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Bumpy Tour Gives Visitors A Glimpse Into Aspen's Mining History

This summer the City of Aspen is partnering with the Aspen Historical Society to show off Aspen’s mining history. Silver mining on Smuggler Mountain was big business in the late 1800’s. Now, remnants of that legacy are easy to find and highlighted on a weekly public jeep tour. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen went along for the ride, bumps and all, and filed this report.

Diane Platek of the tour company Blazing Adventures loads our group into a brightly colored jeep.

Marci: “So, this is going to be a bumpy ride, right?" Diane: "A little bit, definitely after the deck it gets rough. Definitely buckle up."

Our tour guide today is the Aspen Historical Society’s Mike Monroney.

"What we’re doing is we’re going up on top of Smuggler Mountain to look at some of the mine remnants that are on top of the mountain that go all the way back to the Victorian mining era," he says.

Smuggler Mountain, east of downtown, is known for its recreational opportunities. Hikers, bikers and dogs huff and puff their way up a winding, rocky road. The place was just as busy in the late 19th century only then, it was crawling with miners.

"We’re going to have to use a little bit of imagination to picture what was there, but this entire hillside on Smuggler mountain, just like the base of Aspen Mountain, was totally industrialized," says Monroney.

In 1892, Aspen was the third largest city in Colorado and one of the most prosperous mining towns in the country. Some 12,000 people lived along its dusty, crowded streets.

"Pretty much a typical, industrial and not necessarily a nice place to live, but a really good place for people to invest in and hopefully become prosperous along the way."

Miners came from all over the country, seeking fortune. For $3 a day, men heavily mined Smuggler from its base to the top.

"We’re going to look at the remains of the Park Regent Mine and the remains of the Bush Wacker Mine, which was owned by Jerome Wheeler," says Monroney as the jeep rumbles along.

Wheeler built Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House and the Hotel Jerome. He also owned several mines. As we near the top of Smuggler, the road gets rockier until we stop at a trailhead.

The group regains its footing and hikes toward an old mine site tucked into an aspen grove. Monroney points toward a huge pile of black and yellow pebbles.

"This debris pile is what’s leftover from the Park Regent mine. We’re seeing not only some of the remains from the coal that was burned and the steam engine that was here, but we’re seeing some of the mine dump and, a mine dump usually just consists of junk rock."

Close to the mine dump is a shaft, where miners and supplies were lowered into the mountain. Monroney says a couple hundred miners likely worked this mine alone. Farther down the trail are warning signs. Monroney reads aloud...

"Hazardous mines will kill you, with three skull and crossbones, stay out and stay alive. So, we’re actually looking over the edge and this is one of our mine shafts, right here."

Silver prices crashed in 1893, not soon enough to prevent mining from destroying the forest on Smuggler. In its place, Monroney says, a healthy crop of aspens, lodgepole pines and englemann spruce have grown back.

"It’s stunning and near pristine. And, in some ways, that’s the great triumph of Aspen is reinventing itself in a way that has allowed the wilderness to come back."

Instead of silver and mining, today’s tourism economy in Aspen is built around these pristine landscapes. The tour wraps up at the bottom of the trail and the group hops back into the jeep for a bumpy ride down.

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