Part II: Why miners came to Aspen – itinerant miners |

Part II: Why miners came to Aspen – itinerant miners

Miners and the camp cook at Midnight Mine boarding house in 1916. Willoughby collection

After 1900, many miners who came to Aspen came for different reasons than those who came before. These can best be described as itinerant miners, those who roamed from camp to camp.

The Midnight Mine often had at least one on its crew for most of its three-decade plus operation. Most mines in the West employed them. Skilled men were needed, often replacing another itinerant miner who had left.

It was a lifestyle for single men. They went from mine to mine, leaving when they were bored, a kind of wanderlust. They sought out mines like the Midnight that had a mining camp with a boarding house. A bed and grub was more important than wages. Some were disagreeable types who were not liked and moved on when conflicts arose. Some battled alcohol. Mining camps often banned drinking, especially during Prohibition, so this was a good solution, although when they were paid they would head to town for a binge.

In addition to isolated camps, they roamed from mining town to mining town living in boarding houses. Some did not like women, enjoying the camaraderie of other men. Others liked women, but were not inclined to marry them. The cook in a mining camp or boarding house was one of the most important employees. Good food kept miners there, bad food resulted in them leaving. Some miners enjoyed women being around, so they liked a woman cook who often was a miner’s widow. Others preferred a male cook and sought out locations with one.

Word spread among miners as to where miners were being hired, where the best grub was. It was also seasonal; Arizona in the winter, Montana in the summer.

Miner is a general term in this context and needs some clarification. There were two kinds, hard rock miners and coal miners. Each had different skills. Each had a different population of miners. Coal mining was a low-wage job staffed mostly from recent immigrants.

The lifespan of a miner was short especially because of lung diseases like silicosis. Younger miners were more inclined to be vagabonds enjoying the diversity of Western mining towns. Older miners had to adjust their choices based on their physical limitations. The most dangerous jobs were the ones always needing workers so they were usually filled with the younger itinerant types.

Aspen attracted its share, especially during the Depression. But locals also enjoyed the experience of traveling to other mining towns. My father was a good example. He had a standing job at the Midnight but wanted to see the world — at least, the mining world. In the early years of the Depression he worked in other Colorado camps, Park City, Utah, Tonopah, Nevada, and copper mines in Arizona. He could get a job at most mines, in part, because Aspen had a decades-long reputation for being at the top of mining innovation.

There is more than the availability of jobs and the higher pay that attracted and held miners to the profession. There was autonomy underground. Miners often worked alone or in pairs, and their work, while it might seem routine and monotonous to us, was not to them. Drilling holes and placing the charges was not routine as a miner had to adjust how it was done to the kind of rock, the direction intended, and the planned slope.

The least discussed, but one of the most enticing benefits to being a miner was discovering pockets of ore. Finding silver or gold was exciting each and every time a miner encountered it, even if they were not the owner of the mine.

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

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