Willoughby: The split personality of Aspen Mountain’s Spar Gulch
Legends & Legacies
Powder hounds at Aspen Mountain hope for a medium amount of snow — enough to ski the steep section of Spar Gulch that drops off International, but not so much that it slides.
One of the steepest sections of the mountain, Spar wins skiers’ hearts. But miners held a different perspective.
Start at the bottom end of the gulch and attempt to climb up that slope in summer. Geologists call such a pitch the angle of repose, a tilt so steep that anything on it just manages to rest until the slightest imbalance sends it downhill. Over the years much mining era infrastructure has disappeared from the gulch. But as you claw your way uphill, you notice traces of mine dumps and quartzite rocks. As you climb higher toward the ridge, your admiration deepens for miners who maneuvered that slope.
Aspen Mountain’s silver concentrated in the area from Tourtolotte Park toward town. Miners tapped into those rich veins from every side of the mountain. But some of the earliest producing mines shortcut through Spar Gulch into the depths of the mountain.
Prospectors distinguished their many claims with human names: Abingdon, Bowman, PercyBoy, Bonnybell, Katie Bell and Hal Sayer. I liked the name “Princess Louise.”
During 1899 the Princess Louise yielded fabulous ore. Men carried eight sacks of ore down the mountain that averaged 16,000 ounces of silver per ton — the rock was half silver! The total value came to $9,000, or $237,000 in today’s dollars. The vein ran through quartzite, a common occurrence for that area of the mountain but uncommon for silver found elsewhere in Aspen.
A few of Spar Mining Co.’s claims yielded silver in quartzite at 90 ounces of silver per ton of ore. The long-term average ran about 45 ounces of silver per ton. In 1899, 10 wagon teams hauled the company’s daily load, about 50 tons of ore, down the gulch to town.
At the time, a mine tram served the gulch. The longest Aspen tram, it anchored near the present gondola base and ran all the way to Tourtolotte Park. You can still see the gap where the tram crossed the ridge, just above and to the left of the top of Little Nell.
From that lookout, you can gaze up the gulch and imagine the mine tram as it clung to the steep gulch side. Side trams joined at right angles and allowed mines along the western side of the gulch to transfer ore from their loading stations to the main line. Wouldn’t you like a loading station there today, to trolley skiers to the top of the ridge where the powder flies?
The angle of repose worked well for miners who tunneled into the side of the gulch. As they dumped rock out of a tunnel onto the slope, the waste did not form the familiar conical shape of a mine dump. Instead it tumbled toward the gulch bottom.
During the 1950s the Ski Corp. decreased hardship for those who ski the narrow, boulder-crammed bottom. They bulldozed it.
But the corporation did not decrease the steepness of slope, which miners learned was susceptible to slides. For skiers today, the risks and rewards remain.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching 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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This summer in Aspen is likely to include indoor and outdoor concerts, maskless gatherings and no state or county-mandated restrictions on social distancing at restaurants or anywhere else.