Willoughby: Bucket list of places to go if you are a mining enthusiast | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Bucket list of places to go if you are a mining enthusiast

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
A flat wire (predates round cable) shaft hoist at the World Museum of Mining Museum in Butte, Montana.
T. Willoughby / Courtesy photo

If mining is your passion, or if it is just a curiosity, here is a partial bucket list of places you might enjoy if you venture around the West.

Leadville is a short trip with a long list of what to see. Unlike present day Aspen, Leadville and its surrounding area still have evidence of its mining past beyond Victorian structures built from mining profits. The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, unlike museums in other places, has a focus on people rather than artifacts. One of Colorado’s most interesting rags-to-riches stories is told at a separate site, the Matchless Mine. It tells the story of Horace Tabor, senator of Colorado and an investor in Aspen’s mines, and his second wife, Margaret, “Baby Doe.” And you can peer down the mine’s shaft.

Georgetown offers both a chance to ride a narrow-gauge steam driven train and two mine tours into the Lebanon Mine, one 500 feet into the mountain, the other 1,000 feet. You can see ore veins to get a feel for underground silver geology.

Outdoing Leadville, the World Museum of Mining in Butte, Montana, has the best collection of mining and milling equipment dating back to the 1870s, acres of fascinating artifacts. The Orphan Girl Mine is a focus with its 10-story-tall head frame. You can venture underground through a sloped tunnel that takes you to the 100-foot (deep) level of a shaft that was 2,700 feet deep, more than twice anything in Aspen. There you also can see an exposed ore vein. Butte was the home of the Copper Barons with many splendid mansions.

Butte had shafts and tunnels, but in modern times its gold and copper mining used an open pit. It is interesting to see it as it is nearly as large as the town of Aspen but goes down 1,600 feet, which would be lower than the bottom of Aspen’s mines.

Farther away is a cluster of interesting mining towns. Bodie State Historic Park, in the Eastern Sierra near the beginning of the pass through Yosemite, is a preserved mining town of 200 buildings. Bodie’s history spans Aspen’s beginning around the same time Aspen did and lasting until 1942. It had a boom in its early years growing to around 10,000 then shrinking around 1915 to below 1,000. Bodie mined gold. You can tour through the Standard Consolidated Mining Co. stamp mill, an early user of hydroelectric power. You can get some idea of how ore was pulverized.

The buildings in the town were abandoned with items left behind so there are curious artifacts to see. Bodie has about the same elevation as Aspen; you need to go there in the summer.

North of Bodie is Virginia City, Nevada, home of the Comstock. The Comstock was the first big silver producing bonanza. It also had gold. Silver was discovered in 1859 and major production continued until 1878. It’s drop in production then made Aspen’s discoveries the next year receive interest from mining investors. Virginia City has many preserved buildings from its peak of 25,000 residents. If you go there, hike or drive to the entrance of the 20,000-foot Sutro Tunnel. It pioneered the idea of tunneling under workings to drain water. It has a fascinating history, one of a persisting visionary.

Cross the Sierra and stop in Grass Valley, California, to visit the Empire State Historic Park. The Empire Mine gold production spanned 1850 to 1956. You can walk down part of the incline shaft that was 11,000-feet long dipping at 35 degrees connecting over 300 miles of tunnels. To me, the most interesting item to see is a model the operating company built in secret to track all of its workings. The 3-D model is yards long and wide. At one time the Aspen Historical Society was thinking of trying to create a similar model for Aspen. I made a pathetic attempt before giving up.

End your trip in San Francisco, walking the neighborhood on Broadway where the Comstock owners built their giant mansions overlooking the bay (now the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge).

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.


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