Willoughby: Motive force
Legends & Legacies
Aspen’s mining industry pioneered the change from steam to electricity for motive force, but many mines stuck with steam for the heaviest lifting.
Miners sank shafts along a surface mineral outcropping. Or they aimed their diggings to intersect an ore vein that they figured passed below, based on a neighboring claim’s success.
Initially, the source of horsepower to haul rock from below was a horse. As the beast walked around in circles, it wound hemp rope around a large spool called a whim. The rope wove through a pulley suspended over the shaft, its end tied to a bucket. Depending on the direction the horse walked, the bucket rose up or lowered down the mineshaft. As miners blasted through rock — mostly limestone or dolomite — a full bucket did not weigh much. But once they reached ore, a load would log in at a half-ton or more.
For small operations, a horse and a few strong men sufficed, but problems rose as a mine deepened. Hemp wore out quickly and would break with longer, heavier loads. A horse may start out pulling 100 pounds up 100 feet. As the mine developed, the animal may have lifted the same-size or greater load 500 feet. The process repeated over and over again. Once a mine passed 300 feet, miners considered shifting to steam power.
One manufacturer, National Iron Works in San Francisco, produced several sizes of steam hoists. The greatest weighed 8,000 pounds and lifted a load 1,000 feet. The least, used by most small mines in Aspen, weighed 5,000 pounds with a 500-foot lift. Even a small steam hoist could manage a full ore bucket if it used steel cable. The unit arrived assembled, ready to run. Operators stoked them with firewood, heated water until it steamed, and pulled levers to start and stop the action.
Manufacturers in San Francisco, Denver and New York shipped the equipment by train. Holbrook and Atkinson — Aspen’s heavy-load specialists — drove wagon teams of mules to haul the boilers up Aspen’s mountains to the mines.
Every advance in technology seems to have a downside. Sometimes steam boilers exploded. If you have seen one of these boilers, or another sort of steam engine, you can’t forget their thick steel walls. Rivets every few inches join one piece to another. A few of the many boiler explosions during this period killed as many as 20 people, yet Aspen suffered just one explosion. In 1889, at the Lulu S. Mine in Hunter Park, the 30-horsepower boiler-hoist blew up. No one was hurt and no one knows why the accident happened.
Steam engines were voracious consumers. A steam hoist added to a mine’s payroll because it required wood, and wood required lumbermen. Usually mines hired these extra workers during summer.
Carl Bergman salvaged and restored one of Aspen’s old steam hoists. He installed it as a central feature of his Miner’s Building. There he shared with his customers his passion for mining and steam power. He painted and polished the fixture, and removed the mining dust. Even so, you can appreciate its heft and imagine its noisy, grimy, powerful past.
A hike up Aspen Mountain during the 1880s through 1890s differed from one today. The sizzle of steam and the pounding of pistons echoed off the mountainsides. Every few hundred yards, smoke sifted through the forest. Silent, efficient electric motors may save trees, but they seem less exciting.
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.
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