Willoughby: The purest of the pure silver
Legends & Legacies
My father was captivated by mining and miners beginning in high school. Unlike most youth his age who had little interest in their elders’ stories Father hung on their every word, if it was about Aspen’s mines.
One of his neighbors was Bill Brown. Most people called him ‘Big Bill’ due to his extraordinary size and strength. Brown, born in the Shetland Islands, came to Aspen from Leadville at the age of 21 in 1892. He worked in a number of Aspen mines, mostly the Smuggler and the Durant, but for a short time in the Franklin mine on Aspen Mountain near the end of its 15-year history.
What excited my father was the story of some unusual silver ore. Brown told him that at the very bottom of the mine, and at that time the shaft was down around 1,000 feet, a black substance was oozing into the bottom workings. When it was assayed the mine discovered it was an unusual form of silver known as argentite that contained 3,000 ounces of silver per ton.
At the time Brown was making $2.50 for a ten-hour day. Mines, when they found such high-grade ore would often select a trusted miner to mine it. They paid him an extra 50 cents an hour to take out the precious black mud.
Argentite, also called silver glance, comes in several different forms but its major characteristics are that it is usually 87% silver and the rest is sulfur. It is very similar in quality to native silver that Aspen would sometimes ship directly to the mint.
The Franklin claim was filed in 1879 at the very beginning of Aspen by Maurice Hayes. It hit payable ore early and was sold to D.R.C. Brown who was consolidating claims around his Aspen Mine. In 1888 a rich section produced nine tons of ore that yielded $6,000 ($182,000 in today’s dollars). It was one of the first to explore at greater depths, but that meant it was one of the first to encounter water problems.
The Franklin shaft was flooded several times, the first in 1889 when pumping equipment failed and 75 feet of water accumulated at the bottom of the shaft. After pumping out the water the mine encountered extraordinary ore with a 90-ton shipment returning $106,000 ($2,800,000). That would mean all of it was in the 80% to 90% pure silver category.
D.R.C. Brown placed a specimen of that ore in his office for people to see. The Aspen Times billed the Franklin, at that time, the world’s best silver mine. It described the specimen as “so nearly pure that it looks very much like a piece of a bar of bullion.”
A 175-ton shipment in 1890 was similar to the quality that Brown mined with 3,000 ounces per ton silver. At that time it was the deepest mine in Aspen. But water, once again, created havoc closing the mine for nearly half a year.
The photo above is somewhat of a rare occurrence as mines did not often pause work for anything as frivolous as a photo session with this photo seemingly including the whole workforce, at least the daytime shift.
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.
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