Why be a miner: Where did they come from? Part I | AspenTimes.com

Why be a miner: Where did they come from? Part I

Many Aspen miners came from the iron mines in Michigan and Minnesota like these in Sellers’ Mine in Hibbing, Minn. Library of Congress photo

Why would someone want to be a miner in the 1880s? Where did those miners come from? There is not an easy answer to those questions as there were a variety of answers, but exploring them shows that Aspen had a diverse populace.

One profile defined the nation as much as Aspen. In the 1880s manufacturing rapidly expanded but much of the developed world, including America, operated with mostly a rural agricultural economy. Immigration to America included males from large agricultural families. The eldest son inherited the farm so the younger brothers knew if they were to have any kind of future they had to go somewhere else.

Many homesteaded and pushed the frontier boundaries, but by 1880 those were marginal lands. America’s mineral rushes created rags to riches stories that spread the idea that all you had to do was dig a hole and you could be rich. Stay on the family farm or take a chance in the West seemed like an easy choice. Southern Civil War veterans also faced a poor economy and diminished agricultural opportunities so they, too, looked west. And what an opportunity, for a small filing fee you could own a ten-acre mining claim, many with trees to build a cabin, and somewhere inside the mountain rich ore was just waiting for you to find it.

Some of Aspen’s miners were skilled Cornish miners who first immigrated to the iron mining districts in Michigan and Minnesota, but who wanted to own their mines. Swedish miners from the iron-mining region had a similar view.

Those who came to early Aspen ranged from novice to experienced. Most were younger. It was a physically demanding profession and a challenging mostly solitary lifestyle. Like many mineral rushes, those who got there first claimed the most promising sites so others were in marginal or less accessible areas. Some persisted, others who decided to stay but not work a claim, found other ways to make a living in Aspen.

In the beginning one or a few miners could profitably work a claim, but the nature of the major ore bodies favored a larger scale requiring capital investment. Mining companies formed and miners were hired for wages, rapidly shifting the community from miner-prospectors to company employees, and from a young male dominated town to a working family town.

Some of the early miner-prospectors stayed to work their claims, others sold and moved on to other towns. It was an interesting lifestyle. Your expenses were small because you built a cabin on your claim so had no rent to pay. You could fish and hunt for food. Your biggest expense was dynamite, ‘powder’ the preferred miner’s name for it. There were early small settlements outside of town, clusters of cabins, like Crystal City and Highland along Castle Creek, Tourtolotte on Aspen Mountain, and in Little Annie Basin.

Aspen grew and the larger mines grew hiring more and more men. The Smuggler Mine required over 300 employees with two and sometimes three shifts a day. Some of the jobs, like driving a tunnel using explosives, were technical and required experience. Others were grunt labor, hauling rock and ore out of the mine to the surface. Jobs in the mills were similar with some involving experience and others hard physical labor.

Aspen was a union town and miners’ wages were higher than in other industries in cities. There was never a shortage of eager workers to fill mining industry jobs.

Watch for Part II next week — itinerant miners.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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