“Young People face death in Hope Tunnel ” after an all-night struggle, the Aug. 19, 1915, Aspen Democrat-Times headlined.
A “gay auto party” of Ted Cooper, Albert DeMarias, Esther Wheeler and Mary Leisten arrived “on a sightseeing trip” at the Hope Mine on a summer night to explore the tunnel, the paper wrote. Despite a warning from Mrs. Parr at the Hope boarding house that the tunnel was “awful gassy,” the four entered the deep passageway with candles, while Superintendent James Heatherly and the miners slept in the bunkhouse nearby.
Mrs. Parr woke in the morning to find the 1915 Overland Auto belonging to Cooper and Demarias, who operated the newly opened Aspen Auto Company, still there. Concluding that the four well-known young people of Aspen were still in the mine, Heatherly and his men investigated and “found Miss Leisten 2,000 feet in, staggering toward them in an unconscious condition.” About 1,500 feet farther, they found Demarias lying on the tracks with Esther Wheeler across him. Twenty feet on, they found Cooper face down.
A “gas specialist” from the Smuggler mine and several doctors from town arrived at the entrance with a Pulmoter ventilation device. Demarias was dead, and the others took hours to regain consciousness and weeks to recover from their near-death conditions. Rescuers surmised that “the groups’ candles extinguished in the death-dealing powder gasses,” which had accumulated from 140 dynamite shots the afternoon before, resulting in Heatherly “retiring early that night,” somewhat overcome by gas himself.
Yet in those days of unregulated risk taking, the recklessness of the adventure was never a topic in the detailed news account, but rather the heroics of the gentlemen trying to rescue the women in the smothering darkness. Demarias was said to be overcome by extra exertion from carrying Wheeler, while Cooper encouraged them from behind.
Silver’s second coming
Typical of the many casual visitors, Cooper’s thrill-seeking party got more than they bargained for. Deep mine tours, horse trips, trout dinners and picnickers at the Hope Mine during the promotional years following the formation of the Hope Mining and Milling Company in November of 1911 populated the pages of Aspen newspapers. Crushed fingers, broken legs, tonsillitis and even an account of “whooping to beat the blazes and whistles to beat the band” as employees at the Hope celebrated the election of President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 are among the many anecdotes.
The mine tunnel, a west-to-east horizontal excavation with a dog-leg turn east, beginning six miles up Castle Creek, driven by a collaborative town effort between 1911 and 1930 to resurrect Aspen’s once-booming mining industry, had an open-door visiting policy for its numerous local shareholders, to stimulate investment and faith in the community project. This encouraged optimists from Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Rifle to buy into the initial 50,000 shares at $1 per share, during a time when Aspen’s still-active silver mining had retreated from the wild speculation of the 1880s and 1890s and settled into steadier, lower-grade extraction.
Estimated to be 9,000 feet in, the target of the tunnel bore was the silver vein running under the adjacent Midnight and Little Annie mines on Aspen Mountain’s west flank. Experienced local mining grandees along with the renowned geologist Josiah Spurr of the U.S Geological Survey, author of the 1898 atlas “Geology of the Aspen Mining District, Colorado,” endorsed the prospect.
Echoes of the plan’s certitude to trigger “a first-class reenactment of the silver boom days of 1886” even reverberated in the Denver Times. In a July 25, 1916, Democrat-Times reprint, the Denver paper ventured: “Hope Tunnel Co-operative … will prove a lesson to the state in what can be done by unity,” and “one cannot throw a snowball in Aspen without hitting a Hope Tunnel stockholder.”
A civic group of Aspen men called the Crystal City Boosters, made up of successful business and mining types, hatched the bold 1911 plan to extend the tunnel. After evaluating all other mining revival prospects in the Aspen area, the boosters chose to look for the elusive Little Annie lode, which had previously become inaccessible because of too much water.
From this distinguished group, the HM&MC board of directors emerged, with a plan to drain the water out through the Hope Tunnel and pursue the Annie vein from above and below. To finance this, they devised a local people’s investment plan that eschewed the traditional model of a handful of controlling, wealthy owners. Any strikes found in pushing the tunnel would be a bonus.
The Nov. 25, 1911, Democrat-Times wrote that the Annie had earlier yielded $500,000 ($14.5 million today) in ore before too much water challenged them at 400 feet, and that “conservative mining men” anticipated the Hope project to be a “$5 million prospect.”
Fortunately, the crafty B. Cark Wheeler — with interests in countless speculative Aspen projects between 1881 until his death in 1914 (not Jerome B. Wheeler) — had already pushed the Famous Tunnel some 1,000 feet in from Castle Creek in the same pursuit during the 1890s.
