The reluctant truck driver | AspenTimes.com

The reluctant truck driver

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly

Willoughby collection Truck drivers navigate the challenging switchbacks of Aspen's Queens Gulch.

Driving from Aspen to the Midnight Mine, the road halfway up Queens Gulch, challenged the patience of drivers and the condition of vehicles in the 1930s. Single miners avoided the trip by living in the boarding house at the mine. Married miners commuted in the company truck.

In those days miners worked six days a week. The Midnight crew of underground miners, mill workers, and timber cutters worked eight hour days, eight long arduous hours. At the end of a shift, workers had little energy to do anything but sit, even the young ones. Since all were dead-tired, few felt like undertaking the chore and responsibility of driving. The job usually fell to my father since he was the foreman.

The “bus” was a four-wheel drive truck. Its low gears enabled it to haul heavy loads up the steep grade, even in winter. Three men could crowd in the front seat and the others bounced around in the back, exposed to the elements and a rough ride on inflexible shocks.

In the early years of mining, all traffic to and from the Richmond Hill area came from two directions. One of the first roads climbed from town up the face of Aspen Mountain to Tourtelotte Park. From there mules transported everything over the ridge into Queens and Keno gulches and the Little Annie Basin. The alternative route was to take the road along Castle Creek from Aspen to the town of Highland. Mules turned up the gulches along that route. The well-worn path served until the 1890s, when a wagon road was built from Highland into Little Annie basin.

In the early 1900s, the mule trail in Queens Gulch widened into a steep wagon road that followed the stream straight up the gulch. When cars and trucks replaced those wagons in the 1920s, they still climbed slowly up the steep grade of the wagon road.

In the early 1930s the Midnight expanded operations. In order to get heavy equipment to a mill at the tunnel site, father cut a new road (the one in current use). Creating a grade for trucks to haul heavy loads was a challenge: It required a series of switchbacks on the exposed northern steep valley side. Two turns were too tight for trucks with limited turning radii. Automobiles had to approach the switchback, make a partial turn, back up, pull forward, and then repeat the process until 180 degrees had been negotiated.

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Tired of doing all the driving with no a volunteer to relieve him, my father enlisted my mother to drive the crew each day. Mother managed the chore without mishap, with no complaints from her passengers, and with no back-seat driving from my father.

One day as they headed down the road and reached the first switchback, the one where if you dropped your lunch pail out the window it would roll all the way to the creek, my mother entered the turn without first hugging the upper slope. That resulted in her having to make extra repeated reverses which required tugging of the steering wheel, tiring even for a stronger driver. At one point she nearly stalled the motor while making the transition from inching forward to the edge of the road stopping, shifting into reverse, and then backing up.

After the truck made the turn and headed to the next switchback, my father casually said, “Dear, I don’t think I ever told you, if you kill the motor we lose the brakes.”

The next day my father resumed his driving responsibilities.