On Oct. 18, 1910, at the “collar,” or top, of the 1,195-vertical-foot Free Silver shaft next to the Smuggler Mine on the north side of Aspen, deep-sea divers Fred Johnson and George Peterson of the Merritt & Chapman Derrick and Wrecking Company of New York City, loaded about 200 pounds of gear into a dry cage lift and rode down 848 feet to the water level below in the flooded mine to prepare for a feat never before attempted in the history of diving or mining.
There, a lower staging platform straddled the watered shaft where the Free Silver shaft T-boned the ninth level of the Smuggler. The 10th, 11th, and 12th levels — at 116-foot intervals below, according to The Colliery Engineer Co. publication Mines and Minerals, Vol. 31 (1911) — had lain underwater since they were flooded in 1897 because of a devastating underground fire, coupled with the fallout of the 1893 silver price crash that upended Aspen silver mining.
The object of Johnson’s multiple dives between October 1910 and January 1911 into the narrow, debris-clogged shaft below the ninth level, as chronicled in the Aspen Democrat-Times in a story series, was to rebuild the powerful Jeanesville “wind-jammer” pump at the bottom of the Free Silver shaft on the 12th level.
Prior to Johnson’s and Peterson’s arrival, extra pumps had been deployed at the ninth level that beat the water back to the 11th level, leaving a water depth of 103 feet to where the submerged wind-jammer waited. Like a dormant spacecraft, the monster pump had sat idle underwater for 14 years waiting for a Victorian reboot via compressed-air fittings that remained in place.
On a chilly October morning the next day, Johnson dressed in wool clothing with three pairs of socks for his first exploratory dive from the staging platform, where an electric light had been installed. Peterson fitted him into a thick rubber suit, characterized in the Nov. 30 edition of the ADT as “resembling a union suit of underwear.” His wrists were then bounded by watertight wraps of rubber strips. Some sort of gloves could be removed as needed.
Though a seasoned diver also, Peterson’s job was as topman, in charge of keeping the air circulating to Johnson’s helmet as well as handling the life line, through which he and Johnson communicated via a language of varied rope tugs. Johnson, who did all the Aspen dives, was the supervisor of divers at Merritt & Chapman, and the best there was. Both had more than 20 years of experience and had escaped many close calls, the ADT reported.
Next, they placed around Johnson’s neck a large copper collar that secured to the rubber suit by rope lacing. Then they strapped a 97-pound lead belt around his waist, followed by a pair of 20-pound iron sandals on his feet. Atop Johnson’s wool-capped head, they screwed on a 30-pound copper helmet with heavy glass windows, and finally, they affixed the air hose to the helmet.
“From the moment the helmet is secured and the air hose attached until it is again removed,” four men — two on each side — must diligently spin two pump wheels by hand to circulate a continuous flow of air through the helmet, the ADT wrote. The “farther the diver is away from the pump the poorer the air becomes … and the harder the pump handlers must crank the wheels.”
Guided only by his sense of touch and with no underwater lighting, compounded by increased underwater pressure — said to be “10 atmospheres greater than sea level” — in the confinement of the narrow, pitch-black shaft, Johnson saw his difficulties only begin.
David Hyman’s strategy
But why was so much time, effort and money sunk into such a prolonged and risky venture, when the price of silver was low and silver mining in the American West had slowed to a crawl by 1910? A review of events leading up to the arrival of the divers sheds light on that question.
After the crash of silver prices in the “Panic of 1893” and diaspora of Aspen miners to the far-flung goldfields, Smuggler owner and financier David Hyman, along with his boots-on-ground agent Charles A. Hallam, opted to make steady money through 1910 by extracting mostly average-grade silver ore from Smuggler Mountain and his Durant Mining Company properties on Aspen Mountain.
But the idiosyncrasies of nature petered out in those easy-money veins. Although Hyman was able to make millions on his original $5,000 investment in 1880 mining claims, coupled with Aspen real estate investment, too many loans and vast money spent in litigation over the years seesawed his fortune. He needed to find pay dirt.
