ASPEN – An expensive and innovative mining-era venture on Aspen Mountain, ripe with financial speculation and sabotage, has been all but forgotten in local history lessons. Its story includes financial intrigue, ingenuity, and colorful players.
From 1890 to 1893, a little-known engineering masterpiece in the form of a game-changing ore tram on Aspen Mountain ran close in alignment to the present-day Silver Queen Gondola, which today’s local skiers call “the bucket,” but only going as high as the bottom of Tourtelotte Park.
Officially named the “Aspen Public Tramway,” the Jules Verne-like machine hauled low-grade silver ore in big buckets from Tourtelotte down Spar Gulch and Niagara, to what is now the gondola plaza. There, the ore was dumped into Midland Railway cars for shipment to distant smelters.
Though Aspen’s first bucket was meant for ore, and met with limited success, some passengers rode it up and down the mountain. A round trip in a not-so-plush open bucket would cost 50 cents, The Aspen Times reported on March 15, 1890, two weeks before it opened. The promoters had promised special passenger cars but later reneged.
The only account of passenger traffic appeared in the Times on December 4, 1892. The headline read “Hung him in Mid Air,” and told the tale of a stranded Tourtelotte resident in an open bucket on the “Great Route.”
Tram manager Herb Harding described how “the wind was whistling wild arias over the hills,” and the “voyager” hung for three hours over “the cavernous jaws and abysmal recesses of Spar Gulch” because of “a derangement of the machinery.”
The danger, he said, was of buckets colliding “with a relaxing brake when the grade is a forty percenter,” yet they somehow rolled the man back down. He added that “Passenger traffic is a department we never tried to boom.”
Today, gondola passengers looking west at the Mine Dumps while riding over Bell Mountain on the Silver Queen Gondola can see a remnant of the first tram.
The two conspicuous stone walls across the way at the top of Zaugg Dump, now historically hijacked by the spray-painted Jimi Hendrix shrine, are actually the footings of a branch station that t-boned the Aspen Public Tramway where it climbed up Spar Gulch.
As such, the original tram is an overlooked icon of Aspen’s history, hatched out of a bold idea in 1889 to wring out as much silver ore as possible from Aspen Mountain while the U.S. government was still buying it for coinage.
At the time, the nationally growing Populist Party, a fleeting third-party coalition of poor farmers and labor, lobbied the federal government to buy even more silver. And some radical Populists, known as “Free Silverites,” believed that as much silver as possible should become coins to create more wealth for more people.
Leading Democrats and Republicans in the financial center of New York opposed this because they feared too much silver would cause inflation and undermine the value of gold, which they wanted as the stable, primary monetary standard like the rest of the world.
Yet many of the major financiers of Aspen silver mining, with their roots in the Eastern establishment, were venture capitalists willing to go against their conservative instincts for short-term gain. So, Aspen kept digging to supply the subsidized demand.
Although it was not entirely reliable, the Aspen Public Tramway was an impressive, rumbling, creaking contrivance that sparked local prosperity. After only three years of operation, mysterious interests scuttled the tram during the depression of 1893.
Two big names in Aspen’s history, Jerome B. Wheeler and D.R.C. Brown, financed the project during its planning and inception from 1889 to 1890, a period when silver mining ran wild on Aspen Mountain.
Their emblematic machine represented a big idea and a bold move when everything seemed possible in Aspen. Wheeler had already proven his worth by completing the Wheeler Opera House and the Hotel Jerome in 1889. And his partner, the up-and-coming merchant D.R.C. Brown, had cemented his acumen in town by making a fortune trading supplies for mining shares with miners who couldn’t pay otherwise.
Civic pride in Wheeler’s town monuments fueled bravado, on top of the fact that two railroads had come to Aspen to haul away its treasure of silver ore.
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad arrived in 1887 on the north side of town and the Colorado Midland Railway, complete with a passenger and ore loading station where today’s gondola plaza stands, was running up and down valley by 1888.
And so the world poured into Aspen by rail, bringing families, factory-made goods, opportunists, fine wines, Cuban cigars, billiard tables, pianos, turtle meat, and even fresh oysters. Such prosperity had transformed the rough-and-tumble mining camp into what the Rocky Mountain Sun hailed as “the finest mining city in the world.”
