Willoughby: What Aspen Mountain’s most important tunnels have in common

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
The Highland Tunnel entrance on Castle Creek in the 1960s — Aspen’s longest tunnel. Willoughby collection

Aspen’s longest tunnels, and those with longevity, had several things in common. Most of their length was driven after 1900, all of them were designed to tap ore at the lowest possible tunnel level that could exit to the outside and they drained water from workings above.

The longest tunnel on the face of Aspen Mountain was the Durant. It exited near the Aspen Alps not far from the eastern edge of Little Nell. It was best known, until a cave-in blocked it almost at its entrance, as the tunnel that took you to the underground waterfall, a favorite of Aspen teenagers for decades.

It was a wide tunnel designed to handle larger ore cars. An 1892 description best sums up the goal, “( the tunnel) is intended to furnish an outlet for some of the mightiest vaults that have ever yielded to the gnawing teeth of the Ingersol drill.”

Late in 1892 it had penetrated 2,725 feet where a blast opened it to a large pocket of water above. It became the major drainage tunnel for all of the workings above it. In the early 1900s it was extended with the goal of tunneling 2,000 feet below Tourtolotte Park. At that time it had a large crew taking out 200 tons of ore a day. In the 1920s the last extension was completed, but the last few hundred feet did not encounter ore. The Herron brothers operated the tunnel in the 1940s extracting mostly ore high in lead and zinc for the war effort.

The Newman Tunnel with its adit at the Aspen Music School/ACDS campus had similarities to the ‘Durant. Its goal was to intersect the presumed extension of Tourtolotte Park ore bodies from below, draining water and making it easier to extract ore and transport it to town. Unlike the Durant, it was an incline tunnel, driven at an angle. It was even wider than the Durant with two tracks, one for the ore cars to go up and one for them to go down. Ore cars were attached to a cable loop where the heavy downhill ore cars pulled the empty ones back up.

It was an expensive project with no ore along much of its length. Miners extended the tunnel about ten feet a day beginning in 1890 driving for some distance through granite and not reaching the ore body until 1893. It cost an estimated $17.50 a foot including timbering, $416 in today’s dollars.

Its ore output was not much until around 1897. In 1900 it had grown and a railroad spur was built to connect it with the railroad line at the end of Castle Creek (the road to town uses that railroad spur line). It produced most of its ore between 1900 and 1908, but cyclically opened and closed through 1925. It was considered a model of mining engineering excellence, but it also had the most serious miner injuries during its history.

Three tunnels on the backside of Aspen Mountain were three of the four longest in Aspen. All three were engineered to reach the Midnight-Little Annie ore body from a lower level. In the late 1890s the Midnight closed because the expense of pumping water was too great. The Little Annie had a similar problem but stayed open mining above the water level.

A new Midnight Mining Company drove a nearly two mile long tunnel from Queens Gulch to tap onto that ore body 500 feet below the bottom of the old Midnight shaft. Work began in 1913, but it took until 1929 to reach the ore body, battling water all along the way. It operated until 1950.

What was originally dubbed the Famous Tunnel and later the Hope Mine drove a tunnel, also about a mile and a half long, from the opposite direction from the Midnight’s but aimed 1,000 feet lower. It was started in the 1890s, and on-again off-again work continued into the late 1930s. It found enough ore to pay for extensions, but it did not find the major ore body.

The Highland Tunnel tried to approach the ore body far below the other tunnels from the west side of the mountain at the Castle Creek Road level. Most of the early work, a couple thousand feet, was accomplished in the 1920s and 30s. Ironically, it was Aspen’s last major and longest tunnel, about two miles, with most of the work done in the 1960s, but it did not find any payable ore.

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