In the most expensive and notable of his court fights, Hyman, a Harvard Law grad from Cincinnati, took on the “sideliners” faction of the nationally watched “apex versus sideline” legal battle for mineral rights between 1884 and 1886. Much to the surprise of cocksure sideliners throughout the West, Hyman’s apexers triumphed in Federal District Court in Denver.
At issue was settled mining law that before 1884 held that the owners of a hard-rock claim where the apex of that mineral vein appeared at the surface within their boundaries owned the continuous vein as deep into the ground as it went. This included the right to follow it outside the vertical sidelines of the original claim, even if it continued into adjacent claims. (Please see “Portal into Time.”)
Previously, de facto sideliners ran roughshod over this law and tapped into apexers’ veins from the side, based on the populist premise that more mines meant more prosperity, and that it was impossible to prove a vein to be actually continuous and not separate impregnations.
That was until Hyman challenged all the gnats around his original Durant apex claim on Aspen Mountain — on the skier’s right of upper Silver Queen Ridge — by digging and mapping his underground vein and showing the proof in court.
Ultimately, though, Hyman proved to be magnanimous and a master negotiator. After his victory, he brokered an agreement with his losing opposition, which included historical Aspen titans Jerome B. Wheeler, D.R.C. Brown Sr. and Prussian Henry “Granpap” Cowenhoven.
Under the umbrella of his greater Durant Mining Company, which also owned the Smuggler Mine, Hyman bundled the antagonists into the Compromise Mining Company, giving them 50 percent of that, while arguing it was cheaper to share than to litigate further. The Compromise went on to make $11 million ($275 million today). With numerous lessees since, that working mine still exists today at the top of Little Nell ski run on Aspen Mountain.
Having beaten the biggest sideliner bullies in the legal arena, not unlike a shrewd underdog in a prison yard, he raised money to chase his promising Smuggler apex down to the depths for high-grade.
Since many knew of the apex sticking out on Smuggler, mining lore at the time whispered that the claim withheld its high-grade while mostly surfacing lower-grade ore. A crafty mining ploy to delay a pesky rush of sideliners then was to downplay your high-grade and buy up shares or claims nearby before tooting your horn.
Generally, silver ore over 300 ounces per ton was considered high-grade. Though one of the most profitable mines in Aspen, the Aspen Mine, right next to the Compromise at the top of Little Nell and the sideline foe of Hyman’s apex battle, regularly shipped ore at under 100 ounces. It was not necessarily how flashy your high-grade ore was, but whether your mine could bring consistency to the surface, ship it, make expenses, pay dividends to investors and still profit. Of course, the opposite was also true, if you owned a worthless hole and bragged about great ore just to find investors or to sell out.
With both the Midland Railway and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad set to arrive in Aspen in 1887 and the apex issue settled — which many other local mines went on to ignore — varied grades of ore could be shipped out of Aspen profitably, and between 1887 and 1893, Aspen’s peak mining boom took off. Prior to the trains, only high-grade ore was shipped out by burro to Leadville.
With the railroads running and with his stunning legal victory, Hyman turned attention to the Smuggler Mine between 1886 and 1917. This included his huge investment in the dewatering scheme of 1910 and the idea to import deep-sea divers to help reopen the lower levels since the 1897 fire shutdown.
Also sparking focus on the Smuggler side of town, the Mollie Gibson mine (where the Smuggler Racquet Club and mobile-home park are now) — a heretofore low-grade-ore mine — grabbed headlines by striking rich ore fairly close to the surface. But they tooted their horn.
The great Mollie
This was the case beginning in 1889 when the Mollie publicized a bonanza streak of up to 15,000 ounces per ton of virtually pure silver, yet their management somehow struggled to make ends meet. Silver fever ignited imagination and the Mollie became famous, leading to standing room only on the Midland train from Leadville.
“Mines and Mining Men of Colorado,” published by G.J. Canfield in 1893 (and retired Aspen librarian Helen Palmer generously donated to the cause), characterized the celebrated Mollie Gibson as “this treasure house of inexhaustible riches … where strikes of rich ore have become as common as colonels in Kentucky.”