Through this period, between the arrival of the railroads and the bust of 1893, Wheeler and other tycoons invested heavily in Aspen mining, infrastructure and real estate, and the camp mushroomed with some 2,500 working miners.
Between 1889 and 1893 businesses in Aspen multiplied, and the town’s population doubled from 6,000 to 12,000. “Not a vacant house in the city,” said the Sun in 1891, which helps explain why 320 new houses would be built that year.
Everyday Aspen life
During this buoyant time, Aspen was not entirely a realm of Victorian splendor as buildings such as the Pitkin County courthouse, the Elks’ building, and Wheeler’s edifices suggest today. The reality was more of a rural Dickensian scene, with a few nineteenth century one-percenters, a hustling middle class, and suffering street people.
The Aspen Daily Chronicle reported that Main Street in springtime was not navigable for “mud scows drawing over four feet of water.” Victorian women had to lift their petticoats high to cross Aspen streets when spring and fall storms brewed a mix of manure and muck. “Oh the mud, the terrible mud!” cried the Sun.
On cold mornings in old Aspen, a toxic cloud of coal and wood smoke from hundreds of stoves, combined with lead particles from ore concentrators and the big smelter on Castle Creek, hung over town.
A city ordinance mandated that it was the “duty of police officers to kill all unlicensed or vicious dogs running at large,” while the Sun reported that “vagrant pigs and played-out horses and mules” overpopulated the Evergreen Cemetery (Ute Cemetery).
“Soiled Doves” were relegated to a four-block area on Durant Street, and Chinese were not allowed in town. Street preachers evangelized folks on plank walks. All the while the newspapers decried the growing ranks of “bums,” “vags,” “tinhorns,” and “rounders,” dubbed the “never-sweat society” by the Chronicle.
“Add them to the chain gang,” said the Sun (yes, Aspen had a chain gang).
But it wasn’t entirely grim in the early 1890s. Aspen’s baseball team was one of the best in state, and circuses visited regularly.
And, oh yes, a national silver rush was on, and the new tram propelled the urgency to extract the “white metal” from every flank of Aspen Mountain, while the continuing purchase of silver by the U.S. government for coinage was inflating the first economic bubble in Aspen.
At its peak, Aspen supplied one-sixth of the nation’s silver as the abundant lode on Aspen Mountain—known as “the contact”— took center stage.
Tram to Tourtelotte
Leading up to and after the arrival of the tram, a lot of action took place on Aspen Mountain in the town of Tourtelotte Park, first settled in the early 1880s.
Today, the only building in the Park is Bonnie’s restaurant, but by 1889 the camp had grown to become the site of a hardscrabble town encompassing much of upper Aspen Mountain. With 600 working men, the district sported dogfights, shootings, hotels, masquerade balls, a school, a court system, and temperance lectures.
Thus, back in the day, the Aspen Public Tram was more popularly known as the “Tourtelotte Tram,” because its top terminal was at the toe of today’s Pump House run, in Tourtelotte.
The Park mines produced what was known as low-grade ore, averaging 60 silver-ounces per ton, well below the rate of high-grade silver ore at 300 ounces per ton. Low-grade was more work to bring off the mountain because it took more quantity to distill the same amount of alloy than high-grade, and the tram offered to transport unimaginable amounts of ore down the mountain to waiting railroad cars in a jiffy. Every little mine now had greater prospects.
Up until that point, “jack punchers” overloaded strings of 100 or more burros, and teamsters driving four-in-hand wagons yelled a “high carnival of profanity” while inefficiently hauling freight up and ore down Aspen Mountain.
Both charged $3.50 per ton in summer and up to $5 in winter, depending on the difficulty of negotiating mud and avalanches on the county road to Tourtelotte, built in 1881 to 1882. The Times reported one such incident on February 21, 1891, in which freighter Israel “Frenchy” Pellard and his team were swept off the road and killed by an avalanche, near what is now Bear Paw ski run.
