Cats and rats | AspenTimes.com

Cats and rats

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly

Willoughby Collection A picture of the remnants of the Midnight shaft, taken from the approximate location of the 1948 summer tent.

Cats created a checkered history in mining towns and camps. Not sentimental favorites, they were deemed necessary for ridding neighborhoods of rodents. Many western communities sought out cats when rats and mice overwhelmed residents. Cats were a commodity fetching nearly their weight in gold. At other times, after having eradicated a rodent population, cats were considered a nuisance. Some preferred to risk the plague that rodents might bring rather than contend with hordes of cats.

Aspen’s mining camp cats were not usually thought of as pets, but more than one cat figured out how to adopt a home. Residents complied with daily feedings, considering them just rewards for keeping rats and mice at bay.

The bushy-tailed wood rat, or more commonly known as a “pack rat,” is a common resident of mines and abandoned buildings. They can grow to be as long as 18 inches, half tail. Their thick tail makes them look larger than they really are. Known to be attracted by shiny objects, woodrats often pack their nests with metal objects pilfered from unsuspecting miners.

My father and Joe Popish were refurbishing the Midnight shaft in Little Annie Basin in the summer of 1948. The 500-foot shaft, constructed in the 1880s, was used primarily for air ventilation, as most ore was extracted from far below the bottom level of the shaft and transported out through the Midnight tunnel in Queens Gulch. The Midnight decided to explore the older workings closer to the surface to mine some pockets of low grade ore left when silver prices were too low. That exploration required refurbishing the shaft.

Rather than commute daily from town to see his family, father constructed a canvas-framed tent atop a wood floor at the end of the Midnight dump, and moved my mother and sister there for the duration of the project. At mid-basin, it was a fabulous place to spend the summer, with one of the best mountain views in the county. Columbine surrounded them.

My mother was three months pregnant with me and had to worry about her 4-year old daughter falling down the shaft. When she considered the amenities of a wood stove for cooking and heat, and a water pipe just outside the tent door, she settled in for the summer.

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A few intact cabins still dotted the Little Annie Basin, including one famous for cats. It had been the residence of ‘Cat’ Miller, a miner’s widow who lived with a conglomeration of cats to keep her company. Cats that were somewhere between feral and tame populated the basin that summer, and one very large tomcat took up residence with my parents.

Mother and Sister fed the cat, and for a long time no mice or rats sneaked under the tent floorboards looking for leftovers. The peace was broken when a pack rat began making appearances. The large rat, puffing up its stature when seen in the daylight, rivaled the size of the cat.

My mother loved to tell the story. Her last line was, ” I knew who had won when the tomcat began sleeping under our covers every night.”