Willoughby: Smuggler Mine fire brought economic hardship to 1897 Aspen
July 16, 2017
National highlights of 1897 include good news, such as the opening of the first subway in Boston. And Lena Jordan, a teenager from Latvia, accomplished the first triple somersault on the flying trapeze. Yet Aspen suffered one of its worst economic disasters, with long-term ramifications.
The Smuggler Mine and its neighbors had reached great depths and located mineable ore bodies. Four years before, silver had been demonetized and prices for the mineral had fallen. Mining companies had made up for the lower prices through increased production. Also, the companies consolidated and linked their underground workings to more efficiently drain water and transport ore.
In November a fire broke out in one of the largest Smuggler stopes, a cavern 80 feet wide, 160 feet long and 300 feet high. Densely timbered cribbing along the stope walls fed the flames. The fire centered at the seventh level of the mine, about 600 feet below the surface. Smoke quickly spread throughout the Smuggler and into surrounding mines — all the way to the Argentum Juanita on Aspen Mountain's side of the valley.
After a quick evacuation prevented death, miners mobilized to hinder the spread of the fire and to protect infrastructure. Men in the neighboring Molly Gibson mine worked to keep their underground pumps going so their lower workings would not flood. They built bulkheads in an attempt to keep the poisonous smoke out of the pump area. They would work for a while and then, according to The Aspen Times, miners "fell with their tools in their hands." A dozen such miners, moved to the surface, still laid unconscious.
Around 25 miners headed into a tunnel to reach the stope and stop the fire. But most of them had to be rescued. The Times reported, "… when fresh air was reached (taking them to the surface) nearly all the men inhaling the poisoned air became crazed and frantic and were with difficulty restrained." Hours passed before they recovered. An estimated 40 miles of workings were poisoned.
Of the 2,500 gallons of water per minute the Smuggler pumped from its bottom, 700 were diverted to the stope. Also, piped steam was directed into the fire area. Even under wet conditions, the fire continued to smolder. After about two weeks, the outflow of poisonous gas stopped, mostly because workers had sealed tunnels that fed into the stope.
Several ideas circulated about how the fire started. Perhaps a miner had left a candle burning on the cribbing — but no one had worked in that area for at least three weeks. Perhaps the decayed cribbing combusted spontaneously, aided by the heat from friction of movements of rock underground.
Around 300 miners found themselves out of work for a few weeks, a challenge for families recovering from the Panic of 1893. When they went back to work, miners avoided the burned section of the mine. For many months miners used the Smuggler tunnel rather than the shaft to access ore. Fortunately, the mine had stockpiled ore before the fire so it continued to produce. But the conflagration added one more wound to Aspen's mining industry.
The fire area remained sealed for nearly 20 years before an attempt to reopen it. Despite the passing of decades, the stope remained too hot to handle. Likely it had continued to burn for years. In 1918, the Smuggler turned off its pumps and flooded the fire area forever.
In 1897, Aspen battled underground fire hampering its base industry. Today, we battle forest fires with smoke challenging the base industry. At least now it is seasonal, not permanent.
Tim Wolloughby taught at Aspen Country Day and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.