Willoughby: Elevation, ore and exhausted miners | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Elevation, ore and exhausted miners

Tracks at a tunnel entrance at the Montezuma mine, one of Aspen’s highest elevation mines. | Willoughby collection

Aspen’s minerals were found from below the elevation of the town to above timberline. Figuring just where the best ore was deposited was sometimes due to luck, sometimes with the help of geologists but mostly from optimistic hard work. A vein of silver might be payable where you were working it and 100 feet away not worth the work to extract, or the opposite. Elevation was an important variable for where it was, but also an annoying limitation for the men who excavated it out of the mountains.

Two of Aspen’s lodes had similar geology: the Columbia District on Taylor Pass above Ashcroft, and Aspen Mountain. In some mining towns, and usually in coal mining, the geologic sedimentary layers remained horizontal just as they were formed. In those two lodes the layers are tilted at around 45 degrees and sloping downward to the north. The top of the lode was at the top of the mountain. Miners worked the lodes at every elevation, but as they discovered the underground geology they employed a helper: gravity. It was less work to dislodge ore from above and let it fall to where they would take it out of the mountain and work than it was to always be hauling ore uphill.

That understanding was helpful, but in addition to the location of the lode and its veins, there was also working out the variations in the quality of the ore. Ore was deposited from below, molten mineralized material pushed up through fissures formed from the faults. Later, water worked in from above, dissolved the minerals and redeposited them, with elevation being important since water and heavier minerals went downhill. In some mines there was more silver and less lead and zinc in the upper elevations, and in others the opposite.

The iron deposits above Ashcroft are all at high elevations. Aspen was not known for gold, but locations where it was found were, like at Independence, mostly above timberline. 

The most interesting high-elevation silver mines were well above timberline. The Montezuma Mine was likely the highest. There were also high-elevation mines on the opposite side of the ridge that separates the Montezuma and Cathedral Lake. In addition to the high elevation, those mines were located on extremely steep slopes.

Living in Aspen and traipsing in the high country you are aware of the effects of high altitude on the body. Imagine being a miner swinging a 12-pound sledgehammer for much of a 10-hour shift. Every task above 11,000 feet compared with 8,000 feet would be challenging and take its toll on the miner.

Most miners in that era were also smokers and many were developing silicosis, a miner’s disease caused from inhaling silica that literally sliced the lungs. The life expectancy of miners was shortened, and it may have been even shorter for those who spent much of their time at those high-altitude mines.

High altitude and health were discussed often in the newspapers during the mining years, but most often it was the healing effects of Aspen’s dry high-altitude air. It drew people suffering from respiratory problems. But that was the town elevation air, not the top of the mountain’s oxygen-deficient air.  The Aspen Times in 1909 with the headline “Too Long In High Altitude” reported that “Mike Sweeney is suffering from the effects of high altitude, an affliction of the nerves which attacks those who have spent years in high altitude.” Sweeney had lived for years in Ashcroft.

The paper reported in 1911 about a study being done at the top of Pikes Peak. Scientists spent several weeks camped at the top to study what was referred to as the white plague. They noted that after two weeks white blood corpuscles increased 50%. Their interest was a possible connection to tuberculosis.

Maybe it was the combination of terrible underground air and high altitude that afflicted Aspen’s miners, otherwise the ski patrol should not spend much of their time at the top of the mountain.

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.


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