mainstay until 1931 when low zinc prices forced the company to switch to mining copper and silver ores. In the midst of the Great Depression, most industrial mining virtually ceased in Colorado, but unlike similar mechanized mines, the Eagle Mine never closed. Though the company did lay off many single employees and cut the hours and wages of remaining workers, comparatively speaking, the Eagle Mine was quite successful during this time, producing 85 percent of Colorado’s copper and 65 percent of its silver. In 1933, the company recalled many of Gilman’s laid-off workers.
By 1936, Gilman had 85 company houses. This same year, yet another new road was built over Battle Mountain and in 1940, the Red Cliff Bridge was completed just east of Gilman, one of only two steel arch bridges within the entire state. Today, the bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Zinc production resumed in 1941 and remained the principal product of the Gilman mines. At this time, the town employed as many as 375 people and during World War II, miners were exempt from the military draft, because the zinc they mined was vital to the country’s war effort.
After World War II ended, Gilman’s clubhouse was enlarged and updated with a new dance floor, a modern kitchen, and a bowling alley – the only one in Eagle County.
In 1950, the Gilman mines were profitable and the town and its residents were stable, safe, and happy. However, for decades other hard rock and coal mining companies in Colorado and across the nation had earned a reputation for exploiting their employees, resulting in unionization and strikes. From
1915 to 1950, Gilman miners didn’t feel the need to unionize due to the company not having cut hours and wages during the Great Depression, the town’s longstanding social stability, and the company’s commitment to health and safety.
However, the Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers began to organize in Gilman and convinced most of the employees that the union meant better wages, health insurance, and improved working conditions. As a result, the Gilman workers approved the union organization, which not only caused strife between the workers and the mining company, but discontent between the miners themselves.
In the meantime, in 1951 alone, the company extracted some $12,000,000 in ore and the mining district became the richest and most successful in Eagle County. Although zinc was the main product, enough gold was still recovered to cover the mining expenses.
Demands for a new contract that included a ten-cent-an-hour raise and a separate health clinic with its own union doctor resulted in a brief strike in August 1854, which suffered internal conflict between the miners from the start. As many of the mill and surface workers did not want anything to do with the union or the strike, fights erupted within the first few days. In the end, the company agreed to a five-cent-an-hour raise, and the mine was running at full capacity again before the first snowfall.
But the idyllic community of Gilman would never be the same. Formerly friendly co-workers no longer talked to each other, tensions mounted between retail establishments that once provided a reliable system of credit with the miners, cracked down and demanded immediate payment, and the corporate paternalism was weakened.