Often, more successful mines tied up contracts with the haulers, and smaller competitors’ ore stacked up. This expensive transport down from Tourtelotte necessitated invention to get burgeoning quantities off the mountain.
Competing Aspen ideas
And so with ore backlogged and new silver strikes on the mountain trumpeted daily in four newspapers – often owned by mining interests – Wheeler and Brown’s investment group aimed to trigger more mining and cheaper transport via a tram directly to Midland cars on Deane Street.
They projected in the Sun on March 27, 1890, that the charge for shipping ore from Tourtelotte would be $1.50 per ton, a good deal cheaper than burros. But at the same time, the tram up Aspen Mountain was not the only wild idea being pitched to local investors.
According to the April 11, 1889 Chronicle, a Captain E. E. Pray held forth in a suite at the respectable Clarendon Hotel (which featured a chained bear in its alley for entertainment, according to the Times) at the western corner of Mill and Durant Street, selling stock in a scheme to build a narrow-gauge railroad up Aspen Mountain and over the top to Ashcroft.
Surveying was actually done to build the rail line. This solution would not only haul ore, but service the mines and deliver passengers, despite the obvious problem of snow and avalanches.
Another on-and-off solution was to drive a tunnel from Castle Creek deep under Tourtelotte Park to transport ore from connecting mines, according to the May 1, 1897 Sun, in a look-back story about early work on the tunnel.
On the heels of these schemes, because it cost one-fifth the price of the railroad, the plan for the elevated Aspen Public Tramway offered the best alternative.
An attorney for the newly formed Aspen Public Tramway Company, J.M. Downing, described the tram project in the Times on March 23, 1889, as “…constructed on high trestle work on the gravity plan, and will encounter no difficulty with the deep snows.”
That same month the company publicized a system capable of carrying ore and two-person “coach cars,” touted as a tourist attraction, which the Times lauded as better than “the old style of tramping or riding stiff-legged bucking horses.”
The company also pitched an extra service, wherein they would order, bill, and deliver merchandise from faraway manufacturers directly to adjacent mines, while proposing a 2,400-ton per-24-hour capacity, which they soon trimmed to 1,200. Thus the handle “Public Tramway” seemed to apply before the project got off the ground.
But the Company had over-promised and underbid on the big project, and much to the disappointment of the town, a cheaper self-dumping ore bucket version minus passenger cars became the plan when financing met reality.
The Times commented on April 13, 1889, when the project downscaled, that “its history will be as long and as intricate as its cable … the scheme hung fire and various reports circulated until the public finally got hold of the truth.”
At this point, Wheeler brought in his Aspen Mining and Smelting Company team and other stockholders, putting AM&S general manager F.G. Bulkley in charge of the tram project. Revered by the Aspen newspapers as a shrewd New York capitalist who brought prosperity to town, Wheeler could do no wrong, though the Macy’s department store partner would end up bankrupt by 1901.
Tough construction work
Built by Trenton Iron Works of New Jersey, the project took a full year to complete, with the tramway company boasting in the spring of 1889 that the machine would be “open before the snow flies.” In reality, the first ore didn’t come down the tram from Tourtelotte until the spring of 1890.
The project cost $80,000 ($2 million in 2015 dollars), the Times reported on March 1, 1890, which was nearly twice the original estimate. Of the $80,000, $24,000 was for labor and material.
Although not everyone in Aspen of 1889 liked the new machine. “Ore haulers are vigorously antagonizing every project that has in view their supercession by automatical means for the handling of ores,” the Chronicle wrote on April 13, 1889.
Mines expanded exploration, and mine leasing — not unlike modern timeshares — took off. Working locals hoping to hit the jackpot bought mostly-worthless mining shares from a glut of slippery mining-stock brokers.
Up on the hill, construction boss H. E. Hewitt of the Trenton Iron Works ran into stiff going. With the surveying finished in July of 1889, the line of 59 wooden trestle towers from the Midland terminal (the current gondola plaza), up Niagara ski run, over the lower Spar Dumps and up the east side of Spar Gulch to Tourtelotte followed, the Times updated on March 15, 1890.
