Willoughby: Veteran ore bin, the last mining structure removed from Aspen Mountain
Legends & Legacies
The Veteran ore bin, the last large mining structure on the face of Aspen Mountain, only a short walk from my home in the Cowenhoven Building, echoed with temptations too strong for a boy to ignore.
My mother did not discourage my wanderings. Even during my preschool days, she let me join my sister to pick the chokecherries she needed for her annual batch of jam. The trees grew alongside the ore bin. I naturally coaxed my sister to explore.
To me, a tot, the structure loomed outsized. It stood not quite as tall as the Wheeler Opera House, but nonetheless tall for Aspen. Floor planks and structural beams extended thicker than the 1950s lumber of my familiar world. Old bolts and metal pieces, hand forged and rusted into place, dotted the interior. Most of all, I remember the smell of the stale interior, layered with decades of ground-up shale, limestone and various minerals.
A crude ore bin is just what its name implies. Miners dumped ore fresh from the inside of the mountain into ore cars and unloaded the cars into the top of an ore bin building. Like grain in a silo, ore could be stored inside a bin until shipment. Railroad tracks ran close to the base of the bin, where chutes facilitated loading ore into railroad cars.
Thousands of tons of ore passed through the Veteran tunnel, a major mining operation on the mountain. Contractors earned about $400 per foot, in today’s dollars, to dig the first 1,000 feet of the tunnel during 1885. Although the tunnel did not encounter ore that first year, it cleared a path toward a known ore body. Once there, it branched in all directions. By 1887, owners of Aspen Mining and Smelting engaged 350 men to extract the ore.
Mining engineers credit the Veteran as the first electrified mining tunnel. An electric motor powered an incline operation that pulled ore cars up a grade. From its beginning, the tunnel remained one of the five major ore tunnels on Aspen Mountain. The number of miners there dropped to 100 in 1902, and 50 by 1907.
The ore bin reminded early skiers that they recreated in a mining town. When Aspen held the F.I.S. world championships in 1950, racers flew past the downhill finish just below the bin. Many photos showed racers against a background that featured the bin. Regular skiers who got off the T-bar lift on Little Nell, or came down from Spar Gulch, skied that same slope. They had to traverse the mountain to catch Lift One.
In 1952 the Ski Company acknowledged that the trestle between the ore bin and the tunnel created a hazard. Because the trestle might collapse onto skiers as they whooshed below, the company removed it. The Brown family owned the mines on that section of the mountain. Over the years they removed all structures except the ore bin, and sold the salvageable material. In 1953, the family tore down the bin and disposed of the priceless old beams.
Despite the loss of the behemoth, whenever I picked chokecherries I also would pick over the bin remains. Eyes and fingers to ground, I would find a bolt or two, and rocks that would leave the scent of minerals on my perspiring palms. When I looked up, I discovered the most valuable treasure of all — an unhindered view of my hometown.
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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Kevin Warner started his career with the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger in 2001. Now he’s taking over the key position as Aspen-Sopris District Ranger.