Vagneur: The mining grind | AspenTimes.com

Vagneur: The mining grind

It used to be a good excuse for starting a drunken night at the Red Onion, the overused phrase, "It's Friday night in the old mining town." Yeah, I fell for that with regularity, about once a week, but what the hell did most of us know about silver mining around Aspen?

It started simply enough — find the right geology and start looking for what might be the sign of a vein or lode. A seasoned prospector could spot a potential mine without a whole lot of trouble, but just like today, what do you do with it once found?

There were exceptions, of course, but beyond the grubstake they might have received, most of those 1880s boys didn't have the wherewithal to operate a productive mine. The easy money for them was in staking a claim, proving it up a bit and then selling it to someone with enough capital to tear its guts out and haul the silver to market.

Once a mine had been opened, getting the ore out of the ground was only the beginning of a long and expensive process. Impressive as it sounds, the 1894 discovery of the world's largest silver nugget in the Smuggler Mine was an anomaly. Silver doesn't usually come in nugget form; rather, it's attached to other minerals in the earth like lead, zinc or galena and must be separated out.

Early on, before the trams, most of this dirt and rock, containing silver, had to be hauled to a plant, most likely in Aspen or Ashcroft, where it could be further processed for delivery to a smelter. What the explosion of dynamite in the mine shaft didn't immediately break up into small enough pieces for transportation had to be finished off by a man on the end of a large hammer. From there, it had to be sacked, loaded onto burros and hauled off the mountain to a stamp mill or other crushing device. Large freight wagons, pulled by six large draft animals and commanded by bearded, tobacco-chewing muleskinners, carried the finely-crushed ore to a smelter in Leadville.

If there was any beauty to be found in the extractive, labor-intensive industry of silver mining, other than the luster of the mineral itself, it came from the lowly burro, who most certainly provided the ballet backdrop for an ugly business.

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As many as 16 in a string, these small donkeys hauled the precious rock down the mountain, each burro affixed to its predecessor's pack saddle by a short length of rope. Much has been made about the stubborn natures of burros, but when led by a stout horse and a savvy packer, they performed with little or no complaint.

Imagine multiple pack strings of burros, six, seven, eight or more of them, consisting of amazing multiples of animals, all on Aspen Mountain at one time, some diligently bringing the silver treasure down, others back-hauling food, lumber, coal, hay, dynamite and machinery — anything hard-rock miners working on the side of a mountain might need.

It wasn't just Aspen Mountain; a glance at many of the above-timberline peaks surrounding the valley reveal old mining trails across steep, talus-laden slopes. Dizzying switchbacks paint the picture of sure-footed burros, willing to follow their leaders through terrain that undoubtedly challenged the calm of even the most ambitious prospectors.

Familiarity bred orderliness, and a typical string of 16 burros lined up single-file at the mine would load one at a time, two or three large bags of crushed ore per burro. After one was loaded, the simple "click-click" of the head packer would move them all ahead, unaided, one precise burro length, so the next long-eared beauty could take on its burden. Once loaded, they took off with little argument, performing the same ritual again at the bottom depot as the ore was unloaded from their backs.

Today, if you listen carefully, you can sometimes still hear the mournful bray of a lone burro, also known as a Rocky Mountain Canary, calling across the giant Elk Mountain range as he frets over the location of his compadres.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.