By late fall of 1889, 12 fifty-ton-capacity ore bins along with an immense three-story-high base terminal dominated the area of what is now the gondola complex and The Little Nell hotel. By early winter, crews earning $2.25 a day finished the towers, the highest being 68 feet with a cable swing of 80 feet, said the Times. Battling brutal snows, hearty men with mules and ingenuity completed the iron work atop the towers in an era before welding.
Hewitt described “tempestuous weather along the stupendous route,” in the January 27, 1890 Times, as leather-booted workers, wearing canvas and wool, endured “the violence of gales and snow.”
The men strung the three-quarter-inch diameter “traction cable” that propelled the buckets. Clamps with lugs secured the buckets to the cable, which rolled over cast iron wheels and cable carriers on the towers and around the 2.5-mile circuit. That same January, workers finished the top terminal and five 75-ton-capacity bins at Tourtelotte Park, ready to receive ore from surrounding mines.
Today, tower cribbing from the tram still sits on Niagara and along the lower face of Bell Mountain, and remnants of the discarded cables occasionally porpoise through the dirt in Spar Gulch.
The March 15, 1890 Times supplied many specifics of the great machine.
The carrier was reported to convey up to 130 buckets, each able to haul 600 pounds. Spaced 100 feet apart, the buckets rested their rolling weight on a seven-eighths-inch-thick stationary “tension cable,” strung top to bottom in four sections along the towers, there being “three tension stations between the city and the Park.”
On each end of a section were 7,500 pounds of hanging lead weight, fashioned from local ore, making 15,000 pounds at each station; these stations supported the entire structure by keeping the tension cable taut. As the buckets were pulled by the traction cable, they rolled over the tension cable below on wheels bracketed to the bucket.
An 1890 photo of the tram running up today’s Niagara ski run and over the top of Spar Point at Kleenex Corner shows what is most likely the peaked roof of the first tension station on the uphill route.
The genius of the mechanism depended on the gravity of loaded buckets coming down to pull loads of freight uphill. As ore lots arrived at the base terminal they were weighed, assayed, and then either stored in bins or dumped directly into the waiting railroad cars below.
The structure there where railroad cars passed beneath for loading was known as a “tippler.” Years later, from the mid-1950s until 2002, the Tipple Inn restaurant and bar stood where the tram tippler had been – now the site of the Little Nell Residences.
The Times reported on April 2, 1890 that the inaugural run the day before had sent up cigars to the people of Tourtelotte Park, who celebrated and exploded salutes of dynamite. In anticipation of the tram, the population of the park had swollen to some 1,500 souls, many hoping to cash in on the area’s plentiful low-grade ore.
“For the miner who finds present voyage a fierce tax on vitality,” said the Chronicle that spring, and others brave enough, a round trip ride in a bucket “cost a nominal fee.”
The delicate balance of the tram’s speed (three to five m.p.h., a bucket every 26 seconds, 40 minutes to top) hinged on the orchestration of a series of levered braking systems in the tension stations — the math being done with pencil and paper and/or experiential judgment. The stoutness, or lack thereof, of the brake pads and cables led to recurring problems and chagrin with the one-year guarantee of Trenton Iron Works.
But barely ten months into operation, the fraying traction cable needed to be replaced with a thicker, one-inch-diameter upgrade, weighing 16 tons, which workers secured to the existing cable and unspooled around the circuit from the bottom. Lugs that held the buckets on the original, thinner cable had become loose. Trenton Iron Works blamed the “sharp grades” of the terrain.
Economic Noose Tightens
The tram had a decent three-year run, employed eighteen men, and added a night shift in 1891. But possibly Mark Twain’s wisdom – attributed to Twain by adventurous mining engineer John Hays Hammond in his 1935 autobiography – that “a gold mine was a hole in the ground owned by a liar,” applied to the silver mines in Tourtelotte Park as well.
In various listings the Chronicle reported shipping numbers, detailing that in the first seven months the tram shipped 100 tons of coal and merchandise up and 9,500 tons of ore down. In January of 1891, a six-day tally yielded 55 tons up and 702 tons down, and in April of 1893 the carrier averaged 200 tons of Park ore down per week.
