Willoughby: The lost gold of Queens Gulch | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: The lost gold of Queens Gulch

A stereoptic view of Castle Peaks above Queens Gulch.
Willoughby collection |

Mining districts usually yield a mix of minerals. Most hold lead. In addition, Silverton and Leadville had both gold and silver. Gold deposits at Independence continued along the ridges over to Gold Hill and the top of Taylor Pass. A few precious nuggets glittered in the Conundrum valley, but none dazzled the formations from Lenado south to Little Annie Basin, the geologic formations of Aspen’s mineral wealth. Although Aspen thrived as “the silver queen,” her prospectors never abandoned hope of finding gold.

Many of Aspen’s pioneers and mine developers brought gold-mining skills to their work. Some had tales to tell from the South Dakota Black Hills gold rush. Some had journeyed to Colorado, specifically Leadville, for the gold rush of the 1860s. Others hailed from the California gold rush. Silver was the stuff of fortunes. But gold, with the same extraction expenses, was worth almost 20 times as much.

These men jumped at any rumor of a gold discovery, whether overheard in a saloon or formally presented in an investment meeting. A typical report printed in the newspapers would quote a miner about a find. He would brag that if the assays were good, potential owners would be rewarded. The next day the paper would report that several locals went to check it out. After that, no further news would surface.

Whispers of discoveries in Buena Vista, Crystal River, Woody Creek, Difficult Creek and Cattle Creek set shovels flying. True or false: A tunnel in Porphyry Mountain opened into a cave with walls mineralized in gold. Rumors of gold in Glenwood, on the mountain above the Hotel Colorado, had locals scrambling up the slopes.

Gold discoveries in Cripple Creek prompted renewed inspection of the top of the Elk Mountains between Aspen and Crested Butte, even though that area would allow profitable mining only in summer. Many believed the enormous iron ore cap of Taylor Peak, with geology similar to that of Cripple Creek, sheltered a massive gold deposit below.

A desire to believe in golden possibilities contributed to a tall tale at the Midnight Mine in the 1920s. Geologist Lord Temple, a character my grandfather knew, had often visited the area. He stopped in at the Midnight camp to see Jim Ammerman, the mine’s blacksmith. Temple showed him a chunk of ore and claimed he dislodged it from the cliffs above, the area known at the time as Castle Peaks. Today that area is better known as the cliffs at the edge of Buckhorn ski run.

Ammerman, a veteran miner who knew good ore when he saw it, proclaimed the rock a great find, high-grade gold ore. He recommended immediate assay testing. Temple left and never returned.

The Midnight miners debated the find. They knew the difference between a sample and a specimen. A sample — a grab of the typical ore found. A specimen — a rare treasure, not representative of the vein. As Aspen miners who had tunneled into the area below the cliffs, yet in the opposite direction, they knew that gold was unlikely to be found there. But what if…?

Temple did not return, so most figured he had been pulling their legs. The miners concluded the piece had broken off a specimen from another area. Indeed, the rock appeared to have a fresh side with no weathering. They supposed Temple had left for some other camp to repeat his trick, or worse — to laugh about how he had tricked them.

In a few miners, Temple’s vague description of the gold’s supposed location warmed a desire to believe. During evening, they would hike to the cliffs above the Midnight camp. There they searched for evidence of fresh prospecting, an exposed vein, or rock more golden than an Aspen sunset.

By the end of summer, the miners’ efforts wore out, but not the retelling of the story. To this very day, Temple’s tale lures us to believe gold is buried in Aspen, somewhere, and all we need to do is find it.

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.

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