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Sacrifice in a time of war

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby collection The Herron brothers mill extracted lead and zinc from Smuggler dumps during World War II.
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World War II civilians performed operations that were essential to the war effort, even in isolated Aspen. The war boosted employment associated with revived mineral production, but mines had to forgo silver profits. Life prior to the war was a struggle; war converted struggle into sacrifice. Little changed in daily routine except for a positive mental shift.

Mineral prices fell to historic lows during the Depression. Aspen’s mines produced sufficient silver content to keep operations going. Aspen’s ore included zinc, lead, silver and sometimes marketable barite. Smelters deducted a zinc allowance from what they paid for silver. After transportation expenses, mines made slim or no profit. The war years changed that formula. Lead and zinc were important to military products; the smelter’s zinc penalty became a bonus.

At the beginning of the war America faced a shortage of strategic minerals. There was no tin production. Almost all nickel came from Canada. Copper production had dropped during the Depression. To improve the situation, the War Production Board pushed Act L-208, which restricted the production of non-essential minerals, primarily gold and silver. The Act promoted essential mineral production by allocating materials use, like milling chemicals and gas for vehicles and equipment, for mining of molybdenum, tungsten, lead, zinc and other important minerals.

L-208 reversed Colorado’s mining population centers. After silver was demonetized in the 1890s, its value dropped, switching the focus of miners and investors to gold. Cripple Creek gained in population, Aspen declined. And then L-208 shut down Cripple Creek for the duration of the war because its ore lacked strategic minerals.

The Smuggler and Midnight mines in Aspen attracted the former gold miners to produce lead and zinc 24 hours a day. The Midnight employed 50 men. The Herron brothers ran the Smuggler, processing mine dumps in a new mill they built near the entrance to the Cowenhoven tunnel. Men who worked in mining at the beginning of the war were exempt from the draft because their occupation was considered a strategic industry.

Colorado’s gold miners were recruited to work in the new uranium mines in western Colorado. Some of Aspen’s miners made that transition. Gold prices were low after the war and small gold mines could not compete with the uranium mines for workers, so some of Colorado’s gold mines never reopened.

Aspen’s Midnight Mine produced about a million pounds of lead and zinc each year during the war. Aspen’s silver ore was lead-based, so the silver went with the lead to the smelter. Silver was substituted for nickel in coinage. Nickel was reserved for the war effort. Silver then was valued at about 40 cents an ounce, nearly double what it had been in the 1930s. War wages improved and miners worked extra hours. They bought war bonds with their larger paychecks. Aspenites took pride in their highest per capita rate of war bond buying in Colorado.

Perhaps the Bush administration has demonstrated small faith in American support by distancing the public from the Iraq war. Restricting news coverage, borrowing to pay for the war and extending tours of duty instead of drafting troops means the only transparent sacrifice has been that of soldiers and their families. World War II Aspen endured shortages of tires, gas and food. Citizens supported the troops by buying war bonds, rolling cigarettes, knitting socks and other direct contributions. Miners worked around the clock to produce strategic minerals. There was no grumbling ” doing your part was true American patriotism.


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