Underground water labyrinths | AspenTimes.com

Underground water labyrinths

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby CollectionWater fills the lower half of the Smuggler Mountain tunnels and shafts shown on this mine map.

Surface signs of Aspen’s mines have disappeared over time. Tunnel entrances have collapsed and vegetation covers the scars. Tops of shafts were deliberately sealed, some dynamited and others bulldozed, until no one remembers where they were. Far below, ground movements and failing mine props produce cave-ins along miles of tunnels. In solid ground, however, miles of tunnels, shafts and caverns (“stopes,” in mining lingo) from which thousands of cubic yards of earth were removed, remain to this day. No one knows what lies below, except that it is filled with water.

Aspen’s mines were at war with water. The deeper the mine, the more seeping water challenged its existence. Mines pumped water 24 hours a day. At the ninth level (levels were 100 feet apart), the Smuggler Mine pumped out nearly 1,500 gallons per minute in 1900. The Argentum-Juaniata Mine incline on the Aspen Mountain side of the valley pumped 900 gallons a minute at the fourth level. Mines pumped water. Pump failures closed operations until pumping was restored and water had been drained from the lower workings. When pumping expenses exceeded profits, mines were abandoned at their lower levels, and exploration continued only above the water level.

The Smuggler/Mollie Gibson workings had as many levels below the ninth as above, so more than half were flooded when pumping ceased in 1918. Over the 90 years since, water has claimed more levels. Are the tunnels still filled with water, or did the water accelerate the erasure of workings below the ninth level?

My father pondered that question. His experience reopening older mines on Aspen Mountain suggests interesting possibilities. When he was a young man working for the Midnight, he was given the job of exploring some of the abandoned workings in Queens Gulch, from the 1880s. Every couple of hundred yards, prospectors had dug holes into the gulch sides. Most were short tunnels or indentations that followed mineralized material to its end. Some were more serious explorations of more than 100 feet in length or depth. Some were in hard rock, still easily accessible. Some had caved entrances that, once cleared, revealed intact tunnels. Several shafts and tunnels were filled with water.

On that side of Aspen Mountain, early miners used aspen trees for mine props. Although aspens shimmer in the breeze and display famous fall color, as mine props they are failures. Tunnels of the previous century that had been timbered with aspens had collapsed by the late 1920s, when Father examined those old workings. However, after he pumped out flooded shafts or drained tunnels, he discovered that water-soaked aspens had held.

It is possible that water has preserved timbering in Smuggler mountain mines, as well as those below the Durant workings on Aspen Mountain, below town elevation, which also filled with water.

The town of Bonne Terre, Mo., is a mecca for divers. SCUBA divers explore miles of mine tunnels there, similar to the levels of tunnels in Aspen. Bonne Terre’s mines were dug in a limestone formation. An enterprising couple installed underwater lights for thousands of customers to discover the equipment and infrastructure that miners abandoned.

Should Aspen need another tourist attraction, imagine the lure of exploring silver mines in SCUBA gear. An elevator would carry you 50 stories down to water level, where water temperature would be a constant 58 degrees. From there, miles of tunnels could be accessed. Divers could explore the geology, view abandoned equipment, and play hide-and-seek in the intricate labyrinth of Aspen’s underground.

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