Music campus was a mining marvel
Aspen Times Weekly
A different kind of student walked the Aspen Music School/Aspen Country Day School campus at the turn of the century. Columbia University’s mining engineers came to study a modern mining marvel, the Newman tunnel.
As Aspen Mountain’s miners of the Tourtelotte Park area worked their way down rich silver veins, the work became more expensive as it went deeper. Mining downhill requires more work, and a larger payroll, than mining uphill. As depth increased, more water had to be pumped at further expense.
With the devaluation of silver, smaller mines combined into larger companies. The Tourtelotte Park area of Aspen Mountain consolidated into the Percy La Salle Mining Company. George Newman, one of Aspen’s first prospectors, owned many of the company’s claims. He formed a new company in order to construct a tunnel from the area of the music campus to the vein below the Percy La Salle workings. The tunnel would improve efficiency by draining, rather than pumping, water out of the mines.
The 2,500-foot tunnel was the most sophisticated ever constructed in Aspen. Dug at an incline, the passage gained 1,300 feet in elevation from its Castle Creek portal. Unlike most Aspen tunnels, its width allowed two ore car tracks.
The tunnel ended in base rock, granite. Changing direction from there, another 900-foot incline was bored until it intersected the bottom of a new ore body, and a big one it was. A miner who worked that stope said it extended over a hundred “sets.” A timbering set, a square frame to support the ground above, is six feet wide.
The unique method of moving the ore cars attracted the students from Columbia. A circulating cable similar to San Francisco’s cable car system was employed. The weight of the descending ore cars, which were attached to the cable, powered the ascent of the empty cars. Aspen’s aerial trams worked in a similar fashion. The Newman had its own hydroelectric plant, the first ever used for mining purposes, to power backup motors, but gravity was the major mover.
The Colorado Midland Railroad constructed a spur line to connect the Newman to the main line. Ore bins with an 800-ton capacity fed an automatic system for loading railroad cars. Trains pulled in, loaded, then headed to the smelter in Leadville. Some $10-15 million dollars of silver moved through the Newman tunnel at half the price that preceded demonetization.
The Newman filled trains daily with ore into the 1920s. The spur line closed by 1926, when ore was still hauled to town by horse-drawn wagons. After closing, the Newman became a popular youth hangout for fishing and swimming. The ponds are still there. Two original structures, the office and the manager’s house, remain as reminders of the silver days.
A short climb to the top of the mine dump located above the present-day Music School rehearsal hall will take you to the previous site of the Newman tunnel portal. Had the inclines remained in operation into the 1930s, Aspen’s first ski “lift” might have been a ride up the tunnel, and then up a shaft, to exit just below the top of Aspen Mountain. Tourists may have judged it a dark, dusty and spooky ride, but moving through the underground on a winter day would have afforded skiers a warmer ride than today’s ski lifts.
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