BOOK REVIEW: River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster


“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”
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In a single, well-written volume, Jonathan Thompson has masterfully woven together two thousand years of prehistory, history and environmental degradation in a book whose focus is the Animas River. With headwaters above Silverton, ultimately, the Animas flows into the San Juan River near Farmington, some 100 miles to the south. Thompson uses the river and its riparian corridor to place human history into ecological perspective while also telling poignant family and local stories.

            He combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years. Thompson follows in the footsteps of his writer/editor father, Sandy Thompson, who was a key force in the creation of Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and an effective voice in arguing for creation of the Weminuche Wilderness. Now in this carefully crafted first book, Jonathan has found his own book-length, literary voice, and a powerful voice it is.

            River of Lost Souls is eminently readable, careful in its chronology and well researched, though it could have used more endnotes to clearly delineate sources. Thompson now joins the ranks of local historians Allan Nossaman and Duane Smith, but he does so with an environmental understanding that is overdue. This is the first volume to analyze the multiple impacts of mining near Silverton from the 19th into the 21st century.

            An environmental journalist and editor with High Country News, and a former writer and publisher of the Silverton Standard, Thompson has produced that rare synthesis of science, history, legend and local lore that only a native son could write. I respect his ability to understand the complexities of the Gold King mine blow-out in 2015 and his mastery of  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean-up site criteria. I am enthralled by his character sketches, his vignettes of miners, editors, surveyors and significant events like the 1911 flood on the Animas, the 1918 Spanish Flu in Silverton, and the 1939 Silverton miners’ strike.

            It’s all here. Basketmaker Indians leaving thousands of butchered human bones at Ridges Basin. Ancestral Puebloan villages. Ute and Navajo occupations. And the arrival of pioneers into Baker’s Park, now Silverton, walking and riding horses and mules over Stony Pass into Cunningham Gulch. The title of River of Lost Souls is inadequate. Yes, it’s about science, politics and greed, but it’s also local and regional history.

            The railroad is another main character in the book as is Thompson’s own family. Historic quotes from area newspapers are well chosen, and readers will learn important details about milling and smelting hard rock ore and lingering issues related to the dangers of heavy metals like mercury when mill tailings discharge into watersheds.

            Hardrock mining for gold and silver. Uranium mining for yellowcake. Oil and gas wells sprawling across the San Juan Basin. This is not local boosterism. This is what tourists do not see and do not want to see. Durango has diversified into a tourist-based, recreation and public land amenities economy, but Jonathan Thompson shows us our industrial origins and the impacts of mining and oil and gas drilling that residents and visitors alike would rather ignore. It took him a lifetime to write this book, and we are better for it. This is the way environmental journalism is supposed to be. In your face. Up close. Personal.

            He writes, “As one of the biggest ore processors around, the Gold King mill also belched out a lot of tailings, most of which ended up in Cement Creek and, ultimately, the Animas River. And as one of the largest employers in the county, it was also one of the deadliest.” p. 84. Or Thompson’s prose, “The blood, the broken bones, the torn-up bodies, and most insidious, the dust of pulverized rock. Day after day, the men emerged from underground coated in the stuff, and their lungs filled up, too.” p. 85.

 Eric Parker and Dave Farkas float on the Animas River post Gold King Mine spill.  Photo by Dan Steaves.

Eric Parker and Dave Farkas float on the Animas River post Gold King Mine spill. Photo by Dan Steaves.

            Yet this is not a negative book. River of Lost Souls is a carefully researched chronicle published by Torrey House Press, whose mission includes developing “literary resources for the conservation movement, educating and entertaining readers, inspiring action.” Thompson does not advocate that we should join this or that environmental group. Instead he lets local people tell their stories and he tells quite a few himself. We are all downstreamers. We live in a connected, diverse environmental landscape with snow and rain that flows into the Animas. Thompson’s success has been to show us those connections and to firmly place us on a long continuum of human occupation.

            I was in Silverton’s city park watching Cement Creek turn its vivid orange hue the day it happened, and I wondered what had gone wrong. Thompson explains all that but he also gives us decades of background on the Gold King environmental disaster, as yet unresolved, that made international news.

            River of Lost Souls puts it all into perspective, which is why I recommend this book for environmental classes because of its content and its personal touches. River of Lost Souls is a superior read, but I’d suggest a few improvements. Subsequent editions should include a map of the Gold King and the American tunnel, a map of the Animas River, and a map of the San Juan Basin. A glossary of mining and technical terms would also be useful.

            Family stories of fishing and camping along the river wed readers to this landscape. Poet Gary Snyder admonishes us to, “Find your place, dig in, and defend it.” River of Lost Souls compels us to do just that. TG

Pick up your copy today at MAria's Bookshop in Downtown Durango or order online at Torrey House Press.

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