Prohibition: The demise of mining? | AspenTimes.com

Prohibition: The demise of mining?

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly

Willoughby CollectionMidnight Mine blacksmith Jim Ammerman, center, with F.T. Willoughby, right, in front of the compressor shed in the 1920s.

Fourth of July celebrations have allowed an excuse for imbibing for generations. However, Aspen’s miners did not require a holiday to celebrate with excessive alcohol consumption. As sailors of old downed daily doses of drink as part of their pay, many miners washed the day’s dust from their throats with alcoholic beverages.

Male-dominated mining communities were known for building many more saloons than churches. Hard-working, hard-drinking miners congregated at their favorite watering holes as their shifts drew to an end. Saloons provided important communication nodes for the industry. Prospectors from around Aspen made frequent trips to town to report progress, or lack thereof, on the claims they were working. Talk of silver values, vein locations and general geology spread by word of mouth, with saloons filling the same niche that industry conventions do today.

Saloonkeepers acted as bankers. Prospectors needed cash to keep themselves fed while they searched for silver. Miners often ran up debts for meals (grub), for which saloon owners accepted shares in mines from those in arrears. Once prospectors found encouraging mineralization, more investment was necessary to finance tunnel and shaft exploration. Saloonkeepers, grocers and owners of supply stores who grubstaked prospectors grew wealthy from the small loans they made.

During prohibition my father, in his twenties, worked at the Midnight Mine where the blacksmith, Jim Ammerman, tutored him in local mining history. After work he would pass father a cigar and tell tales. Ammerman was the elder of the camp and an early Aspen pioneer. Within a short walk of the Midnight were many abandoned tunnels, one along a manganese vein near the blacksmith’s house. Father was impressed with the large number of prospect holes and queried Jim one evening about why prospectors were not still searching for silver as they had in the past.

Jim answered, “simple, there’s no inspiration, no saloons and no whiskey. This Volstead Act foolishness has nearly wrecked this western country. It used to be men had ambition and no money. Most saloon owners had money and they were usually loose with it. Saloonkeepers made most of their money selling whiskey. More mining, more whiskey drinking and more lending.”

They continued their discussion, digressing to how geologists had replaced prospectors, while noting that geologists were not the risk-takers that saloonkeepers and prospectors had been. Mining, they concluded, was gambling of the first order: high stakes, high rewards and dismal failures.

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Ammerman may have been right about saloonkeepers, but he missed the mark when he implied that miners lacked liquor. Without the saloonkeepers’ grubstaking, prospecting ended, but booze continued to flow in Colorado mining towns throughout prohibition. Ammerman made his own rhubarb wine and Leadville’s moonshine crossed the divide daily. Bootleg whiskey sold for $6 a gallon in Aspen.

Bars reopened in 1934, the first on the corner of the Wheeler, run by a man named Keough. Tim Kelleher opened a beer bar in the Red Onion building and the Hotel Jerome served hard liquor. For the first few years, legal liquor was inferior so many Aspenites continued consuming Leadville’s bootleg brand.