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Want to start your own mine?

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby CollectionA diagram from 'Timbering and Mining' by William Storm, 1909 instructs amateurs how to timber a tunnel.
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When you mine antiquarian bookstores, sometimes you uncover a gem. I recently found “Handbook for Prospectors and Operators of Small Mines,” by M. W. Von Bernewitz. First published in 1926, this mining manual details all aspects of mineral production. Scanning its table of contents refreshed my memory of the vast mining knowledge that silver seekers used in Aspen.

The mining West attracted dreamers, most of whom had no experience or training. Some California ’49ers, as well as prospectors of the Colorado gold rush, may have been attracted to mining as much for the adventure of leaving mundane lifestyles in the East and South as they were to a hard, challenging life in the gold fields. Low-tech gold mining required little equipment and even less knowledge. Prospectors swarmed any area that rumors indicated might be profitable. In the early stages, mining simply required prospectors to shovel sand, then stand for hours in a stream, swirling the material in a gold pan. With a little luck, they extracted enough placer gold to make it worthwhile. If not, they moved on to another site until they ran out of money, found mining too hard, or (for very few) learned enough to make a living at it.

Most prospectors came to the Roaring Fork valley in search of silver, but some sought gold. When gold was discovered at the headwaters of the Roaring Fork near Independence, prospectors filed placer claims on river sections downstream. Aspen’s streams were all panned along their courses using an apprentice’s approach: Work any stream where someone else found gold. That method yielded dismal results for Aspen’s panners.

Those who searched for silver needed more than rumors to narrow down probable locations. By the time Aspen was populated, a few of the many experienced silver miners/prospectors, were second-generation. They relied on instincts honed in other Western boom towns. Those new to the game relied on hearsay or consulted handbooks like Von Bernewitz’s. His suggestions included “silver is associated with limestone,” which proved true in Leadville and Aspen. Relevant to many Aspen discoveries, he stated, “outcrops distinguished by extensive iron mineralization are often indicative of large masses of sulfide ore at depth.” However his “indications of mineralization” included an almost useless hint, “in some regions what are termed indicative plants grow in the soil that contains certain minerals.”

Miners followed mineralized material on the surface until it ended or turned into silver-bearing ore. Such prospect holes, requiring little more than a pick, shovel and strong back, ended a few feet from the surface. More promising veins required tunneling skills.

Amateurs could consult handbooks for timbering methods, dynamite blasting techniques and strategies for laying out efficient tunnels and shafts. Tunnels often reached the end of paying ore veins before exceeding a miner’s skills. Many shafts and tunnels never exceeded a couple of hundred feet. Only deposits of high-grade ore near the surface were fit for sole owners to mine on their own.

Most amateurs who were fortunate enough to find a viable vein sold out to investors as soon as they could. Larger mines required significant capital to reach greater depths, and to mill and to process the ore.

College-trained mining engineers and geologists readily found work in Aspen’s large mines. But most mine managers, like my father, learned their trade on the job. Beginning work underground as teenagers, they had dabbled in all aspects of the business by the time they reached their thirties. Projects like designing a large mill or an ore tram required engineers; smaller projects relied on workers’ experience and handbooks.

Manuals described milling processes and suggested equipment choices. Tables existed for everything from computing load limits that could be supported by wood beams to the dilutions of cyanide used to process silver ores.

Gold panning remains a popular pastime. Numerous publications detail methods and suggest possible locations. Weekend panners can be found plying their skills on California streams that have been panned for more than 150 years. Experienced panners average $100 or more of gold dust each day. Die-hard prospectors still wander Nevada in search of undiscovered mineral veins. Amateur miners continue to extend shafts and tunnels into old mines, extracting lower-grade ores that were abandoned decades ago and searching for new veins.

If you catch the glitter bug, begin your adventure by mining used bookstores for handbooks. Everything you need to know can be gleaned from those who mined before you. Here’s hoping all pans out well.


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