A nickels worth of silver

Tim WilloughbyAspen Times Weekly

Bring me any 1942-1945 nickels you can find, my father requested.He was not known for moneymaking schemes so I was confident this was not one. I had a small coin collection so I also knew there was scant collector demand for those nickels. Some people check the Dow every day; my father, a born miner, checked the price of silver, and silver values were rising. Father knew that during the war years the War Production Board allocated mining efforts by war priorities. Scarce nickel, mined mostly in Canada, was needed for military use. The San Francisco and Philadelphia mints substituted silver for nickel during the war. However, precious mineral (silver and gold) production was restricted during the war. Mines like Aspens Midnight produced zinc and lead for the war effort, but since silver was contained in the same ore, silver was extracted for coinage.The war nickels comprised 56 percent copper, 35 percent silver and 9 percent manganese. Substituting silver for nickel made the 5-cent coin dull, nearly black, if not cleaned. Tarnished nickels are easily spotted in a pile of coins. Father had calculated that the silver content in a war nickel was worth more than 5 cents. His request for my nickel collection occurred in the 1970s when Nelson Bunker Hunt and his brother William were manipulating the silver market. Beginning in 1970, they bought vast holdings of silver, speculating that they could control the world market. By some accounts they accumulated more than 100 million ounces. Their speculation earned them several billion dollars. Their purchasing rampage pushed the per-ounce value of silver from below $10 to more than 50.Silver values soared so high during that decade that photographic film producers recycled the punched-out sprockets from 35 mm film. Film was one of the largest industrial applications of silver. At 40 or 50 dollars an ounce, even the slim pickings recovered from the silver nitrate film backing on the sprockets amounted to profitable income.Like those who buy gold and spirit it away into a safe deposit box for future economic calamities, my father, a Depression survivor, hoarded his war nickels. Over a couple of years of collecting, he filled plastic bags with hundreds of the tarnished treasures.Fathers enthusiasm multiplied upon hearing of renewed interest in Aspens silver mines during that decade. Many of Aspens silver mines had halted production, not because they ran out of silver but because the price per ounce had dropped. Twenty-five dollars an ounce was considered high enough to reopen older mines. Mining the low-grade ore that had been abandoned when silver values dropped promised new profitability. Such profits would have enabled mines to invest in exploration for new high-grade deposits. As silver prices rose, mining companies searched for existing mines that still provided access to ore.Fathers dream of the Midnight Mines reopening was dashed when the Hunt brothers meddling with the metal resulted in near-failure of the banks that had loaned them more than the eventually collapsing value of silver could repay. (Sound familiar?) Too old and crippled to mine again, Fathers only existing silver exploit was his emergency nickel mining. The price of silver has exceeded the 5 cent value of war nickels once again. Try to get your hands on a few, if you can find them.

Tim Willoughbys family story parallels Aspens. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at Aspen is a regular feature of the Aspen Times Weekly.


Hanukkah has arrived in Aspen

Members of the valley’s Jewish community gathered at the Albright Pavilion at Aspen Meadows Thursday for their second annual menorah lighting ceremony to celebrate and acknowledge the first day of Hanukkah.

See more