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Willoughby: 1890s heavy metal

1891 Engineering and Mining Journal ad for an air compressor used in Aspen. Willoughby Collection

There was an exchange between the pounds of metal mineral extracted and exported from beneath Aspen’s mountains and the metal objects brought to Aspen to make that happen. This was the era of an explosion of foundry production especially for cast iron.

Manufacturing of thick and heavy objects began escalating simultaneous with steam power. Very quickly steam boilers were transformed into railroad engines. By the time Aspen began, foundries were producing bigger and bigger items. Hydraulic lifting enabled that, and trains could carry the products across the country.

The advertised air compressor pictured above is a good example. In 1893 the Cowenhoven Tunnel project bought a Norwalk air compressor along with a 60 horsepower steam boiler to power it. At that time the tunnel, one of Aspen’s largest, six feet eight inches high and seven feet eight inches wide, had been driven 3,000 feet into Smuggler Mountain. The goal, as designed by the famous local mining engineer D.W. Brunton, was to tunnel under several mines that had slowed production because of water. The tunnel, below them, would drain water cheaply, and provide a cheaper way to take ore out of the mountain. The tunnel was extended another 7,000 feet making it one of the longest tunnels in Aspen.



In the same year the neighboring Mollie Gibson mine bought two boilers and an air compressor. Brunton needed the compressor to power mine drills and to move stagnant air, the Molly Gibson used air compressors to pump water.

The Schiller mine on lower Aspen Mountain announced in 1889, “33,000 pounds more machinery has just gone up to the Schiller shaft, it includes a large Worthington pump, an air compressor, drills etc.” That mine shaft was down 635 feet which would have meant it was below the elevation of town. It was also facing the Aspen scourge, water.



Just two months later the Schiller bought more heavy metal- a 40-horsepower hoister (to lift ore from below), a Rand Drilling Company air compressor for their rock drills, and another water pump capable of pumping 500 gallons a minute. That same year the neighboring Little Percy also bought an air compressor to power its Ingersoll rock drills. Ingersoll and Rand combined into one company and even today is the major producer of rock drills and air compressors.

B. Clark Wheeler, owner/editor of the Aspen Times in the mining era, had a project similar to the Cowenhoven Tunnel. In 1892 he bought an air compressor and a boiler to power it for his Famous Tunnel. That tunnel with its entrance near the present-day Castle Creek Road above the Conundrum turnoff, was designed to tunnel under Little Annie Basin. As a major owner of the little Annie he hoped to drain water and have an easier way to haul out ore. The new equipment enabled him to advance his tunnel ten to twelve feet a day.

Equipment, like the mining equipment mentioned, was made of thick cast iron. The 33,000-pound shipment was one of hundreds during that period. Tons of iron products arrived by train each day and tons and tons of silver and lead ore went in the opposite direction.

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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