Willoughby: Digging to China
When I was in grade school the older kids told me that if I dug a hole deep enough, I would end up in China. The idea fascinated me and I started my own shaft in a mine dump near an Aspen shaft. Fortunately, the dirt had already been dug once. Even so, I dragged my shovel to the site only a few days, and carved a hole little more than knee height.
Soon after, my teacher passed out copies of the Weekly Reader. That national children’s newspaper featured a story about Project Mohole, an attempt to dig through the mantle of the earth. That limited objective helped me realize that world travel via shovel would reach a dead end before it reached China. I would have to make do with a lesser inspiration: to drive a shaft into molten rock.
Fiction filled the gap of disappointment that grew between my dreams and reality. The Hollywood version of my favorite book of the time, “Journey to The Center of The Earth,” depicted Jules Verne’s story about entering a volcano in Iceland and exploring all the way to the center of our world.
I had traveled horizontally underground in Aspen’s tunnels many times. But the thought of a vertical shaft held more allure. A couple of shafts tempted me, when I mustered enough courage to move to the very edge and peer down, but a step on the ladder required courage beyond my grade level. One, the Free Silver Shaft, had extended more than 1,000-feet deep long ago. But by my childhood, water had filled half of it. Although it did not end in a threshold to China, I would have felt happy to set foot at the bottom of that hole.
Starting at different elevations along a mountain slope, a series of horizontal tunnels provided quick access to ore. But vertical shafts offered their own advantages. Under a flat valley floor, for instance, a shaft provided the shortest distance to the ore, and distance cost money.
On average, two miners invested a day’s work to lower a shaft one foot. The Little Annie shaft reached 200 feet deep within the first five years of operation, a typical level for Aspen’s smaller mines.
Shafts came in different sizes, depending on their intended depth. The size of a mining operation also would affect shaft size. In cross section, many shafts were shaped like small rectangles. So-called “two compartment shafts” were wide enough to allow ore buckets to rise or fall, side by side. A few, large, three compartment shafts in Aspen held space for humans to climb safely alongside the buckets, and accommodated pumping and electrical systems. Just as miners timbered tunnels into softer rock, they also timbered shafts to keep the sides from pinching in and collapsing them. And just as the first 50 feet of a tunnel was most likely to collapse, the same was true for shafts.
As shafts gained depth, hoisting changed. Hemp rope would raise ore from a shaft 200 feet deep, but beyond that distance the rope would break. Wire rope, or cable, withstood hoisting from deeper shafts.
As a child, I wondered how miners climbed up and down a shaft. I found out that ladders, or a series of ladders, built into the side of a shaft, had rotted away by the time I pondered the depths. I have teetered on a long extension ladder to paint a ceiling, but I can’t imagine climbing a 200-foot ladder or a 1,000-foot ladder. Fortunately miners usually rode up and down the hoist system. Ladders served emergency purposes, when climbers had no time for fear. In smaller mines men rode inside the ore bucket. Deeper, larger mines offered a special cage that resembled an open-sided elevator. If the hoisting cable broke and the cage dropped too quickly, a system would wedge the cage against the shaft walls to stop it from falling. Today’s elevators feature a similar braking system.
You may have watched construction cranes move workers and materials up and down, alongside high rises. The operator keeps an eye on the position of the end of the cable that suspends the payload. But in a mine, the operator cannot see the position of the cage or bucket for more than a few dozen feet. In the early accidents, miners dropped at high speed and hit bottom without the operator knowing.
Someone thought to paint the mine cables white at specific intervals. The operator counted the white sections as they unspooled, and thereby figured out the depth of the payload. But if the operator lost count for more than a few seconds, disaster could strike. In addition, a cable stretches. The longer it is extended, the greater the stretch. Operators had to take this extra length into account when they figured where in the shaft they were stopping the ascent or descent of people and material. What’s more, when the operator stopped a heavy load, it could spring up and down for a while. Cargo could be lost through avoidable, abrupt stops and starts. For these reasons, cable operators earned some of the highest wages in a mine.
Some miners preferred to climb down the shaft ladder rather than trust their lives to an operator’s care. Yet someone at the surface could have kicked a rock or dropped a shovel into the shaft while they were climbing.
No matter how I looked at it, this was not a good way to get to China.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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