Cantankerous bachelor miners: Kemper Dunlap |

Cantankerous bachelor miners: Kemper Dunlap

Willoughby collectionKemper Dunlap stands at the entrance to his tunnel in Little Annie Basin in the late 1930s.

Some men are anti-social, are afraid of or hate women, prefer to live in isolation, and scorn toiling for a boss. 19th century mining suited their solitary souls.

Kemper Dunlap came to Aspen in the wave of prospectors searching for silver that flooded the mountains. The post Civil War period had an abundance of males searching for employment and a place to call home, far from the destitution in the South and the agrarian lifestyle they deplored.

Dunlap found his place on the Winnie claim in the Highland mining District, in the mid-valley section of Castle Creek. The Winnie was located high in the basin on the top of the ridge that divides Queens Gulch and Little Annie Basin. It was near where the current road passes picnic point. It overlooked the Little Annie and Midnight claims, two properties that produced large quantities of high-grade ore. The Winnie vein, worked for many years before Dunlap acquired it, did not make him a millionaire, but it was productive enough to provide a living.

My father as a teen in the early 1920s took mail from Aspen to the Midnight camp several times a week. Once a month, even in winter, he would climb up the last grade to Dunlap’s small cabin to deliver his mail and the few supplies he requested. Dunlap’s desires consisted of flour, beans, and cans of Prince Albert tobacco. He conversed with Father only long enough to catch up on the news.

In those days, Dunlap was already an old man by working-miner standards. Most days he whiled away the hours in his cabin. In season, he hunted and trapped. Occasionally he worked his claim. Dunlap was unsuited for mining as he was superstitious of the underground. He would not mine at even moderate depths. He sank his shaft and tunnel no deeper than three hundred feet. At the top of the ridge, he was a long way from the elevation of the region’s major ore deposits. Dunlap would extract and hand-sort his ore until he had a small shipment that he could combine with one from a larger mine. His return was enough to provide for his undemanding life style.

By the late 1930s he had mined out his claim in the limited area he was willing to explore and his marginal health slowed him down. Fortuitously, the Midnight was tunneling through his claim several hundred feet below. The Midnight signed a lease with Dunlap and he used the money to buy a house next door to my grandfather’s house on Hyman Avenue (a lot now part of the Limelight complex). There he sat on his porch and scowled at my aunt and grandmother.

Dunlap was still alive when I was a child in the 1950s. Children, like women, were something he disdained. He would cast an evil eye on me as I passed his house and yell if I passed too close.

Dunlap’s house was dilapidated when he bought it and he did not maintain it. I remember he had a garbage pile in the back with rusting Prince Albert cans. He had a supply of aging roof shingles bought for his roof, but never used, that we children absconded for building projects. Piles of lumber nestled among his overgrown weeds.

Dunlap died as he lived: alone, and quite likely content, having lived his definition of the perfect life. That meant eking out a living with minimal effort and no boss, while interacting with as few other humans as possible.

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