Legends & Legacies: A 200-foot fall into a dark Aspen cavern | AspenTimes.com

Legends & Legacies: A 200-foot fall into a dark Aspen cavern

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Library of Congress Photo Aspen’s stopes resembled this one within the Homestake Gold Mine in South Dakota in 1908.

Proximity determines vocabulary, to some degree. For instance, couch potatoes of Orlando, Florida, may not grasp the ski slang commonly spoken in an Aspen bar. Yet few skiers understand much mining jargon, although they hike and slide over stopes every day.

Miners use the term stope in three ways. First, the word is interchangeable with “ore body” or “lode,” although it more specifically refers to a contiguous stretch of mineral with defined outer limits. Second, stope means the space left behind after the ore has been removed. These caverns still gape underground today, where a stope’s name reflects the person who found the ore, the name of the mining claim, or the title of the company that dug it. Third, as a verb, to stope signifies to begin the process of mining a stope, usually from the bottom up.

Aspen’s stopes were generally more vertical than horizontal in orientation due to the nature of ore deposition. They ranged in size and the most successful and longest-lasting mines had the largest stopes. This was true of the Smuggler, Mollie Gibson, Durant, Aspen, Midnight/Little Annie, and A.J. mines. A report on Aspen’s mines in 1903 noted that Smuggler Mine held the largest stope in the state. While miners continued to remove ore, it measured 300 feet high and 100 feet wide and long. With ore extending in all directions at the time of measurement, it is likely that the cavern eventually exceeded these dimensions.

The process of mining a stope took various forms depending on the size and the stability of the rock that surrounded the mineral zone. Miners preferred to mine upward through a stope to take advantage of gravity. They would tunnel horizontally until they intersected a stope and then remove all the ore above them. To do so, they would work upward from tunnel level until they reached the top of the stope. They removed the ore through a shaft that ran parallel to the stope from tunnel level up to the ground surface.

Next, miners would dig the shaft until they reached a point about 70 feet below the original tunnel level. From there they would run a new tunnel toward the stope. When they reached it, they would work upward toward the cavern they previously created above them.

Aspen’s active faults and other unstable ground required a timber framework to prevent a stope from collapsing. The best way to imagine such timbering is to look at present-day scaffolding. Builders erect scaffolding in standard dimensions, which make it easier to add sections in increments to increase height. Sections of six timbers — called a set — countered the pressure of shifting materials. The 4- to 6-foot timbers were 10 to 12 inches square.

Miners installed a temporary work floor at the top of the timbering. But a plywood-type sheet would not withstand the boulders that might topple onto it and the constant weight of heavy mining drills. These hazards required wood 2 or 3 inches thick.

You don’t see 100-foot scaffolding, but timbering would reach the full height of a stope, sometimes well over 100 feet. Many of Aspen’s notable mining deaths occurred in a stope, when men fell off the platform or when falling rock broke supporting boards.

Mike Theis, a miner, fell 75 feet in the Durant Mine. Most believed he might have been intoxicated at the time. I felt horrified to read of Jack Ward’s death at age 23. He had been working at the ninth level of the Smuggler Mine when he slipped off a timbering platform and fell 200 feet.

Miners who worked in an open or timbered stope feared, in the back of their minds, that it might collapse. Many readers have heard the story of Aspen’s Glory Hole, a stope that collapsed with no casualties. Several cave-ins of a big slope plagued The Percy Consolidated mine around 1904. Just a year later, the Mitchell stope caved in at the Durant Mine. The company laid off 21 miners for three weeks while other personnel removed the material.

Miners ranked as most frightening the stope collapse inside the Smuggler Mine in 1916. At the time, men were working a 200-foot by 75-foot stope, 100 feet high. Several miners heard ominous grinding as moving rock crushed timber. All rushed out just in time to avoid injury and death.

Over the years, some stopes crumpled. Miners dumped non-mineral material into others rather than transport it to the surface. And some of the caverns filled with water. But many of the cavities keep their shape inside the mountains and hold nothing but stories of Aspen’s past.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.