Down in the dumps, a lode of history to be found
ASPEN – Are you experienced? I am.
Experienced in hiking the Mine Dumps on Aspen Mountain, that is.
I love Aspen and Colorado mining history, and every time I ride the Silver Queen Gondola on Aspen Mountain my fever rises. I rode the bucket a couple of weeks ago to attend the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s annual membership luncheon. On the way up I was transfixed on the Mine Dumps on the west side of Spar Gulch. There are tons of dumps, or conical shaped piles, where waste rock from mines such as the Bonnybel, Visino and Little Percy was tossed from portals into the earth onto the steep hillside. Some aspen and conifer trees have poked out of the dumps but the rough, rocky soil is surprisingly barren of vegetation some 120 years after the silver mining heyday.
What I’d give to travel back in time, hover over Aspen Mountain and watch the mining activity when it was really cranking in 1888 to 1892. I’d even settle for time traveling in the early 20th century, hiking in and poking around the machinery, cabins and numerous work sheds that once existed. It broke my heart a few years ago to hear an old timer who worked on Aspen Mountain during the early days of the ski area tell me how they would use heavy equipment to push the ruins of mining shacks and old equipment into the gapping holes in the mountain. What a loss.
An excellent synopsis of Aspen’s mining history was written by Bruce Bryant in 1977 when he was with the U.S. Geologic Survey. Silver ore was discovered in 1879 on the mountainsides around what became Aspen, but it wasn’t until lawsuits between mine owners were settled and railroads reached the town in 1887 that the mining camp really took off.
“In 1888, production from the mines increased tenfold above the previous year; a peak was reached in 1892 when 8,256,467 ounces of silver were mined,” Bryant wrote. “In the prosperous early 1890s, Aspen was the principal city on the western slope of Colorado.”
I content myself with hiking the Mine Dumps, a popular skiing area on the mountain, and searching for whatever artifacts remain. Trails like Last Dollar and the Cone Dumps are steep to ski; they are leg and lung burners to hike in the summer.
My 15-year-old daughter shares my passion for mining history. She was a good sport and came along for two consecutive Sundays in September. We started up Little Nell on both crisp mornings. On our first excursion we trudged up to a point just below the bottom terminal of the F.I.S chairlift, better known as lift 6. We cut into the Dumps on an old mining road that I previously spotted from the gondola. Before long we came to the Jimi Hendrix Shrine – one of Aspen Mountain’s numerous shrines paying homage to a dead person, a place or an event.
During the summer you find all sorts of stuff at and near the shrine that is buried under a couple of feet of snow during ski season. Old, narrow rails, probably for ore carts, poke out of the ground on the grade leading to the site. Try hard enough and you can imagine the ghosts of laborers pushing the carts along the tracks.
At the Hendrix Shrine itself, two walls of an old stone foundation remain from what was presumably an old mining work shack or living quarters. Rusted tin roofing and rusted metal from ancient machinery litters the ground. Someone placed an old door to a boiler or stove, emblazoned with the name of the manufacturer from Denver, high on a perch on the stone foundation.
It’s a surreal scene at the Hendrix Shrine, just as it should be. At the north end of the site, there is a small, fading picture of Jammin’ Jimmy pasted onto the trunk of a good-sized aspen tree, juxtaposed against this ancient stone wall in the background.
The old mining road we followed to the site ended at the Hendrix Shrine, and whatever mine was located there. We bush-whacked to some other dumps we could see nearby. As we got to one, we would spot another dump to the north, above or below us. We dutifully made our way to the next site, taxing our hop, kneed and ankle joints. It was so ungodly steep and thick with brush in spots that even our dog was wondering what we were doing.
We hoped to find a motherlode of artifacts; alas, the best of the ruins on that first day was at the Hendrix Shrine. We did, however, gain important intelligence for a return trip. I was delighted the following Sunday when my daughter Hannah eagerly agreed to accompany me up the mountain again.
On the second Sunday of our mining quest we headed into the Mine Dumps from an obscure trail near Grand Junction, the intersection of Copper Bowl and Spar Gulch. Bush-whacking off the trail, back toward Kleenex Corner but a couple of hundred feet above Spar Gulch, led us to a huge mine with numerous portals rammed into a cliff face.
I haven’t done enough research yet to figure out which mine we were at, but it was obviously a spectacular operation. Below the mine on the steep hillside is a massive mess of timbers, rusted tin and various sized chunks of twisted metal from what was probably a loading dock for the ore into ore carts for transport to a different part of the mountain.
Other ruins nearby could have been additional work shacks or even bunkhouses for workers. Imagine the hell those fellas were ready to raise when going down to town after working 12- or 14-hour shifts for several days on end. No wonder Aspen built a reputation as a party town.
We came across a few curious sights: an old iron rectangular tub or wash basin, the petrified sole of a work boot, rusted tin cans and lots of old rails poking out of the ground. The oddest artifact was on a ridge somewhere between the Cone Dump 2 and Silver Rush ski runs. At some point, somebody took an old iron kettle (which I hope is an artifact from the mines) and placed it in the crook between aspen trees. Over the years, possibly decades, the trees grew enough to firmly wedge the kettle between them. It is a sight that can only be seen in summer because it is so low to the ground that it is covered in winter.
I know these sites have been picked over through the decades and most of the interesting artifacts were either looted or pushed into the mines, but what the hell – poking around the old mines is still an interesting pursuit. It brings the Aspen history books to life.
Roaring Fork District schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt are heading into the new school year more fully staffed than in recent years.
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