Flamboyant nouveau-riche Mollie owner Henry “The Colonel” Gillespie (think Aspen streets Gillespie, Hyman and Hallam) pumped his publicly traded Mollie stock by displaying giant, pure-silver nuggets in his Aspen office and accompanying high-grade train loads of ore to Denver amid great fanfare. Newspaper speculation valued some single carloads at $75,000 ($1.8 million today).
But the Colonel lacked sound money management and consistency; his plan was to inflate Mollie stock to capitalize further explorations, said Malcolm Rohrbough’s “Aspen: The History of a Silver Mining Town, 1879-1893.” This balancing act worked for a while, until Gillespie had to bring in the deeper pockets of J.B. Wheeler and industrialist J.J. Hagerman, who seized controlling interest and built the Mollie ore concentrator that blended high- and low-grade so that the national darling of Aspen’s mines might ship consistently.
New management swore workers to secrecy as further explorations found more rich strikes, including a vein reputed to be 6 feet wide. Their aim was to discourage speculation, to ship blended-grade daily and to pay dividends. The savvy management, said Rohrbough, hid rich strikes to accumulate shares at a lower price, going so far as to ship rich ore at night under armed guard.
Still, hyperbole blew off the lid. Word spread internationally about the Mollie Gibson, comparing it to the Comstock Lode in Nevada and the Homestake in South Dakota. The Aspen Times, on Feb. 7, 1891, wrote “the key to the mine has been discovered and its vaults unlocked,” and later headlined, “WEALTH, WEALTH, WEALTH!”
As they went deeper, flooding became a problem, just as it was with their unassuming next-door neighbor the Smuggler. During the peak mining boom, pumps on lower levels of Aspen Mountain and across the way on Smuggler kept the water at bay.
This included at least three levels — called “man-ways,” where an erect miner might walk — that ran under and across the east end of town, 800 to 1,000 feet below today’s Original Street, City Market and Aspen Alps, according to a 1943 map owned by Chris Preusch, who was a miner, former partner and current lessee in the still-operating Smuggler mine.
These man-ways connected Smuggler Mountain with the lower levels of the Argentum-Juniata mine — where the new W Hotel now stands — and the lower Durant tunnel at the foot of Aspen Mountain on west Ute Avenue. Although numbered levels varied with each mine, the Smuggler side ran 18 levels deep, while there were up to 29 levels down from today’s ski dumps on Aspen Mountain, said Preusch.
The map also shows several large stopes (which are hollowed-out ore-digging rooms) 800 feet below, in the vicinity of City Market where the Mollie and the Argentum-Juniata mine met up in the 1890s.
During those peak mining years, a lineup of mines ran roughly north to south from Lenado under Smuggler Mountain, under town, into and up Aspen Mountain. Thus, the silver fault, contact or Aspen mining belt — as the silver vein was variously called — was shaped like an hourglass that ballooned on both sides of town with the narrows under town.
The dueling lineup of mines that abutted toward Lenado from the Mollie were the Smuggler, Della, Bushwalker, Park-Regent, Pontiac, Mineral Farm and more. They shared joint access via ore chutes into the Cowenhoven tunnel that ran under their properties several miles back toward Lenado and dumped their ore out at the foot of Smuggler Mountain where the trains looped by.
Acting as a water drain for all, the first-class Cowenhoven had double ore-car tracks on a 2 percent downhill grade and cars with self-oiling wheels that allowed “mules under 900 pounds” to haul up to 15 cars containing a ton each,” says “Mines and Mining Men.”
With the addition of modern Sullivan Diamond Core Drills at the Smuggler and the Mollie, and the concentrator at the Mollie that crushed ore for contract, success seemed an ongoing reality.
A silver room
As the Mollie stock climbed from $0.15 to $11 along with hit-or-miss exploration at the Smuggler contact, the diamond drill finally paid off for Hyman.
