Signs of the past on Aspen’s Smuggler Mountain
November 3, 2012
ASPEN – Going up Smuggler is a rite of passage for Aspen’s local populace.
Few reside in town for any length of time without making adjacent Smuggler Mountain part of their recreation ritual, whether it’s hiking to the observation deck or pedaling the grueling climb up Smuggler Mountain Road in anticipation of a descent into the Hunter Creek Valley via the cutoff road and the Iowa Shaft singletrack.
Fewer still stop to contemplate the origins of the Iowa Shaft Trail’s name. Until now.
In the half-dozen years since Aspen and Pitkin County acquired about 240 acres of formerly private land on the mountain playground, the Smuggler Mountain Open Space has been a work in progress involving cleanup, forestry, reclamation and revegetation. New trails beckon mountain bikers, but the latest additions to the landscape might have them hitting the brakes.
Interpretive signs recently were erected on the open space, bringing Smuggler’s past into focus for those who otherwise might miss the clues that remain scattered in the trees and protruding from the ground.
Smuggler, like many of the mountains surrounding Aspen, was once a hotbed of silver mining. It boasted many mines, including the Iowa Shaft, Park Regent and Bushwacker – all significant operations that boasted shaft houses, boilers, hoists and assorted other buildings and equipment associated with the silver boom of the late 1800s.
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It long has been the goal of city and county open space officials to point the sites out, according to Brian Flynn, open space and special projects manager for the city Parks Department.
“People have been coming up here for years without really realizing what was here,” he said.
The Park Regent and Bushwacker both were tucked out of view, on private property, before the city and county purchased the land, but anyone who has been down the Hunter Creek cutoff road has passed by the Iowa Shaft.
In fact, the road itself, built from the rock waste hauled from the mine, was constructed to create a dam, diverting water running down the mountainside away from the mine and possibly capturing water for mine use, according to consultant Eric Twitty, of Mountain States Historical, who explored the area and helped piece together its past.
“How many people know they’re crossing a dam?” mused Rebecca Weiss, a part-time Aspen Center for Environmental Studies naturalist hired to research the history of the mines, unearth photos and write the text for the interpretive signs, which she helped design.
Before she began her work, Weiss said she had no idea of the substantial mine workings that dotted Smuggler.
“I had no grasp of all the shafts and how far up the mountain those buildings really did go,” she said.
All three of the mines where interpretive signs have been placed are now big, conical holes in the ground, as the shafts have collapsed. At the Iowa Shaft in particular, though the shaft house burned down in 1899, Twitty found plenty of evidence of its former workings. A map and series of small signs direct visitors to take a closer look at nine different spots around the mine.
There are, for example, large bolts sticking out of the ground. Surrounded now by snow, they’re more noticeable.
“How many times have people biked right by here and not said, ‘What the heck are those doing here?'” Flynn wonders.
Twitty identified them as the bolts that held down a steam-powered air compressor that powered rock drills within the mine. The compressor is noteworthy because such drills were uncommon in the 1880s given their cost, he wrote in a summary of his findings.
“The features presently remaining indicate that the Iowa Mine was a substantial, professionally engineered shaft operation,” according to Twitty, who suggests that it might be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as the Colorado register, despite its lack of intact structures.
The landscape surrounding the Park Regent and Bushwacker has been significantly altered, but at the Bushwacker stands one of the most interesting artifacts on display. A pink block of Peachblow sandstone, quarried in the Fryingpan Valley, was found on its side near the collapsed mine shaft. A “B” for Bushwacker is chiseled into one side. The letters “D S” – for the Della S. claim – appear on the other. Moved from its original locale at some point, it is a corner marker that would originally have been placed where corners of the two claims met, Weiss explained.
Weiss also uncovered a photograph of the Bushwacker shaft house that depicts Red Mountain beyond it. One who stands in front of the interpretive marker, which displays the photo, can get a sense of what once existed by looking at the unchanged undulations of Red Mountain.
The sign was being placed in the ground, Flynn said, when they noticed a large boulder in the foreground of the photo. The big rock is still there. If you’re reading the sign, it’s right behind you.
At the Park Regent, a timber box has been placed to re-create the “cribbing” that once existed around the shaft, and there has been discussion of building a replica of part of the shaft house to give visitors a sense of the former mine development. The site is so altered that Twitty has advised such an addition wouldn’t compromise the historic integrity of the site, Flynn said.