Low on money and battling the water, Wheeler’s tunnel never struck the lode under Annie, but his belief that it existed bolstered the unshakeable old mining mystique locally — that you were either a foot away from a million dollars, or a million feet from nothing — and propelled HM&MC to take over the Famous, with its abutting claims portfolio, and rename it the Hope Tunnel.
The board took no salaries and promoted a fractional-financing stratagem, wherein Aspen citizens could subscribe through monthly payments to accrue shares. Subscription sales would then fund a debt-free, we’ll-dig-as-you-pay bore, the Oct. 11, 1911, Democrat-Times explained.
In theory, all of Aspen would share in the prosperity of a dividend-paying ore strike financed by share sales alone. This all-in approach persuaded miners at the Hope Tunnel and town businesses to take partial remuneration in shares. The Democrat-Times wrote on March 6, 1912, that payments as low as one dollar per month, “each according to their means without hardship to anyone,” were encouraged.
Later, though, as the imagined high-grade strike which so many had come to believe in as Aspen’s inevitable second-coming of big mining grew ever-more elusive through an 18-year dig, many more Hope shares were sold.
While chasing this dream for team Aspen, unremarkable results, water and slow progress plagued the deep-level search for the ore belt just as it had through the 1890s with Wheeler. The neighboring Highlands Tunnel and Midnight Mine along the west side looking for the same silver contact also battled water.
According to Chris Preusch, a local landscaper, miner and former part-owner of Aspen’s Smuggler Mine, the water tables on the Pandora’s (eastern) side of Aspen Mountain and Little Annie’s (western) side have similar levels. But along Pandora’s, he explained, “many creeks drained out and into the Roaring Fork, while on the Little Annie side the water remained more contained, only to be busted into by the Highlands, Midnight, and Famous (Hope) tunnels in the 1890s.”
On the other side of Aspen Mountain to the north on Smuggler Mountain between 1910 and 1917, during the same time frame as the early Hope pursuit, a similar water battle involving deep sea divers and magnate David Hyman (see “Dewatering the Smuggler Mountain mines,” aspenjournalism.org) fought flooding in search of the same doctrinal Aspen ore belt.
With the Hope on one side and the Smuggler on the other, Aspen Mountain bulged in the middle like a meal in a python, having already yielded much of Aspen’s best ore in the 1880s and 1890s, from the area around today’s Silver Queen ski run and up through the mine/ski Dumps.
That simultaneous north-and-south chase for the deeper contact was driven by cult-like faith that pure silver still lay hidden deeper under Aspen, waiting to be found. That surety had been previously proven in 1893 by what Hyman described in his autobiography, “The Romance of a Mining Venture,” as a big “sparkling silver room” full of silver-dollar-pure silver, discovered by his group in the Mollie Gibson on Smuggler Mountain. In 1894, that geode-like room yielded the largest silver nugget (1,840 pounds) ever mined.
The Hope books
The Democrat-Times published detailed monthly reports of the HM&MC balance sheet, along with optimistic spin of feet drilled toward the Annie goal, while debt-free financing dictated a snail’s pace.
A Sept. 12, 1918 accounting showed $1,318 in subscription revenue and expenses of $1,254 — including $1.50 to Aspen Drug, $10.60 to Citizens’ Hospital, $171.20 to Tomkins Hardware, and stock-to-payroll of 90 shares — leaving the company $63.65 ($1,100 today) in the black.
The Aug. 17, 1925, Aspen Times (then renamed from the Democrat-Times) recounted a burning cross wrapped in burlap and coal oil ignited “on the lawn of one of Aspen’s business leaders at 11:15 p. m.,” followed by six revolver shots. A written hearsay account at the Aspen Historical Society said the cross was placed on HM&MC President D. Benjamin Kobey’s lawn by disgruntled Hope stockholders from Rifle, where some speculated that a Klu Klux Klan chapter there may have targeted Kobey in part because of his Jewish heritage.
A Sept. 10, 1925, Times accounting said two railroad cars of shipped ore netted $1,413. The books showed $18,844 ($280,000 today) in the black, still not enough to fulfill the promise of a dividend-paying mine to lift Aspen shareholders into a new prosperity.
Between 1914 and 1925, gushing Hope headlines such as “LOOK OUT FOR BIG DOIN’S…as sure as the Fourth of July,” “HOPE MINE GETTING THERE … and when it does — oh mama!” ran in the papers, while heralding the bore’s passage through quartzite, barite and blue lime, which to knowledgeable Aspenites hinted that profitable silver lay feet away.
Assays were another selling point, and headlines bolded assay samples between 40 and 170 ounces per ton. Generally then, silver ore with over 300 ounces per ton was deemed bankable high-grade, though money could be made on lower grade after the railroad came to town in 1887. Yet most knew that finding high-grade in small pockets was most often what Preusch called “the isolated geode effect.”
