Readers may be surprised to learn that Aspens longest mining tunnel was driven not in the 1890s, but rather in the 1960s. The Highland tunnel, just above Castle Creek Road near the Conundrum turnoff, reached over two miles in length, exceeding even the Cowenhoven tunnel that connected workings on Smuggler Mountain.Both the Highland tunnel and the Midnight Mining Company tunnel in Queens Gulch were designed to connect with the 1890s Midnight Shaft in Little Annie Basin and were begun around 1916. The purpose of digging each was to tap potential ore bodies below the level of those that had been mined previously. The mineral vein of the old Midnight started near the surface on the Midnight claim and angled downward through the Little Annie mine. The Highland tunnel was closer in distance to that same target area, but it was at least a thousand feet lower in elevation.Emmitt Gould and Ed Grover owned the Highland. They also were the proprietors of a grocery store on the west end of Main Street, plus they worked for the Midnight. They started the tunnel in that beautiful red sandstone you see as you drive up the Castle Creek Valley. Their only mining challenge was air circulation, solved by piping compressed air into the area where they worked. They abandoned the project while still in the sandstone formation because silver prices dropped and they ran out of money. In the 1930s, owners of the Midnight Mine took a lease on land at the tunnel entrance that included the tunnel project and held it for future exploration.In 1930 the Queens Gulch Midnight tunnel intersected the ore vein 300 feet below the previous workings. Over the next two decades miners worked the vein, building 17 levels of branching tunnels until discovering where the ore body bottomed out. The lower vein trended toward the direction of the workings of the Hope Mine. Owners of the Hope also owned the Little Annie Mine in partnership. They proceeded to drive a tunnel extending 8,000 feet from the Castle Creek Road level. They aimed far below but toward the Midnight and to the south of the Highland tunnel. That project was abandoned in the 1920s. In the 1950s, geologists for the Midnight proposed extending exploration to test whether the ore vein would reappear in the direction of the Hope Mine. The Highland tunnel afforded a likely approach to access the vein at a much lower level. Mineral prices at the time did not warrant such an expensive exploration.In the 1960s, local investors Ed Smart, John Kellog, Henry Stein and Bill Rubey leased the Midnight properties, including the Highland tunnel. They obtained federal mineral exploration funding and also convinced John Wayne, who liked to gamble his movie income in mining, to invest. They reopened the Highland and began core drilling in Little Annie Basin to test the Hope-Midnight hypothesis. Jim Babcock, an Aspen High School math teacher and trained geologist, served as the consulting geologist.Driving a tunnel is an expensive proposition even though the investors inherited a tunnel about 1,200 feet long. They continued boring through sandstone. It was slow going. Men laboring through daily double shifts burrowed 150 feet of tunnel monthly. Next they worked their way through less friendly formations. They encountered water. Despite those hardships it was ever more challenging to raise capital. After nearly a decade the partnership dissolved. The lease was then picked up by J.R. Simplot, the Idaho potato baron who, like Wayne, enjoyed dabbling in mining.Simplots exploration reached a mineralized area, a porphyry formation. In Aspen, porphyry is often associated with profitable mineral zones. When porphyry is exposed to oxygen, it expands, squeezing tunnel walls unless they are heavily timbered. Porphyry is almost as white as local marble, but it is very soft. The loads of porphyry brought out of the tunnel contained numerous flecks of shiny pyrite.More than two miles of tunneling and core drilling exploration from inside the tunnel revealed no new ore bodies. It was a long shot, literally and figuratively, an expensive exploration that did not pan out. Surely undiscovered ore bodies remain hidden in Aspen Mountain, but none glitter at the end of the Highland tunnel.
Tim Willoughbys family story parallels Aspens. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at email@example.com.Yore Aspen is a regular feature of the Aspen Times Weekly.
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Max Weintraub has been senior curator at the Aspen Art Museum since January 2019.