Willoughby: Ore cars make great planter boxes, but beware their momentum
Legends & Legacies
While I drove the interstate through Utah, I pulled off for gas in Leed. The ore cars I saw there seemed out of place in sandstone formations not far from Cedar City. Taking a closer look, I saw the cars resembled those typically used in Aspen’s mines. Inside the filling station’s minimart, a map hung on the wall — not a road map, but a geologic map. These clues signaled my proximity to Silver Reef, a mining town that predated Aspen.
When traveling the West, the sight of old ore cars signals a hard rock mining town. Sometimes the cars cluster in a welcome-to-town display, other times they function as planter boxes outside a local bistro. At silver mines, they indispensably enabled the movement of heavy ore. For this reason, Aspen’s newspapers chronicled the progress of a local mine when they reported that an operation had purchased track and an ore car. That announcement may be compared today to news of a company going public. Investors may have rated a mine by the number of employees. But an easier count of ore cars would have shown the same valuation.
Each ore car transported roughly a ton of ore. A slight grade in the tunnels took advantage of gravity to help move full cars. A trammer, the person who moved the ore, could push a single car. Mules would move more than one. The trammer rode on the back of a car and braked frequently to keep the car from careening down the tunnel. When it came time to stop, only considerable effort would counter momentum gained by the moving mass.
The mass and mobility of ore cars contributed to mishaps. During the 1880s, Leadville’s mines topped the list of accident sites. At the Matchless Mine, a runaway ore car injured a miner. Inside the Ibex mine, an ore car ran over Thomas Boyle and killed him. At another Leadville mine, an ore car knocked down and ran over John McQueeney. The mine reported the encounter left McQueeney “so terribly injured he died today.”
Cripple Creek reported a scary accident in 1898, within its Orpha-May Mine. A trammer had been pushing an ore car down a tunnel. The tunnel’s end intersected the shaft, where a chain, alone, ensured that cars would not fall into the shaft. But the chain could not stop the momentum of a full ore car. The car broke through the chain, tumbled into the shaft, fell 400 feet and crushed two men.
Aspen’s history reveals fewer accident reports related to ore cars, although hundreds of the cars populated the area. The Aspen Foundry and Machine Shop manufactured many of them. The shop made mining equipment onsite and advertised, “ore cars of all kinds a specialty.” Perhaps locally manufactured cars offered advantages, or Aspen’s miners worked more carefully.
The first accident report in Aspen that I found in the newspapers occurred in 1900 at the Durant Mine. The momentum of an ore car exceeded that which may have avoided an accident. Shelby Leroy North, a miner, caught and broke his arm between a loaded ore car and the tunnel timbering.
Two years later in the Durant, Louis Godat dumped a loaded ore car when he slipped and fell backward. His left foot was planted on the rail and the car ran over it, damaging his foot and the back muscles of his leg. A few years later an ore car ran over the foot of a miner at the Newman Mine. How to describe the damage from a ton of ore? The story’s description: “Mashing it badly.”
An ore car accident took place in 1903 and involved Otto Johnson, my uncle’s father and Aspen’s sheriff for a number of years. Johnson had been working as the cage man at the Smuggler Mine. The cage man oversaw the loading and unloading of the shaft cars. Johnson had been pushing an ore car onto the shaft cage when the car’s momentum moved it against the cage’s side. The force between car and cage mangled Johnson’s hand. Another case in which mass exceeded human strength, accidents like this most likely happened more often than newspapers reported.
Mines and danger went hand-in-hand. But Aspen’s hazards lurked elsewhere, too. A week later John Sheehan, my grandfather on my mother’s side, sustained an injury as serious as Johnson’s. Sheehan, who ran a grocery store with his brother, had been cutting meat. His hand slipped and he nearly cut off his finger.
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 email@example.com.