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Fascination with the underground

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Library of CongressImagine mining being beneath the ocean, as these miners did in the Alaskan Treadwell Gold Mine.
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Recent Icelandic volcanic eruptions coaxed me to reread books from my youth that cultured my fascination with the underground. Jacques Cousteau enticed me underwater and President Kennedy excited me about outer space, but Jules Verne won my interest in what lay below my feet.

From the moment Professor Lidenbrock enters a cave in Iceland’s Snaefel volcano, in Verne’s Journey To The Center of The Earth, my imagination went underground. With each kilometer of descent the mysteries under the mountain unfolded, but for me the prehistoric beasts were not as interesting as the geology and the notion that navigating connecting caves and passages all the way to the very center of the earth might be possible.

The 1959 movie version of Verne’s adventure, starring James Mason and Pat Boone, brought visual images of an underground world that was bright and colorful even though my own mine journeys were more notable for darkness. The movie motivated me to read a less popular Verne tale, The Underground City, about vast underground coal caverns in Scotland. The setting included an underground town with lakes and electric lights that were immune to Scotland’s above-ground foul weather. The following Verne analogy matches my childhood imagination of what lay below my bed as I slept, “a vast tract, full of burrows, tunnels bored with caves, and perforated with shafts, a subterranean labyrinth, which might be compared to an enormous ant-hill.”

Growing up in an Aspen mining family may have tipped my fascination for the underground, but I believe it has universal appeal. Consider the crowds that visit Carlsbad Caverns or the many attracted to tunnel tours in western mining towns. The temptation to travel inside the earth is tempered with fear of the dark and claustrophobia, but curiosity wins out.

In the early 1950s, when Aspen had working mines and the remnants of the mining industry dominated views in every direction, tourists were more interested in Aspen’s underground past. There were no formal mine tours but as frequent visitors developed friendships with natives, some begged for mine tours. Often my father found the time to take his favored friends into the Midnight’s two-mile long tunnel. Most were satisfied with a short stroll to experience the feeling of being underground with its darkness, dampness and imagined danger. Few delighted in the details of a working mine.

Animosity toward tourists developed when condescending comments about “lowly locals” replaced the bonding between appreciative guests and locals who worked hard to be good hosts. One arrogant visitor who thought his wealth entitled him to anything he desired demanded a mine tour. Usually my father would have politely declined, portraying that request as too much of an imposition on a working mine, but decided to provide the persistent person with a new perspective on miners.

Instead of taking this particular visitor into the tunnel, he took him to the Midnight shaft. A few miners and my father walked him to the mine cage that lowered them six hundred feet below the surface. Then they walked him away from the shaft along a wandering tunnel. When they were sure that he had no idea where he was, they told him they had to attend to an emergency and he should stay there. They promised they would return shortly. They left him without a light. It was only for a few minutes, but for him it was more underground than he had demanded.

On the checklist of what makes a real local, having toured the Smuggler Mine tops the list. Entering the underground, wandering along a century-old tunnel and seeing what miners saw as they sought silver connects contemporary citizens to Aspen’s heritage. Little has changed since I first dreamed of finding my way to the center of the earth. We all want to satisfy our curiosity about the underground.


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