Willoughby: Silver mining, ounce by ounce | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Silver mining, ounce by ounce

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Fred Willoughby in front of Midnight Mine shaft.
Willoughby collection

In my columns dealing with mining, I often note ore reports outlining the number of ounces per ton in silver a mine discovered or produced. Over the years, I have had readers comment that they did not know that the silver was mixed in with other minerals. The understanding of what ounces per ton might mean or look like seems important to understanding Aspen mining.

Silver was and is bought and sold by the ounce. When you go to the grocery store, you buy potatoes by the pound. More expensive items like thyme are sold by the ounce. During Aspen’s mining period, coal was sold by the ton, copper and lead by the pound, and the rarest, and therefore most expensive, silver and gold by the ounce.

In 1890, an ounce of silver sold for between $0.80 to $1.20 an ounce, roughly $21.50 in today’s dollars. The price of silver today is about that same amount. The government tried, in those days, to have gold be worth 16 times the value of silver. Gold today is selling for $1,820, far more than 16 times the silver price.

In the 1890s, lead was usually around $.038 ( $1 in today’s dollars) per pound and zinc, common in Aspen’s ore, at $.015 per ounce ($0.40 in today’s dollars). Copper was closer to lead for a long time, but, when telephone lines and other copper uses expanded, its price went up. Silver’s price was, for some time, fixed by the government for minting purposes and when silver backed paper money. But, silver prices were also related to other uses, like for jewelry, utensils, and other household uses. Once photography became common, large amounts of silver were used for film and prints.

In the early 1900s, Colorado coal sold for $0.25 a ton wholesale ($7 in today’s dollars). Unlike silver, coal, when it was mined, was not mixed in with other materials. A ton mined was a ton sold. If you are old enough, you likely remember what a ton of coal looked like and likely shoveled some of it into your furnace. A ton of coal fits in the bed of a pickup truck without rising above the sides.

Silver, lead, and zinc in Aspen were all mixed together, and there was also sometimes barite, copper, and a few other minerals. Those are all very heavy minerals. The easiest way to picture it is that a ton of those minerals would fill one mining car, like the one in the associated picture. Profitable silver ore had to be around 15 or more ounces per ton. Fifteen ounces in that ore car, if it was by itself, would be about the size of a baseball.

Fabulous silver ore, and there was quite a bit of it in Aspen, could be in the hundreds of ounces. Since there are 16 ounces in a pound and 2,000 pounds in a ton, you would have 32,000 ounces in a ton, so hundreds of ounces, let’s say 500 ounces, could be one 64th of that load, still a small amount compared to the total.

Mining silver today, with the current price, is rare except when it is mixed in with gold. Even gold mining is rare these days, but the value of gold is so high that some mines are still alive, and, instead of ounces per ton, they mine tons of material to get an ounce. One of those giant trucks they use might have only one  or two ounces of gold in a load.

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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