Recapturing a small piece of Aspen’s mining history |

Recapturing a small piece of Aspen’s mining history

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Graeme Means uses a barn boring machine on a timber last week. The operator sits on a metal plate to steady the tool and turns the hand cranks to make the bit drill into the wood.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

In November 1891, the hulking five-story, 27,000-square-foot Holden Lixiviation Works opened on the west bank of Castle Creek on the outskirts of Aspen.

The plant used stamp mills, furnaces and chemical vats to coax silver out of the low-grade ore prodigiously produced by Aspen’s many mines. The mill and associated operations in surrounding buildings — a salt warehouse, assayer’s office and sampling operation — sprawled across 22 acres. The plant was hailed at the time as the final piece needed to catapult Aspen to status as king of Colorado’s silver towns.

It operated barely more than one year — without a profit — before the U.S. government ended its mandatory purchase of silver and the market collapsed. The great Holden Works started a long decline. All that remains of the massive mill is the stone and brick foundation. The sampling shed is now the impressive Holden/Marolt Mining and Ranching Museum. The salt warehouse is a workshop.

A tiny part of the mill operation is being eyed as a big way to boost public awareness in one of the most important sites in Aspen’s mining history.

A wheelhouse along Castle Creek used two Pelton wheels to generate the power required to run the plant’s machinery and the electricity to light it. Steel ropes transmitted the power and electricity up the slope. A wooden derrick or tower standing 26 feet was needed to support the heavy ropes.

Relic was rotting

That tower was battered by weather for decades and obscured by cottonwood trees but stood for more than a century until about 10 years ago.

“It fell over and was just rotting into the ground,” said Graeme Means, an architect who immerses himself in Aspen’s history. Means and Carl Bergman, who were instrumental in getting the city government to establish the Holden/Marolt Museum, hatched a plan to construct a replica derrick. Building a new derrick makes sense for a couple of reasons, according to Means.

“It’s a project on a scale that we can reconstruct,” he said. “It’s kind of a signpost of what was here.”

The city parks and open space program signed off on the project a couple of years ago and budgeted for the work this year.

Means is working with master craftsmen Ray Ingram and Edgar Rojo of Renaissance Woodworkers to painstakingly re-create the tower, almost exclusively using hand tools similar to what were used 125 years ago.

The team studied the remnants of the old tower to determine how it was built. They enlisted the experience of Aspen historian Larry Fredericks to help ascertain the function and operations of the tower.

Ingram’s company typically installs huge interior timbers in some of Aspen’s most lavish mansions and undertakes other specialty woodwork. When he was asked to work on the replica derrick, he said, “absolutely.” He and Rojo relished the opportunity to use hand tools to match the efforts of craftsman several generations ago.

No shortcuts

“There’s not too many people that have the patience to use hand tools,” Ingram said, while using a hand-cranked barn-boring machine to drill holes in a timber. “It’s more challenging and more fulfilling. There are no shortcuts. It builds character.”

The timbers that were originally cut for the tower couldn’t be produced long enough to hold the steel rope at the desired height, so the original woodworkers created special scarf joints to splice timber to the property length.

Ingram and Rojo duplicated the joints, which look like lightning bolts, on the Englemann spruce timbers they purchased from the Grand Mesa for the job. The barn-boring machine was used to drill the holes for bolts that will hold the 7-by-11-inch timbers together.

The large metal plate extends from the base of the saw so the operator can sit on it and keep it steady. Hand cranks on either side of the bit and its housing are cranked to turn the bit.

Other hand tools needed for the job included a rabbet plane No. 10, Japanese slick chisel, hand ripsaw and ryoba saw. They didn’t cheat on bolts or nails. Means shopped the country to find the huge, ungalvanized steel bolts with square nuts used to fasten pieces of the tower together. They are using metal-cut nails, the same as what was manufactured in the 1850s.

Rojo credited Ingram with teaching his crew, when opportunity presents itself, on using hand tools. It was a pleasure to get to apply the skills, he said.

A project such as the tower makes a craftsman step back and reflect on how woodworking was performed when hand tools were all that existed, Rojo said.

“The other fun part will be to raise it,” he said.

Fitting addition to landmark

They aim to have the components completed shortly after Thanksgiving, after hundreds of man-hours on the job. The tower will be erected at the same location where it was placed in 1891. Means and the Renaissance men are contemplating how to erect the tower. They want to accomplish the feat without modern machinery.

City Open Space Manager Austin Weiss said the tower will be an important addition to the Holden/Marolt property, which is city open space. The city has installed paths and interpretative signs on the property to highlight the mining works and relics, but the property is underutilized, Weiss said.

“It is such an amazing landmark,” he said. “It goes unnoticed by residents and tourists of Aspen.”

He believes the derrick will be a way to draw people in. The parks and open space department budgeted $15,000 for the project.

Means said a lot of people remain fascinated by Aspen’s mining history. The derrick will make it come to life a little bit more.

“It will help tell the story of the lixiviation works,” he said. “The tower will be a visual symbol that will attract people to this site.”