His autobiography, “The Romance of a Mining Venture,” describes having suddenly tapped into a sparkling room full of pure silver in 1893, equivalent to the purity of a silver dollar. His family came up from Denver in the private railcar of the president of the D&RG to marvel through a small bore hole 500 feet underground at “a sight never seen before or since … where all sides literally glittered and this big nugget was in the roof.”
Smuggler stock jumped to $40 from $10 on that news. Varying reports compiled by local historian Larry Fredrick in a 1993 document showed that in 1894 the Smuggler produced the largest silver nugget ever mined, said to be in the neighborhood of 2,000-plus pounds, which trimmed down to 1,840 pounds after being taken from the silver room.
After surviving the 1893 crash, the Smuggler, the Mollie and Della, perhaps intoxicated by their earlier roulette-like pure silver strikes, formed a 1894 partnership to chase high-grade down what was called the Della fault, via a new shaft named the Free Silver. In the mining tradition of an evolving Mulligan stew of ownership, Hyman partnered with his former apex nemeses, Wheeler, Brown, Cowenhoven, et al.
Steady as she goes
Hyman found he could still profitably mine the dry levels of the Smuggler around the ninth level and above, he wrote in his book, while still pursuing the Free Silver shaft with his neighboring partners.
For four more years, Hyman and associates shared Free Silver expenses totaling $600,000 ($15 million today) while their pumps kept the Smuggler-side aquifers at bay, even as the Aspen Mountain side gradually stopped pumping.
By his honest accounting practices, efforts to pay his debts, willingness to compromise and renegotiation of lower wages in the Smuggler to keep the mine open and not yank the last rug out from underneath the town, Hyman appears to be a sympathetic character among more cutthroat contemporaries in the unfolding drama of Aspen mining history.
Although the Smuggler and the Mollie were able to keep going, the other mines on that side along the contact struggled. All eyes in the camp followed reports of progress of the 1,200-foot Free Silver shaft, which, if successful, might ignite a new era of “deep mining” that would inspire both sides of Aspen’s hourglass mining belt to go deeper for rich ore.
The Aspen Times on Nov. 9, 1895, headlined “Water Out,” writing that “the Smuggler got their high-pressure pump” — the then-new wind-jammer — “under way yesterday and the combined pumps with the Mollie Gibson soon exhausted the water in the lower level of the Free Silver shaft.”
And the March 27, 1897, edition of the Times wrote, “A force of men are driving the twelfth level of the Free Silver shaft several hundred feet deeper than any other mine on the Aspen belt,” horizontally connecting the lower workings of the Mollie, Smuggler and Della.
Although all seemed on track and hope ran high for a new deep-mining era, catastrophe struck in the middle of November 1897.
No explanation other than “spontaneous combustions” caused by “Leviathan pressure on the timbers,” produced the “vilest tasting and smelling gas” to emit from the lower levels where Smuggler miners were working at 1 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 16, 1897, the Aspen Tribune reported.
Exploration revealed timbers in vicinity of an eighth-level stope of the Smuggler had caught fire. Miners in the neighboring lineup of mines were overcome by the seeping noxious gases and brought to the surface.
“Twelve unconscious men were pulled out and stretched out on the shaft-house floor” above the Mollie, said the Tribune. All of the town’s physicians responded and worked for more than 30 minutes reviving them. Smuggler manager Hallet characterized the enormity of the task: “We must keep the pumps going below the fire at the same time we are trying to extinguish it from above.”
As the fire spread into smoldering coal-like deposits, “the hundreds of connections between the Smuggler and other deep mines on Smuggler Mountain” became noxious, and “men in the Della, Bushwhacker, Pontiac, and the Park-Regent quit working.”
The “crazed effect of the gas fumes on many men” trying to erect double-brick bulkheads and inject steam into the smoldering lower chambers to contain the fire caused them to want to rush back into the gas-laden drifts, the paper continued. Five men restrained one strong man who was “frantically trying to bite his preservers … and fight everybody in sight.”
Across the way on Aspen Mountain, the Argentum-Juniata closed the connections under town to Smuggler Mountain, the Tribune said. This indicates that until 1897 the lower levels between Smuggler and Aspen Mountain operations remained open.
