Legends & Legacies: Tramp miners in Aspen
November 19, 2016
Today's "ski bum" lifestyle parallels that of history's tramp miners. For ski bums, it is a stage, a youthful adventure, to work at a ski resort at night and ski all day. Resorts offer housing to attract these transient workers. Mine managers addressed a portion of their labor needs similarly.
For many years the Midnight Mine at its Queen's Gulch camp operated with no more than two shifts and relied on one or two tramp miners. Miners lived in a small boarding house at the mine. When a newly constructed road enabled autos and trucks to access the camp, some miners lived in Aspen.
Tramp miners, bachelors all, enjoyed their lifestyle. Room, board and a small wage for tobacco and alcohol sufficed. They enjoyed the work, found solace living in the mountains, and storytelling camaraderie highlighted their evenings.
But they suffered from wanderlust. Despite the beauty of the backside of Aspen Mountain and the hearty grub, a few months spent in one place exceeded a gut-felt limit.
The unease did not stem from demand for higher wages. Although some copper mines in Montana paid better, wages for similar positions, especially in the 1920s and early 1930s, held steady throughout the industry. Wanderlust led to constant turnover. Even during the Depression, a skilled miner could go to any mining town and find work quickly. That is, as long as he had not joined a union.
In those decades many choices beckoned to miners. Park City in Utah, Tonopah and Rhyolite in Nevada, Butte in Montana, and Cripple Creek, Silverton and Breckenridge in Colorado top a long list. Men dominated some towns, families built community in others. Tramp miners felt comfortable in either setting. They relished anonymity in larger cities' rooming houses, but they felt more valued in small camps such as Queen's Gulch.
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A few tramp miners had to move around because they were unwelcome, cantankerous characters. Alcohol was the scourge of men of that generation and tramp miners stood out as some of the worst offenders. Mines such as the Midnight paid monthly and discouraged drinking in camp, so some miners would take their wages to town and go on a binge. After sobering up, some would leave for another town. Other miners recognized their own weakness and chose camps isolated far from temptation.
Some miners were prone to fighting and lacked any social graces. Their disruptive behavior stood out in a small boarding house. At times, other miners forced them to leave by ostracizing or confronting them.
After a tramp miner at the Midnight shot a deer that the other miners considered a pet, he was asked to leave. Another miner shouted an ethnic slur at a bunkmate, a mistake in a camp that welcomed most ethnic groups. One picked a fight with another tramp miner, who beat him to a pulp. He then threatened to go to town and get a gun. He was told not to return and a week later the other tramp miner departed.
Unlike ski bums, tramp miners were not going through a stage of life. They continued to mine and move on until they died. Due to the health challenges of the work, few were physically able to work beyond 50 and many died by then. The closest comparison to a tramp miner today would be an oil-field worker. But those men tend to live in larger communities and commute to drilling sites.
After automobiles became commonplace, tramp miners still preferred to live at a mine's boarding house. They chose a simple lifestyle in which the only decisions they had to make were when to move and where their next stop would be. No cars, banks, families, homesteads or other demands encumbered their time and energy. Today's commuters may envy life on a work-eat-sleep schedule with a few hours of boardinghouse yarns and poker games to break the monotony.
Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching for 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.