Aspen economy: Out with the old, in with the new, out with the old, repeat
Legends & Legacies
Skiing replaced mining as Aspen’s base economy. Each enterprise has lasted roughly 70 years.
The total mining years span more modern projects. During the 1960s a new mill process milked the old Smuggler Mine dumps for a final few ounces of silver. Although those dumps had been milled previously, improved milling processes could squeeze new profit out of recycled dumps.
One of Aspen’s longest tunnels came to completion during the late 1960s. The Highland Tunnel construction had started during the 1890s. The tunnel intended to drain water and open exploration of the area beneath the Little Annie and Midnight mines. It entered the west side of the mountain, starting near the Castle Creek Road before it splits with the road to Conundrum. After abandoning the tunnel for a while, miners pushed farther underground during the 1930s.
With the arrival of the 1960s, J.R. Simplot, a potato baron and mining dabbler, completed the tunnel. This effort completed a search for silver that reached below the Little Annie Mine extending 10,000 feet into the mountain.
Beginning during the late 1950s, Pitkin Iron mined the large iron ore deposit on the north side of Taylor Peak for nearly 20 years. This mining operation was not Aspen’s base economic engine. But it provided summer jobs for many in the ski industry. Also, it paid more property taxes than did any other entity in Pitkin County.
Mining ended its long run as Aspen’s base industry during 1950. Nearly all mineral-producing mines in America closed around that time. The price of silver had dropped, and competition from foreign producers drove American mines into the red. As with the exit of manufacturing jobs from America in recent times, miners in other countries worked for much less.
The Herron Brothers and their employees had mined the Smuggler and Durant mines, which closed. The Midnight, the largest employer in Aspen, cut the workforce to a skeleton crew to maintain tunnels and thus keep future opportunity alive. But all work halted in 1952.
After the Midnight shut down, Aspen Skiing Co.’s small work force grew. The company became Aspen’s largest employer.
Starting the clock in 1879 when prospectors began work in Aspen, and stopping it in 1950, mining as the base industry spans 71 years.
Skiing started in Aspen during 1937. An important and growing industry, it employed mostly volunteers of the Aspen Ski Club. Gradually, Aspen built a reputation and hosted the 1941 National Championships. Those efforts, along with summer tourism, helped the Hotel Jerome thrive. But tourism did not rival mining for dependable, well-paying jobs.
Aspen Skiing Co. opened the slopes with a tiny crew during 1947. In addition, the company hosted a ski school. There, mostly part-time instructors outnumbered the operations staff. After 1950, the operation finally ranked as a major employer. Since then, skiing has served as Aspen’s base industry for 70 years.
Unless something catastrophic happens this year, total ski base years would surpass total mine base years. However, no guarantees ensure that an industry would last forever. Global warming could end the cycle. Cheaper, more accessible sports such as trampolining could outcompete skiing. A new industry could move to town and overcome the old base industry, say a social media company with more employees than those currently devoted to tourism.
Perhaps in 50 years an Aspen history columnist would lament the downsizing of skiing in Aspen. By then, if you count the years the paper was called the Aspen Democrat Times, the Aspen Times would have outlived mining and skiing, and reported on them for 170 years.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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