The bitter end for Aspen mining
June 22, 2011
A tale of successes and failures, of extraordinary measures to maintain profitability: that was the story of mining in Aspen after 1900. The price of silver never returned to the high of the 1890s, but remained high enough to make mining silver worthwhile so long as ore quantity and quality held and operational expenses could be managed. More silver was mined after 1893 than before.
The mines of Smuggler Mountain produced the richest ores, employed the most men, and experienced the greatest challenges to continued operation. The Smuggler Mine and its neighbors, the Della S. and the Mollie Gibson, had followed large veins of exceptional silver content to a depth of about 1,000 feet by 1906. Below that level the ore quality diminished and they battled water. Although Aspen was the first to use electricity in mining, those mines relied on steam power to pump hundreds of gallons of water a minute to the surface, at great expense.
Mines began consolidating, often by leasing property to a neighboring company with more capital for exploration, and by cooperating on some projects to make extracting ore less expensive. The Free Silver shaft on Smuggler Mountain, the deepest in Aspen, was a cooperation; the shaft led to increasing amounts of water and less valuable ore. The cost of pumping discouraged investors.
The Smuggler Mine, directed and owned mostly by David Hyman, raised capital and converted steam pumps to electricity. The resulting lower cost of pumping resulted in almost doubling the depth of Smuggler Mountain mines. Following the ore veins downward, they mined enough ore to continue to operate at full strength with more than 300 employees. They had expected to find more ore of the extraordinary quality that had supported the earlier years of operation, but only one small area produced at that level. Lead content of the ore was high, but the value of lead was low at that time.
Hyman commented in his autobiography on the decade from 1907 to 1917, when the Smuggler invested heavily in pushing the depth of its operations into the water zone: “I do not think in all of my experience at Aspen that I ever undertook a more difficult job than this last one, and it was done more for the purpose of benefiting the town and the people of Aspen than for any great benefit that I personally expected to derive from it.” Thousands of ounces of silver were extracted, and Aspen continued as one of the West’s major mining towns, but Hyman barely broke even.
In 1917, Hyman’s operation reached the 17th level and the ore vein stopped. The company assessed that there would not be ore below that level, and that future production would come from finding ore chutes in the vicinity of previous workings. Hyman suggested in his autobiography that the scale of operations at that time was no longer warranted and his decision to end large-scale production was the result of reaching the bottom of the vein; what he did not record, but became common lore in Aspen, was Hyman’s ongoing feud and competition with D.R.C. Brown.
Brown sold electricity to Hyman and informed him that he was going to raise the rates. With the Smuggler Mountain mines breaking even at best, Hyman told him he could not afford a rate increase and would close his operations before paying more. Brown thought he was bluffing and raised the rates. Hyman turned off the pumps and laid off most of his miners. After that year, Hyman leased his holdings to those willing to mine above the water level.
Whether the end of the ore vein, the end of affordable energy, or a combination of both factors drove Hyman’s decision, 1917 was the year that large-scale mining ceased, marking a rapid decline of Aspen’s population.