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Strange Structures – Howardsville, CO Quadrangle

Latitude: -107.609692
Longitude: 37.802494

As part of our amTopo map creation process, we import aerial imagery into our software to ensure roads, trails and other features can be accurately digitized. Sometimes we spot some pretty interesting things in the imagery, many which are clearly recognizable (Ancient Puebloan ruins, craters, flocks of sheep, etc.). Occasionally, we get stumped, however, as was the case when generating our Howardsville, Colorado 7.5 Minute topographic map.

Howardsville is located in the rugged San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, just east of Silverton, and rich in mining history. Abandoned mining structures and tailings are a common site along hiking trails and 4WD roads in the area, but while digitizing the Silver Lake Trail (formerly a mining road), we noticed several triangular objects that were unlike typical mine structures. These objects were all aligned in the same direction (uphill) and were casting shadows, implying they had some height to them.

Pointing the way to riches hidden in Arrastra Gulch? (Image courtesy of Google Maps )

After scouring the internet for some answers (we won’t discuss the lost productivity resulting from said search), we finally learned that what we were seeing are structures that were built by the miners to protect other structures from dangerous avalanches. These are commonly referred to as avalanche splitters or diverters.

Protection for an aerial tram tower (Image courtesy of FishPOET)

In the image above, you can see how the stone and metal splitter provided up-slope protection for an aerial tram used to bring ore from the mines down to the mill. In the event of an avalanche, the splitter would dissipate the slide’s energy and deflect snow to the sides and away from the tram tower. Even though the splitter itself is dome-shaped, when viewed from above you see its triangular form. These splitters were strategically constructed in treeless avalanche chutes where miners and their mining facilities were at greatest risk during winter.

For those of you who are fascinated with strange and curious sites as seen from space, check out Weird Google Earth – plenty of mystery, history and beauty out there!

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Procession Panel – Bluff SW, UT Quadrangle

Latitude: -109.647990
Longitude: 37.350706

My husband and I recently did some hiking and exploring in Comb Ridge with the objective of locating the extensive petroglyph display known as Procession Panel.  While not exactly a secret, locations of many Anasazi ruins and rock art sites throughout the Four Corners region are kept under wraps by history enthusiasts, public lands employees and scientists such as archaeologists, anthropologists and the likes for fear of vandalism and over-visitation that can cause permanent damage to such sites.  However, with a little research and some decent map-reading skills, most folks can figure out where some of the more significant sites are located.  (Most sites are located on public lands managed by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service.)  Increased public awareness efforts by officials are also doing much to enlighten visitors about how best to treat such fragile sites so that they may be preserved for generations to come.

Bluff SW, UT 7.5 Minute Quadrangle

Procession Panel is located in Comb Ridge, which is a unique geologic formation called a monocline that extends approximately 80 miles north-to-south across the Arizona and Utah border. Comprised of sedimentary layers (Navajo Sandstone on the eastern, gently sloped side, Wingate Sandstone forming the steep, western cliffs), this “hogback” is riddled with alcoves, springs and canyons.  The riparian Comb and Butler Washes paralleling the ridge on both sides provided water, game and edible and medicinal plants, making this region ideal for habitation by the Anasazi.

Believed to be rock art dating from the Basketmaker III period, which pre-dated the more famous Pueblo I, II, and III periods best known for their impressive cliff dwellings and pottery, Procession Panel depicts a scene of numerous (179 is one documented count) figures called anthropomorphs that appear to be marching from multiple directions towards a specific destination taking the form of a circle.  Zoomorphs are also present, and include several deer or elk, as well as a mountain sheep. At least two anthropomorphs have birds atop their heads, several are holding crooks, and many are holding up one arm carrying some type of object that resembles a torch (in some cases, these lines or objects look almost like fingers).   Some experts believe Procession Panel is a migration story, and quite likely there was significant spiritual meaning to some, if not all of the panel’s elements, although it is unlikely we will ever fully understand what the ancient artists intended.

Procession Panel

Aside from the impressive and mysterious rock art itself, the setting is perhaps equally gripping.  One can imagine the artist (or artists) working quietly as the sun set to the west.  Perhaps they were within signaling distance of other groups across the wash; perhaps they were teachers responsible for recording their culture’s history and enlightening the next generation.  Whatever the case, we are fortunate to have sites like Procession Panel still in existence and so accessible.

View of the La Sal Mountains to the northeast of Comb Ridge

If you have been inspired to visit sites such as Procession Panel, please remember to tread lightly and treat all rock art sites and ruins with respect so that others may enjoy them, too.  As the saying goes, “take only pictures and leave only footprints.”

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Kaibab Suspension Bridge – Phantom Ranch, AZ Quadrangle

Latitude: 36.1008
Longitude: -112.0891

Perhaps the most popular hiking destination in America, Phantom Ranch – situated along the Bright Angel Trail and the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park –has a vast human history in addition to being located in one of the most awe-inspiring natural settings.  The Kaibab Suspension Bridge, also called Black Bridge, is one of the more awe-inspiring man made features still present in the area.

