B.Clark Wheeler, Aspen's earliest and most aggressive mining promoter, made a fortune in the 1880s with his Little Annie mine, but by 1890 few fresh ore veins remained. The situation prompted Wheeler, ever the optimist, to embark on one of Aspen's riskiest ventures.
Top-down vertical mining is more labor-intensive than gravity-assisted bottom-up mining. In addition, when water is encountered it must be pumped out uphill. The early workings of the Little Annie mine comprised a shaft with tunnels that branched off every 100 feet in depth. Water became a problem at 400 feet.
To avoid the aggravation and expense of pumping, miners drove a drain tunnel from the low Little Annie Basin to intersect the shaft. Wheeler constructed a mill and boarding house at the tunnel adit. Eventually, mining extended below the level of the drainage tunnel and again water interfered with silver production.
Silver deposits were found where the longitudinal Castle Creek fault intersected vertical faults. As the Little Annie worked below that level, water increased again and silver decreased.
Wheeler decided to drive a tunnel along the Castle Creek fault, well below the Little Annie Mine. The tunnel, optimistically named the Famous Tunnel, was begun on the Castle Creek Valley floor just upriver from the Conundrum turnoff.
The Castle Creek fault line, in addition to serving as a silver repository, also stores water. The Midnight tunnel, driven in the 1920s at a higher elevation in Queens Gulch but 500 feet below the Little Annie mill, encountered waist-deep water, causing a shutdown of several months. Although much of the tunnel has caved in, water flows constantly from the tunnel entrance 90 years later.
Wheeler's tunnel was in over 500 feet when it intersected water. Poking a tunnel into an underground reservoir is like drilling a hole from below your bathtub. A body of water escaping through a narrow tunnel can build up significant pressure. When a tunnel up the road from the Famous tunnel tapped into an underground reservoir, the water escaped with such force that it destroyed the tunnel and killed an entire shift of miners. Fortunately, Wheeler's water proved to be less powerful.
The Famous continued to encounter more water than silver. The project started before silver demonetization but continued for years. Wheeler, short of capital, hired unemployed miners to work for room, board and stock shares. Most days the tunnel advanced about 10 feet. Over time and under new ownership, it extended 8,000 feet to a position underneath, but 2,000 feet lower than, the Little Annie.
The Famous, along with Wheeler's exploitation of miners, became infamous. New owners took over the project and aptly renamed it the Hope Mine. In the 1920s the Hope encountered a small but high-grade silver vein. For some time it was a profitable operation. When the vein pinched out and the Hope needed to raise more capital for exploration, owners "salted" a side tunnel, positioning silver ore in places that made it look like a great investment. The new investors were fleeced and no more ore was found.
Subsequent leasers of the the Little Annie turned profits between Wheeler's work of the 1890s and the late 1920s, when the Midnight Mine took over the lease. One Mr. Cornwall upgraded the milling capabilities, removing the lower-grade ore that had been abandoned when lower silver prices and poor milling techniques rendered it unprofitable. Cornwall even remilled the outside dumps profitably. Leasers of the Little Annie did not push to lower levels and the Famous tunnel never connected to the Little Annie shaft to drain the water.