Willoughby: Envisioning the underground | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Envisioning the underground

If you haven’t gone on a mine tour or explored an old tunnel on your own, you might not be able to envision what Aspen’s underground looked like and you may have some misconceptions.

Fortunately, there is a wonderful way to do it on your computer. Mine Explorers posts their filming of mines on YouTube. They have a growing number with titles like “My Biggest Mine Discovery Yet” and “Detailed Tour of A Small Gold Mine.” The format is similar to what you would experience if you did the same thing, wandering in old workings discovering what was left behind.

Miners in the 1940s at a Smuggler Mine tunnel entrance showing the small size of the tunnel. (Willoughby Collection)

There is a variety, but many of the mines are smaller ones like Aspen’s smaller mines. Photos of Aspen’s mines are mostly of the outside and tunnel entrances of the larger mines. From them you might think that all tunnels were timbered and straight.

Tunnels, especially in smaller mines, followed the geology, wandering as the geology did. A straight tunnel also required extra work trimming and crafting smooth and straight sides. The YouTube tunnels are largely untimbered in hard rock and they are not straight for long distances.

You also get a better sense of the dimensions of underground workings. Early mines in Aspen, especially the smaller ones, were for smaller people. Cornish miners were not tall in that epoch, 5-foot-6 was common, and so tunnel height accommodated most miners with a 6-foot dimension. The width of tunnels depended on the use of ore cars. The standard car was not very wide, so a 4-foot wide tunnel worked just fine, and without an ore car 3 feet was tight but sufficient.

Small mines had to be efficient. A 5-by-6-foot tunnel was much more expensive to craft than a 3- or 4-by-5 tunnel. The videos will give you that sense of efficiency.

Most of Mine Explorers segments were shot in abandoned mines. Frequently, as they roam through the old workings, they discover abandoned items. The older the workings, the more likely someone else explored them and took home souvenirs. That was true of Aspen’s mines.

Mines followed ore veins to their end, then explored from a different elevation or angle. Sometimes they used the older tunnels to dump waste rock instead of hauling it to the surface to dump. But often they left tunnels intact thinking they would be used later to access ore. Sometimes work stopped, the workings sold or went bankrupt, and items were just left behind.

My father found many items in the older workings of the Midnight Mine, usually when he tunneled into an abandoned tunnel that had been closed off at its end. One of his favorite finds was an unopened case of candles. Candlelight was the primary underground source of light in 1880s Aspen.

The hardest aspect of mining to fathom is a stope, the Cornish term for the empty space left behind after ore is taken out. Stopes in Aspen vary in size from a small room to a whole empty space as large as the Hotel Jerome. The narrators of the Mining Explorers get very excited when they enter into a stope, as they should since that was the whole goal of a tunnel, to reach the ore and take it out. They show many different sizes, some timbered to keep them from caving, others just empty space.

Often when they reach a stope, they show the change in the tunnel’s geology, which helps you understand how a miner would have experienced it. The change in geology announced the possibility of ore ahead, often subtle differences in the rock, and sometimes dramatic changes.

There are a few segments of working mines, small ones barely staying alive, owned and operated by old-timers who still have the mining bug aided by their younger family members. Their equipment is salvaged from other mines and nearly worn out, barely functioning, but they work well enough to continue their quest.

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.