Willoughby: Machines outmaneuver mules in Aspen’s mines
Legends & Legacies
Mule energy moved ore cars inside the Midnight Mine over three decades.
The mine’s tunnel bored into Queens Gulch, about a thousand feet below where the Midnight and Little Annie ore body bottomed out. The tunnel design required a slight grade to drain water out of the mine and to help move ore-laden cars downhill.
A man could push a car filled with a ton of ore down that grade and, with similar effort, push an empty one back to the worksite. But moving more than one car at a time required superhuman effort. A mule could handle three or four.
In the beginning the Midnight crew removed only waste material lighter than ore. And the tunnel extended just a short way into the mountain. By the time the company connected to the ore body, during the 1930s, the tunnel reached over a mile. By then a man and a mule worked each shift to take loads to the tunnel entrance and return empty cars to the ore site.
The Midnight Mine encountered so much water that a small stream often flowed at the bottom of the tunnel. And before the new mine connected to older workings, air did not circulate well. Men did not tolerate the conditions well. The mules fared even worse and had to be rotated.
Most of Colorado’s mineral mines had been shutting down just as America entered World War II. The draft took most of the experienced miners. As demand increased for strategic minerals, the war department forbade mines from producing silver or gold. Mine owners explained to the department that the lead and zinc necessary for war existed mainly in Colorado mines, and the ore that contained them also held silver. They compromised: Mines would produce precious metals, but those that produced the most zinc and lead would receive preference to procure rationed items such as truck tires.
The Midnight Mine went all out for the war effort. They hired additional workers and added shifts to operate round-the-clock. The Midnight Mine retired the inadequate mules and bought a locomotive.
The tunnel had been carved along a twisty path to explore the Castle Creek fault line. Bypasses to avoid water problems and side trips around unstable rock extended the tunnel farther. To accommodate the broad new engine, the company widened and straightened hundreds of feet of tunnel. The Midnight Mine upgraded worn track and the locomotive’s wider gauge called for new ore cars, too.
Gas-powered machinery presents a multitude of hazards within confined, underground spaces. The locomotive’s safer, battery-operated engine pulled multiple cars much faster than a walking mule ever had. The new transportation capacity allowed Midnight Mine to double ore production to 27 tons daily, about 10,000 tons a year.
Miners lamented the absence of their constant companions, especially the loss of mules named Maude and Cuban. After being put out to pasture, it’s possible those beasts of burden also yearned for the good old days before technology took their jobs.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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