Cold War craziness almost crosses the Divide |

Cold War craziness almost crosses the Divide

Bill and John Herron in front of their Smuggler mill. With improved techniques and higher prices from wartime demand, there was money to be made from the minerals in mine tailings.

Families built bomb shelters in their back yards. Schools practiced emergency drills for atomic attacks. Subconscious fears sparked mushroom-cloud nightmares. Aspen was as far away as you could get from Cold War culture, so much so, that it provided a solution to one problem of a nuclear exchange.

Cold War craziness did not admit the possibility of mutual annihilation in a nuclear exchange; instead, it proposed solutions, no matter how silly. War would establish a winner and that winner would be America, if only because we were better prepared. Denver’s banks embarked on what they thought was a prudent plan in the event that Denver became a target.

John Herron, my uncle, had leased the Smuggler Mine properties. With his brother Bill, he constructed a mill to process the mountain of mine dumps and mill waste that contained mineral content left behind by older milling methods. They also worked the Smuggler tunnels above the water level, mining the lower grade ore that had been unprofitable before 1918. Most silver had been extracted previously. Dumps yielded lead and zinc, minerals in demand during WWII.

Executives from the Bank of Denver offered John Herron the ultimate Cold War top secret contract. In the event of a nuclear war, they wanted to stash the bank’s contents inside a mountain.

John gave the executives a tour of the Smuggler and it appeared to meet their criteria. While Colorado sports thousands of shafts and tunnels, all prospective bomb shelters, the bank would not consider just any underground cavity. The location had to be isolated, not too close to ground zero, yet not too far away. Aspen was located the perfect distance and some mines were still operating at a very small scale. Their vast storage capacity in firm rock could withstand the nuclear shock waves that would emanate from Denver.

Negotiations progressed smoothly. It looked as though Aspen would become the secure site for bank files, funds and gold bullion, even though no one could brag about it. Bank representatives pulled out the maps that they used to pick the site in order to review the truck routes. They had carefully planned a quick exit from Denver over less traveled roads: Highway 82 over Independence Pass.

There was no Loveland tunnel then and no Vail pass. The most direct route to Aspen was over Independence. It all made sense to executives in Denver. Herron introduced the one flaw in their planning, “What will you do if the nuclear attack occurs in winter?”

He wasn’t referring to nuclear winter. Negotiations came to a halt. The bank executive was bewildered. Although he wanted the contract, Herron had to explain why it was not a sound solution. Even in summer, the idea that, with a nuclear missile on its way, a bank could load its files and funds and race to Aspen while its depositors were about to be destroyed bears further reflection.

The irony of burying gold in a Colorado mine with the possibility of its being sealed for generations only to be discovered by future tunnelers never occurred to the bankers. It did, however, to the miners.

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