Vagneur: What saved the soul of Aspen

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It’s a romantic concept, and maybe even true, although there are several versions, that the famed Smuggler Mine, which at one time produced one-fifth of the world’s silver and in 1894 the world’s largest silver nugget, was discovered by a couple of down-on-their-luck, transient prospectors who almost immediately traded the claim for supplies and a mule. The mule died the next day, or so goes the legend.

This is a nice story from 1879, with romantic overtones, at the beginning of what we know today as Aspen, somehow suggesting that our mountain town has always been full of great stories, untold opportunity and talented, commendable personalities.

In some ways, the romantic part is a tragedy. We all imagine the lucky prospector, diligently looking for the mother lode, finding it and then living richly and happily thereafter with the love of his life. Kind of corny, although some men did live up to such lofty dreams, but the more realistic bottom line was that silver mining was very capital intensive, and most men looking for the dream were, due to circumstances of hard reality, forced to sell their claims to someone who could actually afford to extract the ore. Some got lucky, but damned few. 

In the 1880s, Aspen was hard to get to, just like it is today. Without a railroad to move silver ore out of the Roaring Fork Valley to faraway smelters and processing plants, Aspen didn’t manage to get much mining done. As a matter of fact, in the early years prior to 1887, so little ore was shipped out of the valley that Aspen was sometimes ridiculed as a mining town without any mining. Jerome B. Wheeler, partner in R.H. Macy & Co. in New York, put a ton of money into early Aspen, got the mining infrastructure started and began the tedious and expensive task of getting a railroad into town. B. Clark Wheeler, no relation to Jerome and owner of The Aspen Times, among other businesses, became an unabashed hustler and unapologetic booster for the town of Aspen. 

But with the arrival of the railroads, Aspen took off like the head of a match struck against a limestone outcropping that was sure to conceal a treasure trove of silver. Mine production increased fourfold and then tenfold, and faraway money flowed into town like water under a bridge. Interestingly, out of an estimated 7,000 mining claims filed in the Roaring Fork Valley, no more than 30 were ever producing in any given year and only about 200 were developed past the required amount of work to prove them up.

Eight mostly faceless, out-of-town corporations did the majority of the mining, and made by far the preponderance of the money. Aspen wasn’t some quaint little mining town in the mountains with a great success story. It was an industrial city, as dirty and noisy as any in America, mostly owned by people many miles away, in places like Denver, Cincinnati and New York.

Jerome B. Wheeler’s Aspen Consolidated Mining and Smelting Co. had its offices on Wall Street and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. And, in spite of its opulence (Hotel Jerome, Wheeler Opera House, Pitkin County Courthouse, Catholic and Presbyterian churches, Hyman (Brand) Building, H.P. Cowenhoven and Aspen Block Buildings, etc.), it was all, on a shameful note, supported by the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 and the later Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, both federal government boondoggles that held silver to artificial, inflated prices.

The larger mines issued stock as a way to raise money, saving the majority owners the continual need to inject their own capital into the mines for improved technology, deeper shafts and more equipment. B. Clark Wheeler, an unscrupulous promoter with an uncanny entrepreneurial spirit, paid the men working in his mines $3 per day, $1.50 in cash, $1.50 in stock. To the less-heeled men in the mines, owning stock seemed a good way to get a handle on the outrageous sums of money being made in silver mining, and although the stock traded briskly for a while, in the end, very few of the stock certificates could be redeemed for cash, especially after the crash of 1893. For a while, at least, from 1887 until 1893, most everyone felt like they had a chance at cashing in on the big silver bonanzas.

Today, the mountains provide a good escape from the clamor of civilization, but a trip to the hills in the late 1800s put one within earshot of the screaming howl of the sawyer’s blade, the piercing hiss of steam engines, the thunk of hundreds of axes against a dwindling supply of trees, and the sound of men shouting orders at each other and at hardworking horses.

In retrospect, we should all likely be thankful for the 1893 repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. It saved the soul of Aspen. 

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


WineInk: The 2023 vintage

“2023 predicted to be the Vintage of a Lifetime in Napa Valley,” proclaimed the headline this week in a press release sent out by the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade organization that represents the growers and producers in America’s most famed wine region. If there is anyone more optimistic than winemakers, it is the group that represents them.

See more