Oil in Snowmass Valley?
The gripping opening scenes of the movie There Will Be Blood depict the crude methods of turn-of-the-20th-century oil exploration. Loosely based on Upton Sinclairs 1920 novel Oil, the movie traces the main characters personality and wildcatting stage. Oil exploration holds the same attraction as mining and in the early years the individuals involved in each were interchangeable. The price of oil gushed as mineral prices dropped in the first decade of the 1900s. Prospectors turned to oil wildcatting, even in Pitkin County. Leafing though editions of The Aspen Times from the period, you run across short accounts of oil exploration. These resembled the mineral gossip, so-and-so was in town yesterday and reports … The sedimentary layers of the Snowmass Creek valley promised the most petroleum potential. Aspen promoters championed, in the same area, one of the largest copper deposits in the world. The Bullion City Copper Mining and Milling Company discovered a deposit of native copper by sinking a 70-foot shaft, then drifting a tunnel for another 100 feet. Success like that encouraged prospectors and entrepreneurs to seek capital to develop nearly forgotten mineral claims of the 1880s into profitable ventures. Companies sold stock for so many schemes that it became difficult to sort the serious from the shenanigans. Risks were so high and share prices so low that it did not matter to the promoters or the investors. There was great confidence in the potential for any company to produce the next mineral or oil bonanza, and if the earth proved to be stingy then someone would still be pocketing money. The hype for oil at Snowmass was, most likely, one of the ill-conceived ventures. For many investors, the risk was like buying a lottery ticket today. They knew the odds were against them, but they also knew they might miss out on a fortune if they did not buy in.My grandfather exemplified the oil and mineral optimism of the period. His father journeyed to Colorado for the 1860s gold rush, settled in Denver and invested every extra dollar he had in mining stock. Grandfather came of age when silver prices had sunk, the rate of gold discoveries had slowed and oil had become the new rage. To break from his father, he departed for the Kansas oil boom.The 1903-04 southern Kansas oil boom created some of the early oil barons, notably Harry Sinclair of the Teapot Dome scandal. Sinclair had two ways of locating sites; drill where blackjack oaks were growing or drill near where someone else had already found oil.Although grandfather did not find oil, he found the oil investors who he later tapped to invest in Aspens Midnight Mining Company. The Midnight drove a 1-mile tunnel from Queens Gulch to the old Midnight claim in Little Annie Basin in the belief that silver would be found along the Castle Creek fault line. The company would drive 100 unproductive feet, then find investors for the next 100 feet. Modern geology has reduced the risk of oil and mineral extraction. Finding minerals and oil in the early 1900s was more art than science. Promoter and investor alike understood that incurring the expense of digging or drilling one or even 10,000 feet could leave you just a few feet (and dollars) short of success. The decision to stop was wrenching when great fortune may have lain just one more foot away. Tim Willoughbys family story parallels Aspens. 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 wi