The Nov. 20, 1897, edition of the Rocky Mountain Sun reported that the gas was pure carbon monoxide and that a number of people caught in the fumes claimed it cured their rheumatism.
Although the Smuggler, Mollie and neighboring mines continued trying to block off the smoldering area and mine above, the fight to keep exploring below was lost. The Sun reported on April 9, 1898, that there was no other way to stop the fire and gas than to shut off the pumps and allow the Smuggler to flood back up to the ninth level.
By 1908, neighboring mines had shut down and only the Smuggler was working. In 1910, after recovering from depression and having to cut his cigar habit in half because of kidney problems, Hyman corralled the leases in the Smuggler lineup of mines and on the lower Aspen Mountain side and decided to explore deep again. By autumn of that year, he called in the deep-sea divers.
On his first of many dives, 30 feet below the surface of the 103-foot-deep mine water, Johnson found the shaft choked with old timbers entangled around a wedged 12-inch pipe blocking his descent, reported the Oct. 19, 1910, edition of the ADT. With the aid of a grappling hook and a heavy charge of powder, the mass was dislodged before Johnson went back down and loaded the debris into a cage for the top.
Once cleared, he was able to dive the full 103-foot depth to the shaft floor, but not without serious fatigue. According to The Colliery Engineer publication, he “complained of shortness of breath, panting, and inability to exert himself without complete exhaustion, the same as working at sea level at too great a depth.” In addition, Johnson estimated the effect of Aspen’s altitude to be the equivalent of 27 extra feet of water at sea level.
More pumps were brought in, and they managed to hold the water level back to 65 feet, while restaging from the lower, now-dry 11th level. At that depth, Johnson initially was able to work for only 20 minutes before resurfacing, and later up to 40 minutes.
To get to the busted pump, Johnson stepped down a 10-foot metal ladder from the diving platform and into the roughly 6-by-10-foot abyss, where he followed a guide cable with a bottom-sitting weight attached, all the while dragging his air hose and his life line.
With his iron-sandaled feet planted on the floor of the shaft at the 12th level, he then had to back up 45 feet through a horizontal passage with his two lines in tow to where the pump station was — but not without first dismantling a wooden door to access the wind-jammer pump.
Guided only by his fingers in the blackness of frigid water, the diver and master mechanic ascertained that the burrs and bolts to access the inside of the pump, where the repacking work needed to take place, were rusted from the acidic mine water. Returning to the surface numerous times over 10 days, Johnson was able to request the parts and tools he needed to repair a pump that he had never seen before.
Finally the pump restarted, but it couldn’t keep up. Johnson took it apart a second time to add more packing, which was a sort of braided rope wrapped around the interior piston shafts to prevent leakage and boost pumping suction.
Home for Christmas
Just before Christmas, the pump was working well in conjunction with several others placed at the 11th level. The Smuggler was now dewatered to the bottom 12th level of the Free Silver shaft and the divers departed via train back to New York. The plan then was to blast out a lower room and build a new electric pumping system, to access even-lower levels where they thought the richest vein wandered.
Meanwhile, Hyman, chief financier of the 1910 dewatering project and who was headquartered in New York at the time, received an urgent cable that the big pump had stopped again, on Christmas Eve. He wrote in his book that he met the divers at the train upon their arrival in New York, there being no way to communicate with them earlier.
His request, coupled with a bonus for their immediate return to Aspen, probably appealed to their pride. However, before the divers could make a hasty turnaround, diver Johnson had some urgent business to attend to in New York involving a woman.
Before repacking his bags, diver Fred Johnson got married. Without a honeymoon, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson along with fellow diver Peterson and all their equipment boarded the train for the long ride back to Aspen, the ADT reported Dec. 29, 1910.
With Johnson and Peterson being returning heroes whose death-defying work the mining camp “celebrated in downtown jubilation” in the hope of bringing about the second coming of Aspen mining, the fine women of the city held a gala reception for Johnson’s new bride when she arrived, a snippet in the paper later noted.
