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Mining trams

This ad from The Engineering and Mining Journal, 1892, shows the Bleichert two-cable tram system used in Aspen.
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Skiers are so familiar with ski lifts and gondolas that they are rarely impressed with the seemingly flawless technology that transports them. The precursor to ski lifts, mining trams, were breakthroughs in transportation that dominated Aspen’s landscape as well as its citizens’ imaginations.

Two inventions made trams possible. First was a method for producing continuous wire rope cable. John Roebling patented the process on the East Coast and Andrew Hallidie received a patent on the West Coast. One of their first applications was building suspension bridges, with Roebling constructing the Brooklyn Bridge. The second invention, by Hallidie, was an effective cable-braking system. Most trams are operated on slopes, many of which are very steep. The cable, just as with modern ski lifts, wraps around bull-wheels at each end, and the weight of the cable, even without carrying a load, is sufficient to accelerate the speed of the bull wheels to the point where they could be torn apart. Hallidie concocted a method of slowing down even the heaviest loads. In addition to its application for mine trams, he applied it when creating the San Francisco cable car system.

There was considerable financial motivation to build trams. Transporting ore from high mountains to the mills below was costly. Aspen Mountain mines hauled ore in burlap sacks, by mule. As they reached lower-grade ore, roads were improved for wagon use, but the steep grades limited the load size. In addition, teamsters’ freighting rates were exorbitant.



Trams lowered ore transportation costs from two or five dollars a ton, depending on summer or winter, to as little as seven cents a ton, and enabled the mines to move ore in the spring when roads were too muddy. Trams also hauled coal, materials and men up the mountain.

Aspen went on a tram-building frenzy at the end of the 1880s. The Aspen Mine constructed a 3,000-foot-long tram that moved 10 tons of material an hour. It used the Huson design manufactured by C. W. Badgley and Company of Denver. The cost of moving ore from the face of Aspen Mountain to the railroad tracks below was reduced to about 25 cents a ton. Huson trams operated with one continuous moving cable, with ore buckets attached like chairs on older ski lifts.




The success of the Aspen Mine tram inspired construction of another tram. It crossed above the Aspen tram, partway up the mountain, on its route to the Compromise Mine, just above the top of Little Nell. The Compromise tram used two cables, the Bleichert system. A fixed cable provided a surface for buckets’ pulleys to roll on. A second, continuously moving, cable, pulled the buckets along the fixed cable. The two-cable system could carry heavier loads, on cable between 7/8 and 1 1/2 inches in diameter.

Gravity pulled the loaded buckets downhill, which in turn lifted the empties uphill. A 25-horsepower electric motor was added to move loads from the bottom up when no ore was being carried down, and to start the system.

The grandest tram was constructed to carry ore from Tourtelotte Park to town, via Spar Gulch. The Aspen Public Tramway, a project financed primarily by Jerome Wheeler, had 59 towers, some rising as much as 80 feet above the ground, supporting its nearly 10,000-foot-long route. Buckets were spaced 100 feet apart, each with a carrying capacity of 600 pounds.

The Aspen Public Tramway specialized buckets according to use. One carried passengers, two at a time, for a 40-minute trip from town to Tourtelotte Park. The tram was immediately perceived as a possible tourist attraction, to carry people to the top of Aspen Mountain for 50 cents per person.

The Tourtelotte tram was also of the Bleichert design. All 198,000 pounds of its metal parts were manufactured by the Trenton Iron Company of New Jersey. The towers were made of local wood timbers.

In the Tourtelotte system, perpendicular trams brought ore down the steep west side of Spar Gulch to dump into the main-line buckets. The operation was nearly automatic. Ore from contributing lines was dumped into a bin, from which ore was distributed among more buckets as they descended to town.

The mines employing the trams had different owners, so a system of weighing and keeping track of ore was essential. Missing or misplaced ore could be costly.

The Park Tram was the last built on Aspen Mountain, constructed by the American Steel and Wire Company in 1922. Its 100-foot-plus tower near the bottom was the tallest structure in town. The tram connected the Park Tunnel in Keno Gulch with town. It was torn down in 1946 and some of its parts, including the cable, were used in the first two ski lifts.

Trams enabled mines to make a profit on lower grades of ore that would not have been profitable using expensive wagon and mule transportation. They revolutionized Aspen’s mining practices and they dazzled its citizens.


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