Jay Parker’s passion shows for Aspen’s Smuggler Mine
Jay Parker is retiring from public service next week after 33 years of working for Pitkin County and the city of Aspen. But don’t worry — he won’t be one of those guys twiddling his thumbs and looking for something to do.
Parker was a partner in the former ownership of the famed Smuggler Mine and is part of the group that leases the mine from the new owner. The new owner has allowed mine tours to continue — and they’re going gangbusters. Interest was high enough this summer that as many as three tours were offered some days.
Parker said he will take an even greater role in leading the tours once his day job is over.
“I like it a little,” he said with a sly grin during a recent tour on a Saturday afternoon. He paused, then corrected himself, “OK, I like it a lot.”
Parker is a big man and can seem intimidating and gruff in a first encounter. But his sense of humor and genuine fascination with Aspen’s mining heyday shines through when he talks about the Smuggler. An old mining shack near the Smuggler Mine Tunnel No. 2 is part functional office, part museum. Among the memorabilia is an unusual, cross-section map of Aspen that’s about 6 feet long and 2 feet high. It shows the underground workings of the Smuggler Mine complex and the equally impressive array of adits and shafts honeycombing Aspen Mountain. It almost defies imagination to see the degree to which men burrowed into Aspen’s signature peaks in search of treasure.
Parker estimates there are more than 30 miles of tunnels in the Smuggler and adjacent Molly Gibson Mine. Many of the tunnels are underwater.
When tour participants congregate at the shack, Parker issues hard hats and gives a quick history of Aspen. David Hyman plays a prominent part in his story. Hyman was one of the founders of the town and an early investor in the Smuggler Mine. His portrait hangs in commanding place on a wall.
Hyman and Charles Hallam were the lone owners of the Smuggler Mine. Ten years of patience paid off with the discovery of rich surface-ore deposits in 1890, according to “Aspen: The History of a Silver Mining Town 1879-1893” by Malcolm Rohrbough. By summer 1892, the Smuggler was Aspen’s largest shipper of ore. More discoveries were being made at the time of the silver crash from the demonetization of silver in 1893.
There’s still plenty of silver in the Smuggler, Parker said, but its not economical to mine at current prices.
Parker moves fast in his narration of Aspen and the Smuggler Mine history. It helps to know a little bit about the past in advance of the tour. For example, Parker makes a couple quick references to Spurr that probably go over the heads of at least 90 percent of his customers. J.E. Spurr was a geologist who researched and wrote in 1898 what’s still considered the definitive study of the Aspen mining district.
After his brief introduction to Aspen history, Parker takes his charges underground and provides a nonstop barrage of interesting facts about the mine, its production and the life of the miners. Tour groups marvel at a deep shaft separated from them by a fence. Parker makes a quick joke about losing children down there. The youngsters in the group clutch their parents’ legs.
He shows veins of ore of the type that captured the miners’ attention. He shows off a room, from outside, that he acknowledges gives him the creeps because the timbers are so old and decrepit. He explains how miners used candles to gauge air quality.
Parker has lived in the Aspen area for more than 50 years. He’s been exploring the Smuggler Mine since the mid-1970s, when he and others paid Stefan Albouy for the privilege to help him explore for silver and uncover the mine’s history. Forty-some years of exploring the mine have only whetted Parker’s appetite and opened his mind to the possibilities of the mine.
He expresses frustration that Aspen doesn’t do more to celebrate its mining heritage. The arts, culture and skiing responsible for the town’s rebirth and rise as an international playground are well-known. Its true roots are disappearing as a footnote. The Smuggler Mine is one of the shining examples of Aspen’s past. Parker hopes to keep it that way.
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