Willoughby: Aspen’s mines required transport of hefty equipment uphill
Legends & Legacies
Engineers designed mining equipment which would not fracture during extreme use. But how would they safely move this equipment, forged of heavy iron, from a low-altitude iron mill to a mountain-based mine? Moving a machine in parts lessened the load, and horses powered the trip up Aspen’s steep inclines.
Before the railroads reached Aspen in 1887, all incoming goods traversed Independence and Taylor passes, no matter the season. After equipment made the long journey to town, it required a shorter but steeper road to the mines. Many of Aspen’s early roads, such as the one up Queens Gulch, took the shortest route straight up the gulches, without using switchbacks.
Through the advent of truck transportation, many of those roads remained steep. You may expect the opposite, but the power of a truck remains fixed, whereas a wagon’s power could be increased by adding more horses or mules.
Steam powered Aspen before electricity took over. Boilers provided steam to radiators to heat buildings and powered mining equipment. Mining boilers were around the same size as the ones on locomotives. Builders bent sheets of iron into cylinders and tightly bolted them together.
One of the heaviest loads combined a steam boiler with a shaft hoist lift, manufactured in San Francisco and Denver. They came already assembled, in several sizes. The size related to the expected depth of a mineshaft. The deeper the shaft, the greater the need for power. Hoists used wire cable about the same size as ski lift cable, which weighs between 7 and 8 pounds per foot. A 200-foot deep shaft called for twice the power of a 100-foot shaft.
The National Iron Works in San Francisco sold boiler and hoist combinations and shipping weights ranged from 5,000 to 8,000 pounds. A company in Leadville sold a different brand in three sizes. A 30-horsepower version sold for $1,200 ($27,000 in today’s dollars), and the smallest provided 4 horsepower. The most common size of the late 1880s, a 40-horsepower model, could handle most of Aspen’s mine depths at that time.
In early days when Caterpillar Inc. designed and built earthmovers, if a part broke they made it thicker. It seems mining equipment manufacturers adapted a similar method rather than aiming for less weight; strength was more important. Ore cars illustrate this principle. Compared to the very thick iron bucket which carried a ton of ore, the wheels appear even stronger.
The Aspen Machine Shop and Foundry — Aspen’s iron mill — manufactured mining equipment, including ore car wheels. It opened before the railroads came to town, and similar to today’s Instacart it delivered equipment to the mines. This trip, shorter than one from manufacturers in San Francisco or Denver, saved local shipping costs. The shop also repaired boilers, a valuable service during the 1880s, when they commonly exploded.
In many delivery accidents, brakes would fail and a wagon or sled, loaded with ore, would careen down a road. An agile teamster would jump off before his vehicle tumbled down the mountainside, tugging horses and mules with it. As awful as this sounds, usually all survived.
Winter’s icy roads presented challenges, but fall and spring held the worst danger. During those seasons, soft roads made hard navigation for horses’ hooves and wagon wheels. At the same time, train derailments competed with engine boiler explosions for the worst disasters, with railroad loads measured in multiple tons.
Nevertheless, the newspaper reported no accident hauling mining equipment to an Aspen mine. No front page photo showed a load of iron water pumps, ore cars, steam boilers, shaft cable, or pipe too heavy for an uphill delivery. From the news, it appears the load limit of bridges created more concern.
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 email@example.com.
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