Tim Willoughby: The Yopsie, an early mine in Queens Gulch, may stand unchanged
June 18, 2017
The Aspen mineral lode runs a few miles between two branches of the Castle Creek Fault. Where perpendicular faults cross the Castle Creek Fault, minable minerals accumulated over the millennia. The large cliff area at the edge of the fault line, shown in the photo, attracted prospectors. The Tourtolotte Park side of the mountain was richly endowed with minerals. On the opposite side, Queens Gulch cut a gap through that mineral zone. The gulch allowed miners to tunnel along the fault at a much lower elevation and thus avoid digging an expensive shaft.
The Yopsie mine of the 1880s exploited the geological advantage of Queens Gulch. Where erosion had exposed the Weber shale formation the Yopsie brothers, who owned the mine, laid out three claims. They tunneled for silver on the north side of the gulch, near where the Midnight Mine tunneled decades later.
My father learned about the Yopsie in 1924, while he worked for the Midnight. Ed Grover Sr., his supervisor, told him about early days in the Gulch and showed him the caved-in entrance. Grover encouraged Father and a couple of his friends to explore the tunnel. When they excavated an opening, they discovered an occupant had beaten them to the space: a porcupine.
The tunnel through hard rock stood intact. Good-enough air allowed further investigation. The walls of the tunnel resembled emeralds, bright green where water had leached through copper and iron deposits.
Peculiar old track remained on the tunnel floor. Prospectors had fashioned it from wood, rather than the usual solid steel, and covered the top — where ore car wheels made contact — with a layer of steel. Father had heard of such rail construction from earlier times, but had never seen it anywhere else in Aspen.
The Yopsie reached into the mountain about 300 feet and then ended with a winze, a shaft that dropped about 30 feet. The winze displayed unusual drainage in a region where tunnel walls dripped with moisture. It had not filled with water.
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Grover said he had been told the Yopsie had produced about $10,000 (late 1880s dollars) in silver. But the ore held a low percentage of silver, so the brothers abandoned it. The Aspen Times's only mention of the Yopsie during that period: a report during 1885 that a 1,000-pound shipment yielded 157 ounces of silver and ran 7 percent lead. The report said the vein spread 6 feet wide, with native copper. It appears that work ceased around 1889, after which the entrance collapsed.
Within weeks of Father's excavation, the ground at the mine entrance buckled again. I like to imagine the Yopsie tunnel stands just as he saw it, and continually leaching copper renders the walls ever more vibrant.
Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.