Willoughby: The Silver Star mine shines in Tourtolotte Park
Legends & Legacies
The Tourtolotte Park section of an Aspen mining map resembles a quilt of rectangular patches. At a glance, the map conveys the complexity of Aspen Mountain. Red lines demarcate multiple faults. A pink section runs left to right in the center and signals the presence of silver ore. A black line drops from the top and angles to the right: the Newman tunnel, carved from the Music School Campus to access ore under Tourtolotte Park. A rectangle near the center, at the lower part of the map, marks claim boundaries for the Silver Star mine.
The Silver Star typified several Tourtolotte Park claims, which comprised one of Aspen’s richest mining areas. These early claims laid hold to ground where mineral veins broke the surface. One claim owner, H. A. Tabor of the Leadville mine, later established the eponymous opera house. With no expensive infrastructure, small groups of partners could wring a profit from the earth.
Keep in mind that 30 ounces of silver per ton of ore was considered good and profitable for much of Aspen’s history. Then hold onto your hats for the rest of the story.
After first, claim owners haggled over ownership. But in 1888 the Silver Star lessees discovered a fabulous vein, which yielded 200 to 1,000 ounces of silver per ton. A month after that vein petered out, miners discovered another vein. The miners accumulated 50 tons of ore to ship, and ran 18 assays of the piles of ore before shipping. The samples averaged 340 ounces per ton and ranged from 98 to 948, a great payday.
The following year, new lessees took over the operation and sunk a shaft down 180 feet. By mid-summer they found a small 4- to 5-inch wide vein. It turned into a four-foot wide vein that assayed at a minimum 200 ounces per ton. They shipped 82 sacks of that ore.
In 1890 the shaft had reached 550 feet. The silver content improved, with ore running up to 400 ounces. On one hand, the ore discovery itself was exciting. On the other hand, the tram from Aspen to Tourtolotte Park opened, with cheaper transportation. With that savings, lower grade ore became profitable.
Later that year, astounded miners encountered what was described as “the best of the Park.” One assay ran at 2,052 ounces. A few days later, another assay came in at 18,000 — 1,000 pounds of silver per 2,000 pounds of ore. The silver pocket, though small, invited further exploration.
Fifteen partners worked that same claim on a lease that would expire within months. They found a new vein, only 10 inches wide. But the vein held 152 ounces of silver per ton plus 74% lead, another marketable mineral. The partners furiously mined four to five tons a day of ore that tested at 80 ounces of silver. By the end of their lease they had earned, in today’s dollars, $8,000 a day.
The Silver Star shaft reached 600 feet in 1890, and encountered water. The Newman Tunnel provided a drainage route and facilitated downhill ore delivery, rather than hoisting it up to the surface. After 1893, the Tourtolotte Park mines consolidated into a larger company. The lead in the ore sustained its value, and mines such as the Silver Star kept working their way to lower depths of profitable ore.
Tourtolotte Park mines plumbed the southern end of the main Aspen Mountain ore body. The ore body, along with the geologic layers, tilted downward toward town. The ore body grew deeper as you descended in elevation so the Park mines bottomed out before other mines closer to town. No glittering snow graces our mountain trails in summer, but below our feet, in our imaginations, silver sparkles all year round.
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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