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One Man's Garbage 

Another man's treasure

click to enlarge Artifacts of daysand trashgone by in a Mill Street neighborhood. - SCOTT LARRICK
  • Scott Larrick
  • Artifacts of daysand trashgone by in a Mill Street neighborhood.

When an archeologist sees trash, he instinctively thinks treasure. So when archeologist Jeffrey Hovermale, learned that a dump from the city's earliest days lay just down Baltic Street from his Mill Street neighborhood home, he naturally thought it might be of important historic interest.

In April 2000, the Colorado Springs Utilities started buying up homes at the end of Baltic, and on adjacent streets to make way for a new rail spur that is to deliver coal more efficiently to the nearby Drake power plant. They bought 14 homes in all. Then, around November 2000, Hovermale noticed that bottle collectors from all over town were flocking down there. Some were really cleaning up. It was rumored that one collector had made $20,000 on the Internet selling old bottles and other artifacts found in the dump.

Archeologists aren't so much interested in the value of an artifact nor whether it's just a fragment of the piece. Instead, their interest lies in what stories artifacts tell. But soon, Hovermale thought, the rail spur was going to come through, and either uproot the dump or bury it for eons to come. So this spring, in the evenings after he finished doing archeological surveys for the U.S. Forestry Service, Hovermale and his neighbors started a legitimate archaeological study at the site.

What he found amazed him. On April 1, he sent a Preliminary Cultural Resource Investigation of the proposed rail extension to the Colorado Historical Society.

Among the artifacts he'd found were lead civil war soldiers, a lead clown, broken pieces of fine china, several crucibles from the town's mining days, and bottles -- lots of bottles. Most date from the late 19th or early 20th century. Some are exceptional, specifically one from the Antler's Hotel pharmacy with a big stag head in raised relief on the side of the bottle dating from 1894. He also found a variety of sure-cure bottles that hucksters sold back then.

Hovermale also did historical research. He found that the property had been a dump from the 1870s till 1907. The neighborhood, then known as Shook and Ives, was one of Colorado Springs first subdivisions. The first residents were working-class families of European and Hispanic descent.

They were the laborers, tradesmen and servants who made Wood Avenue mansions, the Broadmoor Hotel and "Little London" civility possible. The dump closed in 1907 when the City annexed the neighborhood. At the time there was a public health law stating that garbage from Colorado Springs must be dumped at least a mile outside city limits. As part of the city, the dump would be within city limits. So it closed officially. Informally though, dumping in the area has been going on very recently, as evidenced by synthetic and plastic garbage strewn on top of the old dump.

After reviewing Hovermale's report, the Colorado Historical Society had a sort of public-agency-to-public-agency talk with the utility company, and recommended that Colorado Springs Utilities do their own archeological study of the dump. This they did. Colorado Springs Utilities contracted URS -- a Denver-based engineering firm -- to have its archeologists give an assessment of the dump. URS began its survey the week of June 13 to 20. The first thing they did was post the area with "no trespassing" signs. The scavengers had gotten bold, tunneling deep into the banks of the dump and creating a safety hazard.

URS dug two test pits (each about four cubic feet) and recovered an assortment of bottles (whole and broken), broken imported plates and several vague metal industrial pieces. They will take the artifacts and have them analyzed at their lab in Denver. Then, by July 10, URS will submit a report of their findings and recommendations for the future of the dump to the Colorado Springs Utilities and Colorado Historical Society.

Just before his team finished the excavation, Dr. Gordon Tucker, who oversaw excavations for URS, said that judging by what they'd unearthed so far, he doubts whether the site will be excavated further, but added that a decision cannot really be made until all the data is reviewed.

But it seems a long shot. In order to justify further excavation, the dump would probably have to show that it could come under the National Historical Preservation Act. To do that, the site would be judged on four criteria: 1) Is the property associated with a significant historical event? 2) Is it associated with a significant person? 3) Is it characteristic of a type of a style applied in the past? 4) Is the site yielding information that is significant to our past? It's that last, ambiguous category on which the future of the Baltic Street dump seems to hang.

So, are the dump's 15 minutes of fame over? During the excavations, news crews flocked to the dump, but it probably wouldn't be hard for Baltic Street to fade back into obscurity. (It isn't even marked on the city map in the phone book). Still, the answer to the dump's future isn't cut and dried.

Using historical records, Hovermale estimated that the dump was approximately 10.5 acres in size. Some older residents remember that it used to stretch below where the Drake power plant now sits. The dump also stretches below many of the neighborhood houses, most of which were built in first decade of the 20th century. Hovermale's pet rabbits have unearthed old bottles while burrowing in his back yard.

The construction of the railroad spur may not harm other areas of the dump, like underneath some of the old houses of lower Baltic Street, which will be demolished anyway, because the utility company bought almost four times as much land as it needed for the spur.

"If we know there's a larger historic property," said state archeologist Susan Collins of the Colorado Historical Society, "we will advise (Colorado Springs Utilities) of it to [forewarn them] that there are other significant sites on this property."

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