Yore Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Yore Aspen

Tim Willoughby

Head-frames are the iconic symbol of Western mining towns. Photogenic and predominant, they mark the entrances to the mother lode. You know you are nearing a mining town when you spot a head-frame, especially in Nevada ghost towns where the landscape is devoid of trees. They, however, did not denote Aspen’s mining industry.

Head-frames, also called gallows frames, are the vertical structures with a wheel on the top above a mine shaft. They provide the means for hoisting material up and down. Pragmatic engineering does not call for much more than a well-anchored tripod, but pride and a little one-upmanship often led to elaborate structures that could tower a hundred feet with complex and esthetically placed cross-bracing. Mine owners and mining towns built these elaborate structures to lure Eastern stock investors who gauged the potential size of an ore vein by the size and permanence of a town or mine’s infrastructure.

Most Aspen head-frames were for shallow shafts 200 feet deep or less. Three tall trees forming a pyramid with a pulley wheel attached to the top sufficed. Hemp rope, not metal cable, connected a bucket on one end to a spool cylinder called a windlass at the other end. Harnessed horses and mules powered the windlasses by walking in circles around the rope spool. Miners called these contraptions “horse whims.” Shallow mines quickly ran out of ore, if they uncovered any at all, and disappeared as fast as they were built.

Most Aspen ore veins were accessed through horizontal tunnels driven in from the valley walls. As one entered Aspen from the west, mining announced itself with long piles of waste material dumped at the mouths of the tunnels. Well into the 1950s, buildings perched atop the mine dumps. The telltale large-scale mining feature, tram cables, ascended Aspen Mountain just like the gondola and ski lifts proclaim a different kind of wealth today.

Few large head-frames appeared in Aspen’s skyline. They were, by Western mining standards, very modern and did not fit the stereotype because some were unadorned steel structures. The Silver Queen and Free Silver head-frames on the Smuggler Mountain side of town were tall, simple, straight, four-posted steel towers sitting above Aspen’s deepest shafts. The Free Silver three-compartment shaft at 1,200 feet deep comprised a more impressive structure than its head-frame.

The Aspen Deep Shaft for the Aspen Mine was constructed using thick 14-by-14-inch timbers. Had it stood alone at its low Aspen Mountain location, just above the end of Galena Street, it would have been Aspen’s iconic mining structure. As such it might even have been saved for its historic value. But it was part of a large building, not a stand-alone structure.

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The head-frames higher up on the mountainsides were inside of buildings built over the shaft. Mines operated year-round, and snow and ice on the hoisting cable, water draining down a shaft, and the general complications of operating outdoors had to be addressed. Most of these buildings were no more than two stories, requiring a relatively small indoor head-frame. As a general rule the higher the head-frame the deeper the shaft.

Steel framework was salvaged for scrap metal for the war effort in the early 1940s. Most of Aspen’s larger head-frames were gone by 1956.

Paintings and photographs of head-frames like those of the Matchless Mine in Leadville or those along the Denver-to-Glenwood interstate corridor are a Colorado tourist staple. But none of Aspen’s head-frames remain because, let’s be honest, they were not at all picturesque.