Willoughby: Base industry — the interweaving of an economy
Legends & Legacies
The concept of a base industry does not have the depth of meaning these days because so many cities have diverse economies and industries come and go. Los Angeles, with operating oil wells and refineries, would not list petroleum as a major base industry but at one time it was. Mining was Aspen’s base industry until 1950 when the last mines shut down, but it is worth examining the depth of what base industry meant.
Precious metal mining was notorious for its booms and busts. Aspen was one of the few mining towns to have steady production for seven decades, a testimony to the size and quality of its deposits. In addition to its longevity there was complete interweaving between mineral extraction and other economic activity.
Aspen’s pioneers were largely veterans of the mining industry since Aspen developed after previous ‘rushes’. They knew it was a risky business but one with high returns and they also knew that extracting ore was not the only way to make money. What is important to understand is that the pioneers were not all miners but rather businessmen who were attracted to the synergy of a mining town.
Aspen’s merchants were heavily invested in its mines. In the earliest years some of them traded store credit for mine stock. H.P. Cowenhoven and his son-in-law D.R.C. Brown who opened Aspen’s first store became major owners of Aspen’s mines. All of the drugstore owners, like Al Lamb, owned shares in local mines. The optometrist, clothing store owners and grocers were shareholders. These investors were not just shareholders, many were directors of the mining companies.
One of Aspen’s most important pioneers B. Clark Wheeler, who began his career advising prospectors and prospective investors in a mine’s potential, owned and edited The Aspen Times, but he sold mining stocks and was a major owner of two mines.
Aspen’s early ranchers, especially before the railroads connected Aspen to the other half of the state, came to supply the town with mules, horses, and feed. They were also mine investors, the most dominant being Fred Light who was one of the first to homestead land for ranching. He was a director of several mining companies.
Silver mining had its small operations but it was more capital needy than gold mines requiring more infrastructure, especially by the time Aspen began to thrive. Cowenhoven-Brown added electricity to their enterprise list supplying power so mines could affordably pump water. They built some of Aspen’s largest downtown commercial buildings, two of which housed banks.
Obviously, the labor pool was largely dependent on the mining companies. But it was not just a job, like Silicon Valley’s early sweat-equity arrangements, many miners often worked for stock. A small mining company wanting to expand might not have the capital to pay for exploration so they would pay workers a small cash salary and the rest in stock. Miners were the most knowledgeable investors because they worked underground and understood a mine’s potential before others.
Over time many of Aspen’s mines consolidated but it was never a company town susceptible to the whims of one company. There were rival companies but shareholder lists overlapped. Investors were needed to provide capitol for new exploration and infrastructure improvements.
Aspen, as soon as railroads arrived, except in winter, nurtured a small tourist economy. But without operating mines train service would have ended eliminating tourists. Aspen had a foundry to manufacture items, but it only made mining equipment.
Mining was the base industry, in every sense of the word.
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 email@example.com.
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