On March 4, 1921, the Salida Record trumpeted assays in the Hope of 1,244 and 237, writing that pure wire silver, also called “native silver,” impregnated the vein, and that Salida stockholders as well as the whole state were watching the Hope.
But as dramatic reporting became routine and the tunnel’s proximity to the lower realm of the Little Annie vein failed to yield the big prize, HM&MC turned to issuing more stock to support the dream.
By 1915, shares had grown to 60,000. By 1924, there were 222,000 shares, the Feb. 15, 1924, Democrat-Times said. And on Feb. 7, 1927, the Aspen Times reported 50,000 more shares sold for a litigation fund to fight T. T. Lackey, who wanted an interest in the Hope in exchange for his fractional shares of surrounding claims.
The papers called his group “the Lackeys” in their coverage, which dragged on until a 1935 settlement. Unable to fund the legal fight while simultaneously pursuing big pay dirt as promised, said the Sept. 7, 1928, Times, HM&MC leased operations to the Herron brothers, relatives of contemporary Aspen Times history writer Tim Willoughby.
Willoughby, whose uncle Frank became head of Midnight Mine operations in the 1930s and whose grandfather Fred was mayor of Aspen, recounts old rumors of “salting” the Hope Tunnel to encourage investment. Salting a mine involved scattering bits of good ore about to appear like “float,” defined as random ore broken off and moved from its original location by natural forces such as frost or glacial action, indicating a source vein nearby.
Raising the stakes
By 1921 Hope stock value had increased to three dollars a share and many cashed out. The Democrat-Times wrote on April 15, 1921, “Old trunks and bureau drawers are being searched for stock in the Hope laid away as worthless.”
In 1923, a supportive U.S. Forest Service extended Castle Creek Road to the Hope Mine (and from there to Ashcroft in 1938), up from the Newman Tunnel at today’s Aspen Country Day School, where an existing railroad spur could have been extended to the Hope. In the 1890s through early 1900s, the Newman penetrated Aspen Mountain from the northwest through granite, looking for the same ore body deep under Tourtelotte Park, Willoughby has written.
After the new road, the Feb. 15, 1924, Democrat-Times touted a list of positive Hope facts. Among those listed were no debt and that the “tunnel breast” was in 7,500 feet — 2,000 feet below the surface — with only 200-300 feet more to go to the Annie lode. In a kind of mission creep away from localism, they acclaimed that 700 shareholders were now represented from almost every state, while concluding that conservative estimates valued the stock at five times more.
The Feb. 19, 1925, Aspen Times reported more pure wire silver found at a world-record depth, “deeper than the Comstock in Nevada and the great Pachuca in Mexico,” speculating that “The Hope is about to become one of the world’s greatest silver mines.” The Times office even exhibited samples of the wire silver they described as “almost good enough to eat.”
This renewed momentum raised funds to build a float-concentrator mill at the Hope complex, just off the steep southern bank of Castle Creek Road a quarter-mile past the Conundrum Road turnoff. By 1929, with litigation still ongoing and the new mill being installed by new lessees — the Cross Creek Mining Company and Denver Equipment Company, sublessees of the Herron brothers — Hope shareholders felt imminent success at last. But with more lessees sharing unrealized profits, the stakes were raised.
The new lessees planned to follow a 3-by-30-foot vein and begin stoping, wherein a room called a stope is hollowed out and timbered to excavate a strike. They blocked out some 25,000 tons of ore to be brought out to their modern Farenwald float machines, which would chemically concentrate lower-grade ores after crushing them into higher grade at 50 tons per day, the April 12, 1929, Aspen Times reported.
New general manager S. A. Long, with a resume of installing flotation mills throughout Colorado, would “make a success before many moons could pass.” Under him, superintendent Jack Henderson, a veteran Aspen miner and Hope stockholder, would keep Aspen cheering. Meanwhile, the copious water draining out of the Hope Tunnel, plus chemical debris, would flow into Castle Creek, a major source of Aspen drinking water since the 1880s.
Fateful day suspicions
On Sunday, July 21, just four months after the Times’ ecstatic April 12 report about the installation of the Farenwald technology, with 500 tons of ore in bins ready to be dumped in the crushers of the new mill at the tunnel entrance, workers finally turned on the apparatus for the first time. Much anticipation and time had passed “to iron out the wrinkles” while waiting for “the new flotation mill to prove the salvation of the Hope,” said the July 26, 1929, Times.
Yet the story turned. “It was sure a blue day in Aspen” after word reached town by 9:30 a.m. that the new “Hope flotation mill was on fire, with no hopes of saving it or any of the buildings near the portal” while “not one of the four men on the job knew the fire had started until the flames were out of control.”