The spot known today as Phantom Ranch was first called “Rust’s Camp” around the turn of the 20th century, but had been settled by Native Americans well before then.  David Rust was the first to establish a tourist trail from the North Rim to the inner canyon along Bright Angel Creek, terminating at a tent camp.  He was also the first to design a means by which visitors could cross the mighty Colorado River and continue up to the South Rim.  His first engineering feat, completed in 1907, was the construction of a cable tram across the river.  This tram could only accommodate a single mule or a few people at a time.  As visitation to the inner gorge increased, a wooden suspension bridge soon replaced the precarious cable tram, but high winds would cause the narrow bridge to sway heavily, sometimes flipping over, making it an equally harrowing crossing.  By 1928, the National Park Service decided it was necessary to construct the current steel cable suspension bridge.  At the time, this was the only bridge to cross the Colorado River upstream of Needles, California – some 360 river miles to the south.

Because no roads existed (then, or now), mules and men were needed to haul all of the construction materials down to the canyon floor.  Each of the 1-ton, 550-foot steel cables was too heavy to be hauled by mules.  Instead, they had to be uncoiled and stretched lengthwise atop the shoulders of 42 Havasupai Indians hiking single-file down nine miles of trail with a vertical descent of 4,000 feet.  This feat was repeated eight times in order to get all of the cable moved.

To this day, hikers are dazzled by the experience of emerging from the short, dark tunnels on either side of the bridge into the heart of the Grand Canyon with the Colorado River and its rafters rushing downstream, just 65 feet below.  The ability of visitors to cross from rim to rim has allowed for unrivaled back country experiences and the Kaibab Bridge remains a true engineering feat in such an extreme environment.

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Music Mountain – Weavers Needle, AZ Quadrangle

Latitude: 33.4552
Longitude: -111.3115

Having spent quite a bit of time hiking in the Superstition Wilderness, I’ve often wondered about the alluring name of this particular mountain, as well as nearby features, Music Canyon and Music Canyon Spring.  Located in the heart of the wilderness between the Red Tanks Trail on the west and Old Peter’s and Hoolie Bacon Trails to the east, Music Mountain is situated amongst some of the most spectacularly rugged yet beautiful Sonoran desert terrain.  Was the name’s inspiration some glorious turn-of-the-century orchestral work? Was it coined after listening to a particularly lovely babbling brook or native songbird?  Was a young Apache maiden overheard singing by a miner in search of treasure?  I assumed it was something joyous or romantic, but instead learned of a bit more mysterious and possibly even spooky origin.

After doing a little digging, I came across a great article written about Music Mountain by a local historian, Tom Kollenborn (January 2009).  In his article, he referenced an even earlier newspaper article that appeared in the Mesa Journal-Tribune back on August 13, 1928.  The article was the very first publication in which the name Music Mountain was recorded, and the name stuck.  The story goes something like this:

Ray Howland, a well-known “Lost Dutchman Goldmine” hunter and treasure seeker at the time, was the subject of the original Mesa Journal-Tribune article and described his discovery of “a musical mountain” while exploring the Superstitions.  Per Ray, “the air around Music Mountain is filled with a weird melodious sound that cannot be attributed to the wind whistling through the rocks because the sounds can be heard when the wind is not blowing at all.”

To quote Mr. Kollenborn, “Stories about how important Music Mountain is to Native Americans still circulate. The musical sounds that emanate from Music Canyon and its tributaries continue to produce stories about how sacred the area is to the Native Americans. Old timers talk about Apache burial grounds on Music Mountain and the haunting sounds of the dead. The Apaches and Yavapais gathered agave hearts on Peter’s Mesa just north of Music Mountain. Their roasting pits can still be found on Peter’s Mesa. Their activity in the area might well have warranted a burial site on a nearby mountain such as Music. Some years ago I was talking to an old friend, Phillip Cassadores, a traditional Apache medicine man on the San Carlos Reservation. He cautioned me not to be so sure these stories were not true. Ray Howland may have become involved with an unexplainable legend when he talked about the music and ghosts of Music Mountain.”

Other historians have claimed that the mountain was named for a local cattleman with the last name Music, but no documentation has ever been produced to support this theory.

Anyone who has ever hiked in the Superstitions can attest to the strange vibe that is sometimes felt within the wilderness.  Perhaps it is the depth and variety of lore and legend tied to the landscape.  Perhaps it the serene, yet edgy isolation one feels after hiking just a few miles in to such a rugged place.  Whatever the case, because the origin of Ray Howland’s name for the mountain remains somewhat mysterious to this day, it is a perfect fit for the mysterious and romantic place forever known as the Superstition Wilderness.