Willoughby: Snow — not so lovable in Aspen long ago
February 3, 2019
Snow has always dominated winter days for Aspen's residents, but in the mining days no one prayed for it as they do now. Back then, snow curtailed the workday, postponed plans, and added hazards to an arduous profession.
Miners worked at high elevations such as the Montezuma mine, above timberline. Year-round operation called for creative adaptation. Work underground could take place in any season because underground temperatures remained cool and constant. But cutting timber for mine props and milling required that men work above ground and exposed to the elements.
Transporting ore created the biggest challenge. Larger mines such as those on Aspen Mountain used trams, so no one had to haul ore down the mountain. Other mines would stockpile the precious rock until spring or summer to move it.
Teams of horses pulled sleds and handled most of the work. Winter did little to ease the necessity to haul supplies, including the coal burned in steam boilers. The control used when hauling heavy loads of silver down steep grades in sleds sapped more effort than a slap-dash haul of groceries uphill. Unlike the varying price for agricultural crops, silver sold for the same amount in winter as it did in summer, and reflected no relation between price and availability or effort. Most miners could maintain cash flow for a few months, and waiting for a dry road represented little sacrifice.
After the railroad arrived, winter no longer isolated Aspen. The trains with their heavy mass of a steam engine plowed their own tracks. A few times after huge storms, miles of track required hand-to-shovel labor. That work, a winter profession, did not pay as much as did moving silver ore, but it taxed men's muscles less.
Adapting to snow trumped overcoming it. One example at the Midnight Mine illustrates the wisdom of submission to snow. The Midnight operated year-round with teams of horses and sleds well into the 1930s. Then they purchased four-wheel-drive trucks. At 9,600 feet, the Midnight camp received snow early in the year and the ground remained white and slick well past spring. To get there, you traveled through Queens Gulch, where several avalanches slid each year.
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One of the worst avalanche slopes towered above the camp. The company designed its mill with one eye wide open for safety. Ideally the top of the mill where ore would enter — three or four stories up — would meet the level of the tunnel. That way, ore could be rolled right to the mill. But to meet that requirement, Midnight mill would be located in the known slide area. To adapt, the Midnight moved the mill up the gulch 100 feet. A conveyor belt connected the top of the mill to the ore crusher.
The price of silver had hit an all-time low. Profitability shrank. The conveyor, powered by electricity, ran at an expense high enough to threaten the thin thread of profit. The logistics threw one director into conniptions. But the plan to move the mill out of harm's way endured.
A few years later, the slopes above the mill slid, buried the road, and took out the power line. Debris roared clear up to the corner of the mill, and stopped. Miners shrugged their weary shoulders and kept shoveling.
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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