Willoughby: Competitors compromise and engineers triumph
Legends & Legacies
Some of the best Aspen silver ore was on the Smuggler Mountain side of the valley. Some of it was attained through tunnels driven into the side of the mountain, but the best ore was at lower elevation accessible only through shafts.
There were three major shafts: The Mollie Gibson, Smuggler and Free Silver. The Free Silver shaft was Aspen’s deepest at 1,2000 feet.
When I was a child the Free Silver shaft, one of the last ones worked, was still in good condition. Its headframe had been removed and it had planks covering it, but I could look through the cracks. My friends and I liked to drop rocks and count how long it took before we heard it hit something. At that time water filled all but about the top three hundred feet of the shaft.
Aspen mining engineer D.W. Brunton, who invented the Brunton compass still used today, organized a leasing company and supervised the early work of the Free Silver. Work began around 1894 and by February of 1895 it was already down 600 feet. It was difficult work with water always filling the bottom of the shaft. On one occasion the hoisting equipment and pumping equipment failed. The workers swam in the water for a while, then realizing there was not going to be a quick fix, they climbed up the side of the shaft using the cracks between the boards that lined the shaft for the first 300 feet before they reached a ladder for the final 300 feet.
Three different companies had adjoining claims with their shafts just a few hundred feet apart. By that time mining companies had consolidated and leasing companies worked sections of the mountain. All encountered vast amounts of water. In 1895 they decided to work together to conquer the water problem. The first work involved running a tunnel from the Smuggler shaft to a different neighboring claim, the Della S, that did not have a shaft but had reached the water problem depth. By the end of the year the Free Silver shaft had reached the same depth as the Smuggler shaft, 900 feet. The Smuggler had a decent pumping system so the Free Silver connected to the Smuggler at that level to drain its shaft.
In 1896 it reached 1,000 feet and encountered 400 gallons of water a minute. That amount of water raised the water level four inches a minute. The three companies decided to explore terrain at a lower depth and work together to access it using the Free Silver shaft. It reached the 1,200-foot level in 1897 and acquired two giant pumps that could each pump 2,000 gallons a minute. The following year the Free Silver turned off the pumps and shut down work at its lowest levels.
In 1902 water had once again become the major impediment to accessing ore at the bottom of a number of mines. What is interesting is that the mines on Aspen Mountain including the Argentine Juanita and the Aspen Mine that had been working ore bodies below the level of the town drained their water by sending it down a tunnel driven under the town connecting to the Mollie Gibson shaft.
In 1908 with so many mines needing a water solution to access new areas, owners, again, decided to work together. One owner, D.R.C. Brown, agreed to provide the electricity. The Deep Silver agreed to have its shaft, since it was the deepest, be the pumping shaft. It took three years and vast amounts of investment to accomplish the plan including bringing in deep sea divers to fix the flooded pumps in the Free Silver.
They explored and extracted ore below the 1,200-foot level of the Free Silver operating until 1918 when Brown threatened to raise his electric rates and the other partners would not agree. That shut down the operation. There was an attempt to explore to a depth of 1,800 feet in 1926. The Free Silver was used again in 1945 for a short time, but only at it upper levels.
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 email@example.com.