The secret life of stumps |

The secret life of stumps

While hiking far from the well-traveled trails you may have looked up beyond eye level to find improbable weathered tree stumps. Some can be found in odd and remote places that completely lack evidence of beavers. Close examination may reveal a flat, clean, perpendicular saw cut. “Wow,” you might think, “to cut a tree that far above the ground, someone had to be as tall as Paul Bunyan.”

Miners and lumberjacks mowed down trees anywhere approaching Aspen and its surrounding mines. Bell Mountain was bald by 1900. The top of Smuggler Mountain was clear cut. Areas alongside Castle Creek were thoroughly timbered. It is hard to find any original growth trees in the area.

The demand for lumber in the 19th century exceeded supply. Wood reinforced mines and provided buildings, shelter and heat. Before the introduction of electricity, miners used steam to power pumps and equipment. Boilers ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Bodie, Calif., a much smaller community than Aspen, provides one example of a mining town’s appetite for trees: In 1879, one of several lumber operations there consumed 90 cords of wood a day; a railroad line was built solely to supply wood to that community.

Mine props used to keep tunnels and shafts from caving consumed the most lumber in Aspen. Props were 6 inches square and the boards between were 2 and sometimes 3 inches thick. Mine tracks were laid on thick timber ties. Much of this timbering had to be replaced on a regular schedule, increasing wood demands.

Stopes, the cavities left after an ore vein has been extracted, had to be timbered to prevent collapse of the ground above. Picture a space as large as the inside of the high school gym. Then start counting the number of 6 feet long, 6 feet high cubes of 6-by-6 inch mine props it would take to fill that space floor to ceiling the full length.

Teamsters hauled wagon loads of trees to sawmills in town and to mines that had their own sawmills. Most mines and lumber companies employed extra men in the summers to stockpile trees. But, to meet year-round needs, crews worked in winter, too.

During winter months trees were dragged though the snow behind horses or mules or loaded onto sleds for delivery along roads. Gravity was a teamster’s friend, so trees were felled at higher elevations and pulled downhill to their destinations.

Cutting trees in snow is not a favored occupation. Like any winter outdoor occupation, workers constantly contended with cold. One cold day when my father was cutting timber above the Midnight Mine on Richmond Hill, his feet froze to near frostbite level. He was surprised to discover, after his feet warmed at the end of the day, that he had put an ax through his boot cutting into his foot and didn’t even feel it.

Deep snow presents challenges to logging. Timber crews did not, however, dig snow around a tree before cutting it down. They cut the tree from on top of the snow. That is why you find those 5 foot high tree stumps at high elevations far from any road.

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