Willoughby: When Aspen was the Goldilocks of silver mining towns
September 10, 2017
Leadville, with its own smelters, exceeded the size of Aspen at one time.
But no one would call a place the king or queen of silver if the town had lead in its name. Aspen reigned as the Silver Queen, not only for silver production. This Goldilocks of mining towns grew in the just-right location at the just-right time.
Beginning in 1859, the Comstock became the first large silver producer in America. Westerners tipped their hats to the Virginia City lode, the "king of silver." There, ore bodies reached nearly three times as deep as Aspen's. Miners extracted most of the silver before Aspen even got started. Yet gold accounted for about half the production, with the silver portion similar to Aspen's eventual yield. After 1874, the Comstock's silver production declined rapidly. Aspen eclipsed the Comstock because it developed during the just-right time, after the Bland Allison Act pushed the price of silver upward.
The gold boom of the 1860s ranged across the West. After the Badlands of South Dakota peaked, prospectors headed to the mountains of Colorado and Montana for the yellow treasure.
Within many mines, gold was imbedded in quartz veins. Miners crushed this ore to a fine powder with stamp mills and extracted the precious metal. Silver did not require such an expensive process. When the U.S. Treasury resumed buying silver in 1878, silver production became even more profitable than gold. Prospectors shifted their sights accordingly. During the late 1870s, two areas of Montana began to prosper, the area around Neihart and the Flint Creek region. In Colorado, prospectors scouted Leadville, the San Juan mountains and then Aspen.
B. Clark Wheeler laid out Aspen's streets. To figure out whether Aspen held the most promise for him, he journeyed to inspect the Montana silver boom. He concluded that development of the lodes there would take longer and would not be as good, and he returned to focus his work on Aspen. Nonetheless, a Flint Creek town called Granite, achieved renown as "Montana's Silver Queen." And by the turn of the century, that town's Bimetallic Mine proclaimed itself the world's largest silver producer.
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To show off Colorado silver and lobby for the continuation of silver coinage, Aspen's silver mines sent the Silver Queen, a 16-foot statue, to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Bimetallic's contribution to the fair surpassed the statue in monetary value. They sent a 4,307-pound bar of silver bullion. Its worth in today's currency: around a million dollars.
For Aspen, just-right conditions ensured profits strong enough to survive periods of low prices. Although Aspen's mines lacked gold, silver ore reached beyond 1,000 feet into the ground. And to a greater extent than other towns, Aspen capitalized on advances in ore extraction and processing. They used electricity and employed two competing railroads to transport ore to smelters.
Virginia City survives as a tourist town. But a dearth of scenery affords scant backdrop for its few, fine Victorian structures. Flint Creek's collection of ghost towns lie too far north to compete with Aspen's moderate climate. Meanwhile, Aspen's just-right, flat valley bottom provides premiere mountain views.
If Goldilocks were to rate Aspen online, surely she would declare the timing of Aspen's mining boom, the prosperous mining conditions and the fortuitous location "Just right."
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.