The Times account perhaps hinted at suspicion, saying, “The cause of the fire is unknown … some say it was a short circuit; others, that the new machinery became overheated and the oil was ignited; others, this and that caused it, but nobody knows.”
The mill, compressor room, ore bins, all the machinery and portal buildings were totally destroyed, “incurring a loss of $50,000 (nearly $1 million today) to the Hope stockholders with no insurance to cover them, while lessees Cross Creek and Denver Equipment were protected by $20,000 insurance.” In addition, The Herron brothers, the primary lessees, “are out $5,000, expended before they subleased to the Cross Creek people.”
For the past 18 years “hundreds of local stockholders had been digging up” to prove the mine a bonanza, but just as “their hopes were to be realized all was dashed to oblivion by the fire,” the same Times story said. Yet in Phoenix-rising language, they hazarded that Aspen’s “never give up spirit” would rally “to support their property and subscribe to put the Hope on its feet to give the long-expected reward.”
On Aug. 2, the paper reported that “the cause of the fire still remained a mystery.” Could the Cross Creek and Denver Equipment companies have thought the promised ore in the long-struggling Hope was a losing proposition and that a fire might better remunerate their investment?
Not so quiet years
As if that weren’t enough, close on the heels of the fire, the great Wall Street crash of Oct. 29, 1929, known as Black Thursday, lay in wait. With the fallout from that into the depression of the 1930s, prices and demand for minerals for manufacturing dropped, with silver bottoming out at 25 cents an ounce in 1932. Yet Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley survived as an undiscovered backwater by shipping low-grade ore, ranching, exporting potatoes nationally, bartering and country self-sufficiency.
Complicated by some four layers of sublessees, the Lackey litigation case drained the Hope treasury until the 1935 settlement. In a recorded 1960 interview at the Aspen Historical Society, Hope board member and iconic Aspen judge, the late William R. Shaw, recounted the tax lawyers’ nightmare that drained the $40,000 Hope war chest.
Still, in that era and forward, often called the “Quiet Years” — a term Willoughby pointed out as an unfair characterization — much was going on. Silver mining didn’t stop after the 1893 crash, when silver dropped from 78 cents down to 63 cents. Among others, the Midnight, the Smuggler and Durant group continued to ship out paying ore. And into the 1920s Tourtelotte Park opportunists on Aspen Mountain along with rogue lessees all over scratched out a living from “Saturday afternoon holes.”
By Judge Shaw’s account, Aspen produced more value in ore tonnage between 1893 and 1920 than during the boom years between 1881 and 1893, and Willoughby said that between 1946 and 1953 the Midnight Mine had more employees than the Aspen Ski Corporation.
Shaw recollected further that an elderly Mrs. Miller, whose deceased husband had an interest in claims on Richmond Hill under the Hope’s portfolio, squatted in a cabin near the Hope waiting for payment. Sometimes called “Cat” Miller for her many cats, she had to be rescued and brought to town during a harsh winter, after subsisting on pack rats and porcupine, known then as the standby winter diet of isolated miners. Another account said she ate her cats.
On July 20, 1944, the Times reported that the Hope portfolio of claims dotting Richmond Hill and Little Annie were sold at auction to the neighboring Midnight Mine for $7,550, outbidding a competing group of Hope stockholders. This portfolio of old mining claims would later play a vital role in a 1978 proposal to build a Little Annie ski area, a concept that divided Aspen for nearly a decade (see “Ski area plans through the years in Little Annie Basin,” aspenjournalism.org.).
On Aug. 11, 1955, the Times noted that illustrator Garth William, known for his beguiling “Charlotte’s Web” illustrations, had remodeled the Hope boarding house into a fashionable home, which was a stop on architectural tours around Aspen.
But Hope closure finally came between 2009 and 2011, when the ongoing mitigation of toxic wastes and reclamation of old western mines by the U.S. Forest Service led to a cleanup of old buildings followed by a controversial biochar revegetation of the Hope site. Concern was that the sizable mine dumps there might slide into Castle Creek and pollute Aspen’s water supply. By 2015, relatively successful revegetation had stabilized the dumps.
For better or for worse, the evolving Hope Mine drama never petered out from lack of trying, but simply from not producing. Had that vein revealed — and it still might be down there, deeper — a different kind of Aspen fortune might have materialized between the silver and skiing booms. In any case, the Quiet Years might more accurately be called Aspen’s “Normal Years,” when a small, tight-knit community prospered before the big wealthy world rolled in.
Tim Cooney is a former Aspen Mountain ski patroller who covers local history for Aspen Journalism. This story ran in the Aspen Daily News on Nov. 28.