How a legacy of contamination turned into a legacy of clean water

In 1896, prospector James Henry Holden discovered ore in a valley among the mountains above Lake Chelan in north-central Washington state, but he was never able to develop a mine. Not until 1938, two decades after his death, did Howe Sound Mining Company send the first shipment of concentrate down narrow Lake Chelan.

Over the next 19 years, about $66 million worth of ore was extracted – 200 million pounds of copper, 40 million pounds of zinc, two million ounces of silver and 600,000 ounces of gold –  and Holden Village was home to about 600 people. It looked more like a college campus than a mining town, said the Wenatchee Daily World. It had a school, a barbershop and a recreation hall with a bowling alley.

By U.S. Forest Service- Pacific Northwest Region – Holden Village, Late 1930s, Public Domain,

Then in 1957, it all came to an end as the price of copper fell. The village was abandoned, 100 private homes built on US Forest Service land were burned; only 14 chalets, a hotel, a hospital building, and community structures remained. And so did groundwater contaminated with aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron and zinc; a polluted Railroad Creek flowing into Lake Chelan; and unstable waste rock and tall tailings piles from approximately 10 million tons of mined ore.

But that is nowhere near the end of the story. In fact, it’s several interconnected stories. A story of how religious folks rescued an old mining town and turned it into a spiritual retreat. A story of how one of the world’s biggest mining companies healed the land and water damaged by a mine it had never owned or operated. And a story of how those things came together in what some folks regard as something miraculous.

The village

First, the story of the village. Up in Alaska in 1957, Wes Prieb read about the mine closure and wondered what it would cost to buy Holden Village; $100,000, he was told. The answer was the same the next year. Then, in April 1960, the company offered to give the village and mine to the Lutheran Bible Institute for one dollar, and with start-up funding from several national Lutheran youth groups, the non-profit Holden Village, Inc., was formed. 

In 1961, 41 young volunteers who called themselves “The Forerunners” paid their way to the village and worked on the village clean-up. They established practices still used now –  daily attendance at worship, shared work and common meals. A spiritual retreat center and community has operated there since, with some 60-100 full-time residents and some 5,000 seasonal visitors each year. 

Holden’s remoteness is part of its attraction. Getting there means a two-hour ride on the historic Lady of the Lake ferry and an 11-mile bus ride along a bumpy gravel road – although some hike into the Village from trails connected to the Pacific Crest Trail. The rustic retreat is a place to spend unplugged time with family and friends, hike into the alpine wilderness and ponder deep questions of life and faith.

But the rust-coloured tailing piles were long a reminder, amid the pristine beauty of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, of Holden’s industrial past. Even as the village pursued an eco-friendly existence, heavy metals from the old mine waste leached into Railroad Creek and then into Lake Chelan. Both the forest service and the village wanted it cleaned up, but Holden Village couldn’t afford it and Howe Sound, the mine’s operator, had ceased to exist.

The remediation

Then in 1980, the US Congress created what came to be known colloquially as Superfund – designed to get contaminated sites cleaned up. The  government had identified a successor company to Howe Sound Mining – Alumet Corporation, which agreed to a remedial investigation before it merged into Intalco Aluminum Corporation in 1998. In 2007 when Rio Tinto acquired Alcan, which formerly was a part owner of Intalco, it agreed to pay for and manage the cleanup on behalf of Intalco.

By National Park Service Digital Image Archives – to Commons by Fæ, Public Domain,

A variety of strategies were studied before the U.S. Forest Service and other state and federal agencies signed off on the agreed mediation in January 2012. As it turned out, the remediation cost around $500 million, about five times the original estimate. (Travis Houle, Holden’s naturalist, points out that Rio Tinto’s cleanup costs have exceeded the value of the mine’s $66 million in income, which in today’s dollars would be worth about $567 million, and the company also will be paying for ongoing water treatment at the site.)

Between 2012 and 2017, nine million tons of tailings and 250,000 tons of waste rock piles were reshaped and stabilized, and planted with trees. The old mill structure was demolished, and a deep concrete barrier wall was built to contain runoff between toxic tailings piles and Railroad Creek. Thousands of gallons of contaminated groundwater are treated daily through an on-site water treatment plant. 

