Willoughby: A kids’ sandbox for mining town kids

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Tim Willoughby playing miner behind his Cowenhoven Building home in the 1950s.
Willoughby collection

My childhood friends Barney and Gary Bishop and I enjoyed the perfect outdoor play area, a special sandbox for our mining fantasies.

Their grandmother, Georgie Bishop, lived in a house just west of what then was the beginning of the Limelite Lodge. On the alley side of the large lot there were several sheds and between two of them John Healy, Georgie’s twin brother, delivered a load of mine dump material in his dump truck.

None of us remember where the dump material came from. It was not the typical color of Aspen dumps, gray, but rather a golden brown. Most likely it came from the Durant dump. It was also different because it had small chunks of mineral, some pyrite, what we dubbed gold since it was fool’s gold, and plenty of shiny galena.

We immediately dug in — that is we made tunnels and shouted with glee when we pulled out some ore. We made a miniature mining camp with roads, mills and buildings. We found that if we sprayed water over the mini-dump material you could smooth it and it hardened after it dried.

Across the alley, and next door to my uncle John Herron’s house, was the home of Kemper Dunlap. Dunlap was a longtime mine owner-operator in Little Annie Basin. He bought the house in town before he quit mining because he was getting too old to spend winters in his mountain cabin. 

He was a major scrounger, so his backyard was filled with all sorts of items, especially building materials. There was a large pile of wood shingles that we availed ourselves to. Easy to split and saw, they were all we needed to make buildings and other features. Kemper was not a particularly kind man. He sat on his front porch and glared at us when we walked by. Fortunately, he rarely ventured into his back storage yard.

Being young boys, after creating our mine-scape and accumulating boxes of shiny ore, we decided to form a club — a rock club. Their grandmother allowed us to co-opt part of the nearest shed. We laid out our beautiful specimens, added to it from our home collections and kept our eyes open for other rocks like the common ones you could find wandering the lower part of Aspen Mountain, quartz and calcite. My uncle, who leased and ran the Smuggler Mine and the Durant Tunnel, schooled us on what was what.

The club membership never expanded, and a few winters ended our “sandbox” interest. I don’t know of any others who had that kind of special sandbox. If you have a child you might consider this, it holds interest much longer, from our experience, than plain old sand, and the quest to find ore holds attention much longer than Easter egg hunts.

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