Willoughby: Unwelcome water, water everywhere above and underground
Legends & Legacies
A high-water year with flash floods, 2019 tested Aspen’s management capacity. Like residents do today, miners would have complained about shoveling snow, dodging mud slides, and poor fishing conditions. And they faced additional inconveniences from underground water.
Water seeps within Aspen Mountain due to some of the same reasons that we find silver there. The geologic forces that created and moved geological faults ground up solid rock. The breakup formed spaces for minerals and water to intrude into gaps in the formerly solid rock. Where there are faults — Aspen Mountain holds many — underground water collects in reservoirs and flows through cracks and crevices.
Mines faced seasonal water issues with a regularity similar to surface stream runoff. But the underground water followed a delayed schedule, inhibited by more impediments.
Designers planned mine tunnels with a slight slope to ease the movement of ore cars. Miners loaded the cars at the top of the grade, and unloaded at the bottom. The grade also promoted water drainage. If at least one tunnel exited the mountain at the lowest level of the mine, the plan functioned well. But some mines extended below the drainage level. At major expense and inconvenience, these mines pumped water up to the lowest exit tunnel.
The Midnight Mine tunnel design drained about 700 vertical feet of workings. The mile-and-a-quarter-long tunnel followed a fault line between its entrance in Queens Gulch to the major ore deposit in Little Annie Basin. Within days of starting the tunnel, water began to flow through it.
The Midnight shaft in the basin had ceased operations around 1900 due to the cost of pumping water up 500 feet. The pumping expense erased the profits from ore production. Workers in the connecting Midnight tunnel carved a 1-foot-deep trench into the tunnel floor, between the ore car rail tracks. They covered the trench with wood slabs, and miners could walk, rather than wade, the course.
Unfortunately, during high-water years the level inside the tunnel exceeded the slight rise of the walkway. Some years water slopped over the top of the tracks. A few years it gushed knee deep. Due to excess water, the company ceased working the tunnel for a full year. One of the major complications: Powder charges and fuses did not fare well in water. A dangerous situation developed. Holes drilled near the tunnel floor may require more than one attempt at blasting.
As depicted in the photo, Midnight miners encountered water so commonly that they wore rubber boots. This accessory gained popularity during the last half of the 19th century. According to an 1889 Aspen Times article, policemen in Denver wore high rubber boots when thaws and rain transformed streets to mud as deep as a foot.
In Aspen in 1888, a miner could buy water proof leather boots, or rubber boots with leather soles, for $113 to $136 in today’s dollars. That added up to two days of a miner’s pay. Midnight miners’ slickers shielded them from the trickle from tunnel ceilings, an ice cold shower that ran for hours every day.
But the discomfort of sloshing around in the dark distracted attention from the drip-drip-drop of fear. If the tunnel approached an underground reservoir, and you blasted into it, a wall of water might wipe you out.
When local streams and rivers rise above their banks, real pain and hardship ensue. But compare those difficulties with the cold, wet hazards of water underground.
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 email@example.com.
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