These snapshots show amounts far short of the projected tonnage of 1,200 per 24 hours.
And don’t forget that the tramway company’s business plan was based on the premise that Tourtelotte miners would up their game and ship more low-grade ore than before. They’d also banked on the many adjacent mines building connecting trams. But only the Little Percy mine did this, sending down 100 tons per week in September of 1891, noted the Times.
This brings us to the actual location of the Little Percy, which apparently was at the top of today’s Zaugg Dump ski run and not above Bonnie’s Restaurant, as contemporary knowledge believes. An 1891 U.S. Geological map shows the entire tram, with the Little Percy mine at the top of Zaugg and a steep Percy spur intersecting the main tram in Spar Gulch.
These days, an up-close visit to the Hendrix shrine shows where the two gravity-stacked stone walls at the top of Zaugg once supported a wooden loading dock for the line to Spar.
Concurrently, two other shorter, simpler ore trams were competing on lower Aspen Mountain. One, owned by Aspen Mining and Smelting, ran to the highly-profitable Aspen Mine; it angled from Ute Avenue over Little Nell (beneath the public tram) to their tunnel at the bottom of the present Silver Queen ski run. The other tram ran from where the Sky Hotel now stands to the Compromise Mine at the top of Nell.
In stark contrast to the relatively small ore loads coming down from Tourtelotte, the Aspen Mine tram shipped down 3,600 tons of ore in the month of November, 1892.
Frequent complaints of not enough Midland railroad cars destined for the smelters in Denver and Leadville also contributed to the economic squeeze for the tram company.
But the confounding problem for Aspen silver mining was the diminishing silver price. In fact, silver saw-toothed steadily down from a high of $1.33 per ounce in 1865 to a low of $0.53 in 1902, except for a brief pop over a dollar in 1890 when the government passed the Silver Purchase Act to buy $4.5 million more silver every month. Gold supporters raged that this undermined the U. S. gold reserves even further.
The Times wrote in June of 1891, “The Aspen Tramway is not remunerative these days as formerly, freight is rather light.”
The Sun said in January of 1892 that Tourtelotte leasees were withholding ore in protest because the Holden Lixiviation plant (Aspen’s short-lived smelter on today’s Holden Marolt property) was charging too much to smelt their ore locally. Adding to the gridlock, mud was reported as hampering ore transport in the Park to the top tram terminal.
Leading up to 1893, the national scene looked bleak. Though big mines made money, overextended magnates had built too many railroads when they rushed to invest in the silver mining craze. With the election of President Grover Cleveland in 1892, silver barons feared that the government would stop buying silver for coinage.
Great Plains farmers were abandoning their farms after a decade of drought; numerous railroads bankrupted; steel companies and banks failed, causing vast unemployment preceding “the convulsion of 1893.”
Still, Aspen kept digging for more silver. Mine owners tried to make up the difference by offering payments in mining stock, while miners’ pay declined from $3 a day and their hours increased. At the same time, leaseholders and smaller operations struggled.
In June of 1893 the stock market crashed, as European investors fleeing U. S. securities drained the treasury, taking their payments in gold. Believing the gold dollar would be replaced by a less valuable silver dollar, Cleveland went ahead and repealed the Silver Purchase Act in November of 1893, and the price of silver dropped 27 percent in four days.
Aspen mines shut down except for a few skeleton crews working the bigger enterprises. Miners flocked to the gold camps and Aspen catapulted into depression. The first bubble had burst, and Aspen would not mushroom again until the skiing era.
On September 1, 1893, three months before the repeal of the Silver Purchase Act, in what the Chronicle headlined as a “Coward’s Deed,” perpetrators cut the traction cable at night on the tram, “near Spar Point.”
“People in town thought it was an electrical shower when they saw sparks fly as the collapsing cable sped over the iron fastenings and loaded buckets,” scattering debris down to the base terminal, said the Chronicle.
The paper noted that before the “felonious act … the tram had been idle for some time, and had just started up again.” Two men were seen running off into the brush. A hasty sheriff’s posse combed the warren of paths but found no one. A few days before, a fire had been set at the top Tourtelotte terminal, but a Park contingent extinguished the blaze.
