Chad Abraham

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January 6, 2006
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Mining Aspen's past

Attention, City Market shoppers ...

Did you know that a few hundred feet beneath your shopping carts are huge tunnels filled with millions of gallons of water that connect Smuggler Mountain and Aspen Mountain? No? You're not alone.

Many peculiar aspects from the town's silver-mining days receive little attention now. But mining remnants do sometimes make themselves known. In the mid-1990s, for example, a snowcat fell into a mine shaft on the backside of Aspen Mountain. The operator was able to drive out, and the shaft was filled with concrete.

The mine shafts beneath City Market, Glory Hole Park and other parts of town are now flooded. No one really knows what is down there because it is impossible to explore the tunnels without scuba or deep-sea diving equipment. To keep them dry for mining, pumps ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The equipment is now submerged, as are the pumps deep inside the Smuggler Mine, on Aspen's northern side.

In the late 1880s, though, mines were operational around the clock, and homes were heated and meals cooked using coal-fired stoves. As a result, "a cloud of sulfur hung over Aspen every morning," according to "The Story of Aspen" by Mary Eshbaugh Hayes. If Aspenites think the pollution on Main Street during rush hour is bad today, they can take comfort in the fact the town doesn't smell like rotten eggs.

Instead of dignitaries and movie stars, Aspen in those days drew hard-bitten men of staggering stamina, who clawed out an existence in mines on Smuggler Mountain, Aspen Mountain, Independence Pass and beneath town. They are what put the town in the national spotlight some 120 years ago.

A sense of how difficult it must have been can be felt today inside the Smuggler Mine. Using crude pickaxes and shovels, miners worked by candlelight. They breathed air so foul that at one point a miner a month died, says Jay Parker, a co-owner of the mine.

Inside a shack near the two openings of the Smuggler Mine are hard hats, minerals and maps for sale, as well as several air-quality monitors and self-rescue kits.

The kits provide an hour of oxygen in an emergency and are a stark reminder of how dangerous it can be underground. The 12 miners who died after an explosion Jan. 2 at a West Virginia coal mine all had, and apparently used, similar self-rescue kits. But the hour of oxygen that they provide was not enough; only one miner in the party survived as carbon-monoxide levels rose to three times the level considered lethal.

Similar dangers exist in Aspen's mines.

A sign guarding one passage notes that no one should enter because of "bad air." Remember the smell of rotten eggs that once wafted over Aspen? Smell that inside a mine and it's likely the last thing you'll ever smell, says Parker, who wore an air monitor on his belt during a recent tour. The smell is hydrogen sulfide, and it's a killer.

Parker has lived in Aspen for nearly 45 years. When he first moved here, the mines were unguarded and incredibly dangerous. Still, children spent much time exploring them, he says.

Things are much safer with Parker leading the way. The shack also contains a sign that says, "Hey, kids! Mines are not playgrounds. Stay out " stay alive."

"We have had no accidents here since I've been here," he says.

Parker's affiliation with the mine stems from his friendship with Stefan Albouy, a former Smuggler Mine owner. In 1994, Albouy and a group of close friends took over ownership of the mine from one of the granddaughters of David Hyman, whose family owned the mine since 1880. When Albouy died, his wish was that the group continue to run the Smuggler and Compromise mines; the Compromise Mine entrance is just above the top of the Little Nell run on Aspen Mountain.

"His dream came true," Parker says.

Summers are the popular time for Smuggler Mine tours, but Parker and co-owner Chris Preusch do offer winter tours to groups of at least four. Parker is an entertaining guide. The self-described explosive technician handles the cannon that roars at 6 a.m. every Fourth of July, along with a Wintersköl fireworks show over Smuggler Mountain.

Inside the mine, he points out the place where a bear tried to hibernate several winters ago. Parker noticed the animal's scat while leading a tour. To avoid panic, those on the tour were not told. The bear was awoken and forced out by Parker's homemade M80s, small but powerful fireworks.

Elsewhere, behind a door marked "Danger Keep Out," is an area that collapsed in the 1940s. Asked the cause, Parker mutters, "Tired timber."

The amount of silver extracted from the Smuggler Mine in its heyday is staggering. The mine's limestone and calcite walls at one point were producing from one-fifth to one-third of the world's silver supply, Parker says. It also produced the world's largest silver nugget, which weighed around a ton and was 92 percent pure.

Parker and Preusch also are part owners of the Compromise Mine. In winter it is only accessible via snowmobile, snowcat or on skis. Hayes' book says the owners of the Compromise, DRC Brown and other investors, were caught up in bitter litigation with Hyman, then-owner of the Smuggler operation (his picture hangs in the tour shack; he's a dead ringer for Teddy Roosevelt). The legal battle grew so intense that silver production stagnated from 1885 to 1890. Three years later, the nation repealed the Sherman Silver Act, which demonetized silver. It was the death knell for Aspen's mining days.

But while far in the past, Aspen's mining days continue to entertain Parker.

"I keep seeing new things," he says. "It gets in your blood."

And if an accident were to happen?

"Why dig me out? I'm where I want to be."

Chad Abraham's e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jan 6, 2006 06:51PM Published Jan 6, 2006 06:51PM Copyright 2006 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.