Ore cars: A well-designed solution
August 28, 2009
In the 1970s, a hamburger restaurant that was located on the northeast corner of Mill and Main displayed ore cars on tracks in front of their building as a decoration that tapped into Aspen’s mining heritage. The owners probably never knew that a few mining survivors who passed by each day found the display offensive. Those ore cars were the larger wood-sided cars used in coal mines; they were not authentic smaller, metal, hard-rock cars. To miners, the affront felt as painful as that felt by a sailor when a powerboat plows by. Coal cars had not figured into Aspen history.
The ore cars used in Aspen’s mines were a well-designed solution to a simple problem, that of moving tons of rock from inside mountains to the outside. Soft coal did little damage to wood car linings and because coal is lighter, a greater volume could be moved in each car. If you have ever picked up even one wheel of a mine car you realize how heavy an all-metal car designed to withstand tons of rock thrown into it each day can be. Built of thick gauge sheet-iron riveted every inch or so and rimmed with another layer of metal around the top edges, hard-rock mine cars were built to last forever. And they have; today the rusting relics reside in front of businesses, sit silently in abandoned mine workings and grace alpine gardens.
Small mines that were operated by only one mine owner needed only one car. Larger mines required many cars, coupled together into trains and pulled by mules. Most were designed with dumping mechanisms that enabled the trammer (the miner who operated them) to empty cars by tilting the car bucket either to the side or to the front. Some mines used complex rolling cages that turned a car upside down to dump the contents.
Western steel-forging companies produced ore cars. Those companies built locomotives, steam boilers, tram ore buckets, water tanks and track. Most of Aspen’s cars were manufactured in Denver, many by the George Truax Company located on 18th Street.
A hard-rock ore car is about the size of a bale of hay. Filled to the top with mineralized material, one car hauled 1 ton. With four wheels moving on a smooth metal track, one man could push one car on a level grade in mine tunnels. The grade was carefully controlled. A grade of 7 to 15 vertical inches to 100 horizontal feet moved loaded cars downhill almost effortlessly. A steeper grade would wear out the ore car brakes, leading to catastrophes. The slight grade allowed water to exit the mine, and a string of empty cars could easily be pulled uphill by a mule or a single car pushed up by one man.
The standardized width of mine car track was 21.5 inches. That width within the average 4-foot tunnel allowed a person to walk past a moving ore car, barely. The track’s narrow width coupled with wide ore car wheels enabled miners to engineer fairly tight turns. This well-designed system lightened the chore of moving tons of material. Water flowed beneath the tracks, heavily faulted mountains shifted, and tons of burden moved tracks enough to cause derailment. You can’t lift a loaded ore car back onto the track.
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Underground mules star in countless miner’s stories, but few feature ore cars. They presented one of the more stable aspects of the daily drudge of mining. The only excitement they offered consisted of an occasional runaway, failed brake or derailing. Hinges sometimes broke on tipping cars. You might say they were rock solid, but they proved stronger than the rock that they moved.