ASPEN - A landmark piece of Aspen's history, the Smuggler Mine, is up for sale for $9.5 million. The property includes access to many millions of dollars' worth of high-grade silver ore and, perhaps more enticing, two side-by-side developable lots with expansive views of town and Aspen Mountain.
The distinctive property is among Aspen's most funky reminders of an era long passed, when it was silver, not skiing, that put the town on the map. Throngs of people pass by the mine's entrance gate, off lower Smuggler Mountain Road, as they hike and bike up and down Smuggler Mountain. Inside the perimeter fence, staggered piles of mine tailings climb the hillside amid tiers dotted with mining relics - rusty ore cars, ramshackle buildings and ancient machinery.
"I've never listed anything quite like this before," admitted broker Matt Holstein, with Sotheby's International Realty. "When they first started talking about listing it, I said, 'Wait, can you even sell that?'"
Holstein, an Aspen native, remembers climbing the property's fence as a kid to explore the site. A few decades earlier, so did Chris Preusch, now one of the mine's owners.
Preusch is president of New Smuggler Mining Corp., a group of seven partners who are only the third owners of the Smuggler Mine in its 133-year history. They are all longtime locals and some of them have been actively involved for decades in continued low-key mining operations and giving tours through a small section of the many tunnels that penetrate the mountain.
They, along with others, are also owners of the Compromise Mine on lower Aspen Mountain, where tours are also offered.
It's with mixed feelings that Preusch watched the Smuggler go on the market, he admitted Tuesday. At one point, the ownership group hoped a nonprofit could be established and grant funds secured to restore the mine's exterior to its former glory. Planning for a different approach - to create two 10-acre homesites on the property - began in 2005, he said.
The 29.7-acre site consists of the 9.7-acre mine site and two 10-acre lots to the northwest. The lots are to the left, and up the hillside from the mine, from the vantage point of the entrance gate.
While the formal subdivision process has not been done, each site could accommodate a home of up to 15,000 square feet with the purchase of transferable development rights, or TDRs, under the Pitkin County code, according to Holstein. The property is outside of the city limits; the county allows the larger homes through the purchase of TDRs, which sever development rights from remote properties elsewhere.
"What you have is the ability to build large-square-foot homes so close to downtown Aspen - not to mention the views," Holstein said.
It's Preusch's hope, though, that a buyer will embrace the mine's historic significance and allow its longtime stewards to continue offering Smuggler tours to schoolchildren and the general public. There's long been a dream for a small museum at the site, as well, he said.
To some extent, one already exists. Re-laid rail winds around the tunnel entrances and a small lamphouse boasts a collection of mining paraphernalia, ore samples, and maps of the immense tunnel system bored beneath Aspen and into Smuggler and Aspen mountains.
The mine site is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it's actually only the tailings piles that are designated as historic. The buildings and equipment have been collected from around Aspen and elsewhere over the years.
"We have scavenged stuff from all over," Preusch said.
While Aspen as a whole was a major player in the production of the world's silver in the late 1800s, it was the Smuggler that produced the world's largest silver nugget. Taken from the mine in 1894, the giant chunk of nearly pure silver weighed 1,840 pounds.
The mountain isn't close to running out of silver - an estimated 890,000 tons of ore remain locked inside, according to Preusch. It was the 1893 repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which mandated silver purchases by the U.S. government, that led to the silver bust in Aspen and elsewhere.
The repeal of the Silver Purchase Act deflated the value of the nugget, when it was extracted a year later, but the history of the nugget led to the Smuggler's listing on the historic register.
Other material that came from the Smuggler led to the mine's listing as a Superfund site almost a century later. The mine, and a lot of surrounding land beyond the mine's present borders that was affected by the Superfund designation, have since been delisted by the Environmental Protection Agency. Much of the area, on Aspen's east side, has long been developed with residences, Holstein noted.
Meanwhile, mining can still occur at the Smuggler on a limited basis. The New Smuggler Mining Corp. holds an exploration permit for work in the mountain, and posted a bond to clean up the site should operations under the permit cease. That could occur, resulting in the disappearance of all but the tailings piles, if that's what a buyer wants.
"It would be nice to get someone involved who has a passion for the history and the money to make it right," Preusch said. "We don't have the money to do what should be done with the property."
"The person who's going to have the vision to buy this parcel will want to protect the history," Holstein reasoned.