Tram manager Harding investigated and found a heavy file and kindling stacked around a tower. The fire hadn’t been lit, and Harding said of the destruction, “the damage would be necessarily large and cause considerable delay.”
With that, General Manager Bulkley inexplicably resigned. From then on there is no record of repair. As the ruined tram sat idle, unemployment in Aspen grew and the outlook for silver remained unpromising.
Ten months later, on June 30, 1894, the Times vividly described a conflagration suspected as arson at the Aspen Public Tramway base terminal that nearly engulfed the town. With an open network of timbers supporting the building, the fire raged “hot and fierce,” jumping to the Compromise tram terminal “200 feet away.”
Fireman and volunteers dragged hoses from the “four-inch-main” Hunter Street water line, but with multiple hoses the pressure was low, yet they managed to save the Compromise building. A rumor spread that a couple of tons of “Giant Powder” explosives were stored in the area and rubberneckers fled the scene.
The draught from the public tram terminal fire “was so strong that great white-hot sheets of roofing were taken up in the air and carried off like shavings.” The extreme heat had driven the heroic firemen back over the Midland tracks away from the mountain, near where the Little Nell Residences now stand. Those at the scene said Aspen would have been destroyed had the wind been blowing toward town.
Surrounding buildings on Durant Street, the Aspen Mining & Smelter sampler, the bins, several railroad cars, and the residence of furniture maker Mr. Flanagan were destroyed. The heat melted the tram cables, sealing its fate.
A $6000 insurance policy with Brown and Bransford for the main tram building had lapsed three months before, said the Times, estimating the total loss at $15,000 ($395,000 in current dollars).
With the Aspen Public Tramway demolished, unsettled accounts were in disarray. Those with an interest in seeing the tram destroyed might have been out-of-work jack punchers and mule wagon haulers, but economic conditions had stretched the financiers way too thin as well.
With small return on investment, stockholders of the tram venture looked for remuneration, while the principals may have wanted out of their spiraling debt situation fast, perhaps in the form of nefarious frontier downsizing.
With all his investments in collapsing mining and banking, Jerome B. Wheeler, once Aspen’s rich uncle, suffered massive losses in the crash of 1893. Brown survived because of diversification. After his bankruptcy in 1901, Wheeler became involved in endless litigation to settle his debts, his defunct Wheeler Bank somehow suing the Aspen Public Tramway Company in 1897.
Yet a 1905 sale of tram assets for back taxes from 1899 to 1904 netted Pitkin County only $325. Still, Wheeler managed to live well in Manitou Springs – a locale of retired plutocrats – until his death in 1918.
Whoever bought the tram from the county sold what was left to a W. R. West and Company in 1906; they promised to get it running again in sixty days. “Smile and push Aspen,” the Aspen Democrat said in the face of hard times.
Nothing ever happened, and on December 28, 1895, the Times concluded that Tourtelotte Park was an “expenditure of much money that never returned a dollar to investors.” Mining ventures in Aspen from then on gained little traction.
During a Rip Van Winkle period known in Aspen as the “Quiet Years” (circa 1893-1947), there was speculative talk in the 1940s of using old tram parts to build a ski lift up Aspen Mountain on the West Side before the original Lift One and Lift Two were built. As such, the first bucket helped inspire the idea of building ski lifts to the top of Aspen Mountain.
Though Aspen chased a speculative bubble in the form of the first tram hauling low-grade silver off Aspen Mountain, the Silver Queen gondola of today has reworked the formula for the better, now hauling high-grade prosperity in the form of skiers/boarders and sightseers up the mountain.
But if the snow ever retreats and silver becomes more valuable – who knows? – the deep lodes still remaining in Aspen Mountain might be mined again, perhaps arthroscopically like skiers’ knees, and the new silver mines could be named after the old ski runs.
Editor’s note: Tim Cooney is a freelance writer and veteran ski patroller on Aspen Mountain. The story was produced by Aspen Journalism in collaboration with the Aspen Daily News, which published a version of the story on Aug. 23, 2015.