With water rising in the Free Silver shaft and accessory pumps barely able to keep up, the inflow was said to be near 1,500 gallons per minute without the wind-jammer. Johnson and Peterson worked for six weeks to once again repair and repack the pump, only to have it shut down twice.
Hyman wrote in his book that he spent “quite a large sum of money” on the diving operation, citing $60,000 ($1.5 million today) alone for the divers’ second return.
On the third try, Johnson’s nimble fingers found the culprit, a single, displaced, 3-inch tappet (one of 16) that regulated steam to the pump, but a small part to the tappet dropped to the floor. For a number of days, Johnson sifted the muck and miraculously found it. Finally, the old pump on which the projected fate of Aspen rode was up and running, “doing yeoman’s work at 1,800 gallons per minute,” said the ADT.
The April 22, 1911, edition of the ADT, in a recap of the divers’ odyssey, wrote that a nearby retaining screen had broken under pressure and “rocks, chips, and debris flooded the suction,” seizing up the valves and pistons of the previously rebuilt pump. Thus, the Christmas Eve pump failure was not the fault of the divers’ earlier work.
Ultimately, the six-month dewatering project that began before the divers did their work, and ended after, resulted in a new large plant of machinery consisting of seven pumps (including the old wind-jammer) pumping together 8,000 gallons per minute, five air compressors pushing 3,500 cubic feet of air per minute, and two steam boilers generating 1,200 horsepower, the ADT recap said.
At its peak, the system dewatered the lower levels and pumped 90 million gallons of water a month up 1,200 feet vertically to an outflow near the top of the Free Silver shaft. Never before had so much water been lifted so far by any mining system, the paper said.
All this lead-soaked acidic water flowed into the Roaring Fork River, and news stories complained of too many dead fish in Glenwood, but that’s another story.
With the lower levels of the Smuggler side dewatered since 1911, the former fire area blocked off, and all the neighboring leases on both sides of the hourglass having been gathered, Hyman continued to mine paying ore while still looking for the elusive high-grade Della vein.
That was until December 1917, wrote Hyman, when they had been working the 18th level, about 1,800 feet down, and water breached the area. The weary mining giant concluded that the vein they were pursuing so far down was running out and that the great bonanza still lay out of practical reach. Not finding the high-grade “was one of the chief disappointments of the entire undertaking,” Hyman wrote.
With that, the second coming of Aspen mining and the great dewatering campaign of the depths halted. The pumps were pulled and the lower levels flooded once again, and so also ended Hyman’s 37-year affair with Aspen mining.
Still down there
Hyman’s book said that the sealed-off fire area smoldered for 20 years, causing hot working conditions in the Smuggler, where men often worked shirtless nearby — although, in Aspen mining, the underground typically stays at a constant 55 degrees Fahrenheit no matter the season above. For years after, accounts said steam, sometimes mistaken as smoke, emitted from the Smuggler and Mollie shafts.
Under a number of different leases through the years since 1917, the Smuggler has been the longest continuing running mine in Aspen. Today, the former owners and now lessees of the Smuggler continue to explore options for the newly minted Smuggler Consolidated Mines LLC at the same time as they conduct mining tours on an ongoing basis.
Miner Chris Preusch recounted how in the early 1940s, Anaconda Mining Company, with the U.S. government, drilled 5,000-foot churn holes in the Smuggler Mine area looking for lead and uranium to bolster the World War II effort.
According to Preusch, the investigation calculated that about 850,000 tons of higher-grade silver ore still lie in reserve well below the now-flooded 1,200-foot Free Silver shaft, to rest forever or to be extracted by new technology should the fortunes of the Aspen economy take an unforeseen twist in the future.
Hyman may have just missed his pay dirt by an inch or a mile, but as it has been in Aspen’s rich past and will be in the future, mining lore — be it never forgotten — will continue to underlie Aspen’s mercurial narrative.
Editor’s note: Tim Cooney is an Aspen-based freelance writer, a former Aspen Mountain ski patroller and a current summer ranger there. Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Aspen Daily News on the coverage of Aspen’s history. The Daily News published this story on Sept. 15, 2019.