Made In Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Made In Aspen

Tim Willoughby

The Durant Mine fabrication shop could make almost anything. (Willoughby photo collection)

Fifty years ago you would often encounter abandoned mining and milling equipment around Aspen’s periphery. Many items had manufacturer’s names and “New York, N.Y.” stamped into the thick cast iron with dates from pre-railroad times.

How could heavy and often large pieces of machinery have been moved so far? Although Columbia University was a major mining and engineering school and its students did summer internships in Aspen’s mines, that connection does not explain the mystery. The explanation was a common practice in the earliest years. Aspen mines made some of the equipment in Aspen using plans they bought from companies headquartered in New York.An example was the Durant Mine machine shop. In its prime it could build almost anything. The blacksmiths and machinists created from scratch, repaired, modified and assembled equipment delivered by train. Mining and milling equipment was manufactured from very thick, but brittle, cast iron that was prone to rapid destruction. In the clash of metal against rock, rock often won. Mine machine shops battled to keep up with repairs. Steam-driven equipment required boilers that developed leaks whenever a rivet worked loose. Rock drills vibrated like present-day jackhammers, expanding any metal weakness into fissures. Any metal part fractures under constant use and the extreme weights that mining imposes.

Blacksmiths turned out everything from hinges to intricate fixtures. Even today in former mining locations you can find locally forged square nails. In a few places you may see metal pipe that was made by curling longs strips of thick metal and riveting it every half-foot to hold the edges together. Until about 1890, San Francisco foundries were the major manufacturers of mining equipment. With the advent of the continental railroad, eastern companies began shipping equipment westward. Closer to western mines, Denver, Salt Lake City and Butte, Mont., dominated the business. After trains reached Aspen in 1887, and in 1888 when standard-gauge trains could haul heavy loads, most equipment came from out of town. Cheap shipping methods, and the development of steel for building, shifted many Aspen mine structures, like hoisting head frames, from wood to steel. Aspen was the first mining town to replace steam power with electricity. One consequence was that there was less boiler repair, but electric motors became the new shop activity. Aspen Novelty Works, operated by the Blackburn brothers, on the corner of Hyman Avenue and Mill Street, offered rewinding for dynamos and motors and other electrical repairs. At another location they sold and repaired traditional mining machinery.The 1890s were the height of American machinery. There seemed to be no end to how powerful an engine could be or how huge a drive wheel could be forged. Aspen used the biggest and best and manufactured some of its own.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at redmtn@schat.net.