“For the first time in nearly 60 years, clean water is once again flowing in Railroad Creek,” Chelan District Ranger Kari Grover Wier says. “This is an important milestone and a significant win for aquatic species, wildlife species, and humans that depend on water from Railroad Creek and Lake Chelan.”

The remediation benefitted the area economically. An estimated $240 million flowed into Chelan and Douglas countries as personnel, lumber, fuel, and numerous other materials and equipment were sourced locally, and hundreds of jobs were created.

The sprinkler system

During the remediation, Holden Village didn’t have summer guests. Instead of building a work camp, Rio Tinto rented Holden for its contractors and employees, and Holden used the money to upgrade its infrastructure, including installing a powerful outdoor sprinkler system. It was a project that Jeff Pierce, Holden’s long-time fire marshal, had been working on for 11 years, and it was installed just a month before  lightning started a small fire in the Wolverine Creek drainage northeast of Holden Village in June 2015.

By United States Forest Service – 20150629-FS-UNK-0003, Public Domain,

The fire grew rapidly, eventually burning 70,000 acres. In late July, the Wolverine fire commander decided the only way to save the village was by burning around it. The sprinklers soaked the village and some Holden staff members helped two crews prepare by cutting down trees and brush and wrapping the buildings with fire resistant material. Then helicopters dropped “fire eggs” into trees on ridges above the village, and fire crews back-burned the areas. When the Wolverine fire – the first major fire to burn through the area in 100 years – had come and gone, Holden Village was still standing.

If the village had burned down, Holden could have rebuilt, Pierce said, but getting approval to rebuild at the edge of a wilderness area would have taken years. Others are not so sure it would have been rebuilt at all.

New beginnings

Now Holden Village is once again in operation, water quality in Railroad Creek has improved and cutthroat trout are appearing in the stream again. “If you walk on this site in 15 years,” says Travis Houle, “you’ll see a forest beginning to grow, not a toxic mine site.”

And just this month, Rio Tinto made it possible for the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust to acquire more than 2,100 acres of land south of Chelan for permanent conservation. “By connecting public lands from the Cascade Crest almost to the edge of Lake Chelan, the Chelan Coulees Reserve will help species shift their ranges in a warmer and drier climate,” says Owen Wozniak, who is the land transactions program manager with the Land Trust Alliance.

The reserve presents a unique opportunity to conserve connected lands that will never be developed or fragmented into multiple small ownerships. The late Jerry Scofield acquired and maintained it as a private wildlife reserve for the last 50 years. “This is a legacy to my husband’s vision for responsible development that values the beauty of the land and the creatures who live there,” says his widow, Mary Pat Scofield.

All of the project partners worked with Rio Tinto to come up with this solution to long-term conservation of the wetlands that “will support native species and habitats unique to the Chelan area and will provide benefits for generations to come,” says Mario Isaias-Vera, remedial project manager with the US Forest Service.

“By supporting the permanent conservation of this important wildlife reserve, we aim to deliver lasting environmental outcomes for the Lake Chelan area,” says Rio Tinto Closure Americas general manager Steve Boum. “This builds on the transformation we have seen with the remediation of the Holden site, which is a great source of pride for us. Our goal is to leave a positive legacy for future generations, taking into account environmental and community considerations.”


Chelan-Douglas Land Trust acquires 2,100 acre reserve with support from Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto, Aug. 5, 2021

Chelan Coulees – CDLT acquires 2,100-acre reserve near Lake Chelan. Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, Aug. 5, 2021

Holden Village history

Holden Mine Site Cleanup. Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, USDA Forest Service.

Holden Mine Cleanup. Rio Tinto.

Holden Village finds new beginning after test of fire, massive mine cleanup. The Spokesman-Review, Oct. 2, 2017

Holden Mine cleanup progresses, guest services to resume at entrance to Glacier Peak Wilderness. The Spokesman-Review, May 2, 2017