Gold Diggers of '97

Charles "Binx" Rugg looks out his living-room window in the town of Eldora and can see all the places that have shaped his life.

Next door is the small, one-story wooden house where he was born 78 years ago. On the other side of the narrow valley are the stables where his daughter, Cindy, keeps the family's horses. Just down the road are the buildings his father and grandfather helped put up years ago, when he and his family were the only people who stayed in tiny Eldora year-round.

But Rugg, a retired miner, stares most intently at the all-but-abandoned Mogul Tunnel Mine just across the valley. A pile of rocks and rusty mining implements marks the entrance to the gold mine, a forlorn reminder of Eldora's mining heritage. The tunnel leading into the Mogul has been owned by Rugg's family since the 1920s, and he dreams of seeing the mine reopen, producing carts of rich ore and putting dozens of miners back to work.

The Mogul was still a working mine in the 1940s, when Rugg went off to fight the Nazis in Europe and North Africa. When he returned, he found that the tunnel had been stripped, its railroad tracks and ore cars melted down as part of the war effort. "They even tore the flumes up and sold the boards," he says.

Rugg found work in the tungsten mines around Nederland, but because of the unstable nature of mining, he eventually took a job as a maintenance man for the Boulder Valley school district. But he never forgot the Mogul, which sat deserted at the edge of town. "We're gonna open it up someday," he vows, his brown eyes flashing.

Over the years, Rugg has seen his share of schemers drawn by the lure of gold in the hills west of Nederland. In the 1930s, he says, a woman known as "Mrs. Goodykoontz," flanked by a black chauffeur and a Japanese cook, pulled into Eldora in a Pierce-Arrow limousine. Rugg's grandfather, W.T. Harpell, leased her the Mogul, and she set about expanding the mine, employing miners and surveyors and even remodeling a cabin to serve as a garage for the limo before abruptly blowing town when the miners started grumbling about not being paid.

In the past few years, though, Rugg's dream of reopening the mine has brought a cast of characters into his life who rival anything seen in Eldora's gold rush days. They include a man who promoted the mine as an "environmentally conscious" venture and then, says Rugg, proceeded to threaten him with a .357 Magnum; another high-flying mine promoter who recently had his surplus military attack jet confiscated by the Internal Revenue Service; a New Jersey dentist who dressed in green tights and a mask and called himself "Captain Ecology"; and the gun-toting promoter's former fiancee, a new-age fortune teller whom he now accuses of having an affair with the dentist. To top it off, there's Dennis Weaver, the Ridgway TV star and environmentalist who had his own brief flirtation with the "environmental mining" scheme.

All of this seems like heady stuff to an old miner who lives in a log cabin he built 35 years ago and keeps two goats in a pen in his front yard. Rugg remembers the days when mining deals were settled with a handshake and any self-respecting miner who thought he'd been scammed would use his fists before marching into the courthouse with a legion of attorneys. "When I was a little kid, if you was dishonest, they'd drop you down a shaft," he says.

Today, however, Eldora's solitude has been disrupted by outsiders who know little of old-fashioned virtues. The Mogul mine hasn't produced much gold since the '40s. But thanks to a flurry of lawsuits and angry accusations, it continues to line the pockets of lawyers.

Rugg says the trouble started in 1992, when he leased the right to use the mine to a company called Durango Metals, Inc. He now believes that Durango president Tim Hartley and his partner in promotion, Wayne Tatman, the former owner of the Gold Hill Mill, never really intended to dig for gold. Instead, Rugg has claimed in court, the men set out to steal his mine by driving him into bankruptcy with harassing lawsuits.

Tatman has since left the country. Hartley, who still lives in Boulder, strongly denies that he and his former associate did anything wrong and has filed his own suit against Rugg in Boulder County District Court. But he and Tatman have also landed on the bad side of one of their biggest investors--the New Jersey dentist, Bill Maher, who sunk $200,000 into the project and is now suing them in U.S. District Court.

Rugg says that after a confrontation with Tatman in 1994, he began sleeping with a loaded pistol at his side. The encounter left him shaken, and he says he still can't believe the code of honor he remembers miners once following could mean so little today.