Aspen’s mining reputation, a job reference |

Aspen’s mining reputation, a job reference

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby collection "Tubbs" Caley, Pat Bonner and Fred Willoughby at the far end of the Midnight tunnel in 1927.

Our national high unemployment statistics harken memories of the Depression. Now, as was the case then, some jobs are immune from economic downturns. Hardrock mining during the Depression was a reliable profession.

During the late 1920s, when my father he was in his twenties, he ventured from under his parents’ wings in Aspen to satisfy his wanderlust. The Depression was already in full swing in Colorado so he joined a migration of men who were searching for work. He landed a job unloading 96-pound bags of cement out of boxcars in Denver. That lasted only a few days before his skin broke out in painful rashes. Next, he acquired a job at the Gates Tire Co. doing a job with equally toxic hazards and developed boils on his face. He quickly learned why those jobs were easy to get.

Having apprenticed as a miner since the age of 15, he decided he would stick with mining, but try other mining towns. He began in Breckenridge. It amazed him how quickly he was hired. The job was a dangerous one for a miner, but he was hired before any of the other desperate men who formed a long line long begging for work.

He found out that he won the job because he had worked as a miner in Aspen. As western mining towns go, Aspen had long been known as a center for mining innovation. The mine bosses assumed a miner from Aspen, even one as young as Father, “knew his salt.”

His stint in Breckenridge encouraged him to wander farther from home. He worked next in a Park City mine that had a large payroll. Then he moved on to the mines of Tonopah, Nev.

While Aspen mines were suffering from the lowest-ever silver prices, gold mining was prospering. At one point in the late 1920s, the price of gold nearly doubled, much as we have seen today. Married miners tended to stay wherever they found work, but single miners like my father were free to travel from gold mine to gold mine anywhere in the West.

Father joined two Aspen friends, “Tubbs” Caley and Pat Bonner in Miami, Ariz. for his last migrant mining adventure. There he encountered a new challenge. Those Depression years were also a time of social upheaval, when working men inched toward revolution. Miners’ unions with a long history of conflict with owners were once again becoming militant. As was the case in the past, union members were beaten, shipped out of town, and even murdered.

The reputation of Aspen’s unions worked against my father. After all, Aspen was home of the Progressive Party, pro-union Governor Davis H. Waite (one-time editor of The Aspen Times ). He had to recruit someone to vouch for him that he was not a union miner in order to win the privilege to toil underground dynamiting snags in the ore chutes of Arizona.

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