Willoughby: Silver mining seen from a petroleum perspective — Part I | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Silver mining seen from a petroleum perspective — Part I

We mythologize Aspen as the Silver Queen and focus on rags-to-riches stories. In reality, the silver mining business did not differ much from other businesses today, such as the oil industry.

Both are extractive industries. Both tied to the monetary system. Both adapt to market changes, some volatile. For many communities, they form the base industry, the largest employer. Both offer risky investment opportunities.

During the 1880s silver and gold mining offered a possibility of the greatest reward for the smallest investment, but that came with a big risk. A popular pursuit, to build and run railroads, offered diminishing returns by the 1880s, when tracks crisscrossed the country. By then railroad companies had borrowed more than they could pay back, and caused a major recession. The new hot commodity, Colorado silver, boosted Aspen’s investment potential.

In modern times the North Dakota Bakken oil rush stands in comparison. The rush began in 2006 and has led, so far, to 15,000 oil wells throughout the state. If you count all silver towns throughout Colorado, miners may have dug that many holes, most of them unproductive.

Both the North Dakota oil and Colorado silver booms attracted thousands of workers. Small businesses ranged from saloons to salons, with more of the former because men greatly outnumbered women. Buildings were thrown up quickly, and provided construction jobs. Men worked long hours and ate at boarding houses and restaurants that catered to their needs.

To move equipment and people required teamsters in Colorado — the ones that drove teams of horses. North Dakota needs teamster truckers. Both kinds of teamsters faced unrelenting hazards. Aspen’s teamsters drove on steep narrow roads with precipitous drop-offs. My mother’s uncle hauled material on Aspen Mountain and had several accidents. In the springtime his wagon slipped off the road. In another disaster, his son rode with him and died when the wagon rolled over. I remember hearing a North Dakota tanker truck driver count the accidents, worst on winter highways. With oil sloshing in the tank behind you, you can’t hit the brakes on an icy road.

Miners and drilling rig operators endured muscle-wrenching, dangerous jobs. But they earned more than they would in other jobs, and the excitement of the search for precious product enlivened their existences. A rig operator could drill a hole several thousand feet into the earth and miss the oil. A miner could tunnel hundreds of feet into the ground and pass a silver vein hidden a few yards away. Geologists guided these pursuits, but Mother Nature was not entirely predictable. The unpredictability added a thrill to the chase and sweetened success.

The Rocky Mountains are scenic, as is North Dakota. But for non-tourists, winter slams the outdoor workplace as a brutal force to contend with. To shovel snow and brave blistering winds when the thermometer hovers near zero called for a strong or desperate worker.

Investors, the risk-taking stock buyers, may have suffered nightmares over the odds of making a profit. But few businesses dangle the mind-boggling profit that can come from unearthing nature’s most valuable ingredients. Some rags-to-riches stories out of North Dakota rivaled those of the silver era. The boring ones broke even. And some tales involved lost fortunes, riches-to-rags.

The bottom line, however, runs under a larger picture. To level forests for mining timber, to burn wood to drive steam-powered equipment, and to drain contaminants into streams and the atmosphere — these actions create uncounted, wide-ranging and long-term consequences. Overall, extractive industries take more out of a system than they give back.

Next week, Part II: Silver mining seen from an economic perspective.

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.

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