Willoughby: 1911: A busy uplifting year in Aspen’s history

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies


1910-11 project where deep sea divers were used to start flooded pumps in the Smuggler Mine, note the snow. Willoughby Collection/Courtesy Photo

Local optimism was high and appropriate in Aspen in 1911. The following are just a few aspects of the first two months of a busy year.

January and February established the trend. The year started with Aspen beating two major rivals in high school basketball, Salida and Glenwood. Connection to the rest of the country was enhanced when the local phone company, part of the Bell System, set up a system where you could call the operator who would transfer you to a Western Union Telegraph office and you could send a telegram and be billed on your phone bill.

A local grocery store, Gould and Grover, offered a “direct shipment from natural beds” of oysters that they referred to as “brain food.” Locals were reading frequent reports of the aviation meet in San Francisco that included the first plane landing on a ship.

Transportation was a major subject those two months. Chevy introduced its first car to compete with Ford and the state opened its Good Roads System Convention. The Pitkin County delegation traveled to Denver to lobby for their preferred local route. At that time Aspen still had two competing railroad companies servicing the town with one daily departure by the D and R G and two by the Midland. It took two and a half hours to get to Glenwood and sixteen hours with a three-hour layover in Basalt, to get to Denver.

The state in the previous two years had constructed 1,600 miles of highway and was planning more routes. The state proposal was to have a highway that would go from Glenwood to Aspen, then to Ashcroft, and over Pearl Pass to Crested Butte. The Pitkin County delegation favored using Taylor Pass. After a few weeks of discussions a new proposal surfaced, Independence Pass, a shorter highway. The local delegates liked that plan because the mines in Ashcroft would take their ore to Aspen rather than over the passes to Gunnison. You know the rest of the story.

1911 was a fabulous year for mining. The seminal event was the completion of the dewatering of the Smuggler Mine’s Free Silver Shaft, Aspen’s largest at six feet by ten feet. The lower levels of the mine had been flooded for twelve years. The mine had worked down as far as it could without major water pumping but had exhausted the upper levels of the ore chutes. The project took several months culminating in the use of deep sea divers to restart existing but abandoned and flooded water pumps. Twice the water level had been lowered and then flooded again, but the third time in February was successful.

Deep sea diver, George Peterson, (the man in the midle of the photo-not the one in the diving equipment) was the final difference. The divers were lowered several times a day to work on the pumps. Peterson was described as a mechanical genius because, in the total darkness under the water, he was able to identify parts by feel and make the appropriate repairs.

The Smuggler not only dewatered the shaft, it build new infrastructure including new electric pumps and an electric hoisting system. Previously those had been steam powered. Even before all of that was in place the Smuggler went to full production employing 250 men. The project drained neighboring operations as well. The new pumping enabled the mine to add over ten deeper tunnel levels about 600 feet deeper and extended major production another seven years.

The first Indianapolis 500 was in 1911 and Colorado National Monument was established, but if you lived in Aspen in that year the memories were about Aspen’s fantastic future.

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


See more