The challenge of mining at Montezuma | AspenTimes.com

The challenge of mining at Montezuma

Tim Willoughby

Well above timberline, the remnants of the upper Montezuma tram terminal survived into the late 1950s. (Frank Willoughby/ Willoughby collection)

Aspen was not praying for snow in December 1907. In fact miners were praying it wouldn’t snow. Construction of a tram for the Tam O’Shanter Montezuma Mining and Development Co. got a late start in the summer and was pushing for completion. Crews were building the top terminal at 12,700 feet in the cirque below Castle Peak, and construction would become nearly impossible if it snowed.

The Aspen Democrat reported Dec. 13 that, because inclement weather would triple construction expenses, final completion of the tram would be postponed until spring. Spring in Montezuma basin does not come early. There is a permanent snowfield just above the top tram terminal, known as Max’s (Marolt) Glacier. Ski racers trained there in the 1960s.

The Montezuma mine is one of Aspen’s most interesting mines. Its collection of claims is highest, with most tunnel entrances above 13,000 feet. Just getting to the mine is a challenge. The road to the mine now is the same as it was then. Starting with a gentle grade at the end of the Castle Creek valley, the road grows steeper with each mile closer to Castle Peak, Colorado’s 12th-highest mountain.

The claims date back to 1879, when prospectors found a long mineral outcropping near the top of the ridge between Castle and Cathedral peaks. The combination of high elevation and low silver content made mining less favorable, so it wasn’t until after the turn of the century that enough capital was raised to extract significant ore. Montezuma’s minerals shone within beautiful galena with very high lead content. Lead was valued during the world wars, but at other times it was simply a byproduct of silver mining.

Although the Montezuma’s construction crews were sent home in December 1907, miners continued to work the vein and to stockpile ore that would be shipped out the following summer on the new tram. The main tunnel entrance and the boarding house were close to the end of the tram. Miners lived and worked year-round at 13,000 feet. Physical labor at that elevation is more than arduous, and the small boarding house must have aggravated the inevitable cabin fever.

The Montezuma Company was concurrently building a very modern mill at the bottom of the tram at about 10,000 feet. Like most mill designs, this one took advantage of the slope it was built on, with ore feeding into the top and gravity then moving the ore through the milling processes to the bottom. An on-site hydroelectric plant powered the machinery and lighting.

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Snow interfered with progress in winter 1907, and it later ended Montezuma’s reign before it ran out of ore. A snowslide took out most of the completed tram at a time when mineral prices were low and the company did not have enough capital to rebuild. In hope that mineral prices would improve, all of the equipment was left behind. In the mid-1920s, even work clothes could be found there, still hanging on the walls.

The workings of the Montezuma were in solid rock that required minimal timbering. Reopening the Montezuma did not require re-digging caved-in tunnel remnants. However, ice blocked the entrance. Once air circulation was restored and the ice melted, the tunnel was workable. Rebuilding the tram was all that was needed to resume operation.

Unfortunately, mineral prices never again rose to a level that would return the Montezuma to its “lofty” dominance.

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