Willoughby: Aspen’s legacy: silver-lined streets and iron-sprinkled sidewalks | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Aspen’s legacy: silver-lined streets and iron-sprinkled sidewalks

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Workers extract minerals during the 1960s from the Pitkin Iron mine.
Willoughby photo

The legend that Aspen’s streets are lined with silver reflects an underlying truth. Indeed, the town’s streets rest on a roadbed of mine dump material, and that material includes minute amounts of the precious metal. And silver is not the only locally mined mineral found throughout the city in unexpected places. Locally mined iron fortifies sidewalks and buildings.

When prospectors first scoured the area for silver, they easily uncovered iron deposits in scattered locations. They closely examined some of these deposits in hopes of the occasional relation between iron and gold. They discovered the greatest iron mass at high elevation at the end of the Castle Creek Valley, on the north side of Taylor Peak. But “great” would not begin to describe the dimensions of that mass, especially when compared with the size of the veins of mineral loaded with silver.

Assayers measured silver value by the ounce and iron by the pound. At those rates, no one pursued iron. But just after the turn of the century, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. explored the possibilities. They considered an extension of the railroad spur that climbed Castle Creek to the Newman Mine at the music school campus. They noted that the Pueblo mill processed steel a relatively short railroad distance away. They proposed to run a tram from the best ore to a railroad connection in the valley. But economic ups and downs and other iron availability ended the thought experiment.

The magnetic mineral attracted no more attention until 1960. Pitkin Iron Corp. had obtained the claims and determined that, with no pricey tunneling, profitable mining could proceed. At their own expense they widened the public Castle Creek road from 18 feet to 30 feet. They contracted with Morrison-Knudson, a major earth moving company, to haul the ore. Later, the corporation paved the road, and the state widened Maroon Creek bridge to accommodate truck traffic.

In a straightforward system, Pitkin Iron constructed a road from the valley floor to the upper section of the mountain. There they simply blasted the deposit and loaded it into trucks. Like scooping up money and taking it to the bank, enormous Mack trucks with electric drive motors on each wheel managed the steep grade and hauled the ore to the bottom of the hill. Due to the mass and density of the ore, the trucks would run only partially full by volume.

A crusher broke the ore into smaller pieces. Then tandem trucks hauled the ore to a conveyor system that moved it across the Roaring Fork to a site at Woody Creek. There the ore was crushed again, loaded onto railroad cars, and shipped to the smelter. As with trucks that carried ore down the mountain, dense loads challenged travel at even lower grades. When people passed these lumbering trucks on the road, they would not see any cargo.

Winter posed the major obstacle for this simple operation when it made travel difficult, dangerous or impossible. The first year yielded only $80,000 in profits. But as production grew, Pitkin Iron became a major employer, the largest county taxpayer. Eventually the seasons worked out well. Winter employees of the ski industry worked during summers for the mine.

Over time, iron smelting changed, and Aspen’s high-sulfur iron could not be profitably smelted. Foreign imports captured the main markets.

The final market for Aspen’s iron involved the production of cement. Iron filings added to bags of cement contributed to the strength of concrete. A cement plant near Carbondale used Aspen’s iron for this purpose. In a complete production cycle, iron from near the top of Taylor Peak strengthened Aspen’s sidewalks and buildings. Miners tapped only a tiny percentage of the iron deposit, and much of the top of the mountain remains.

At one time, I gleaned a collection of magnificent iron-pyrite specimens from the mine. This treasure lies at the end of a memorable hike with incredible vistas. As with a hike to Electric Peak, a hike to the iron mine must await a rare Aspen day devoid of thunder.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching 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.