Made In Aspen

The Durant Mine fabrication shop could make almost
anything. (Willoughby photo collection)

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Tim Willoughby
October 6,

Fifty years ago you would often encounter abandoned mining and
milling equipment around Aspen’s periphery. Many items had manufacturer’s names
and “New York, N.Y.” stamped into the thick cast iron with dates from
pre-railroad times.

How could heavy and often
large pieces of machinery have been moved so far? Although Columbia University
was a major mining and engineering school and its students did summer
internships in Aspen’s mines, that connection does not explain the mystery.

The explanation was a common practice in the earliest years. Aspen mines
made some of the equipment in Aspen using plans they bought from companies
headquartered in New York.

An example was the Durant Mine machine shop.
In its prime it could build almost anything. The blacksmiths and machinists
created from scratch, repaired, modified and assembled equipment delivered by

Mining and milling equipment was manufactured from very thick,
but brittle, cast iron that was prone to rapid destruction. In the clash of
metal against rock, rock often won. Mine machine shops battled to keep up with
repairs. Steam-driven equipment required boilers that developed leaks whenever a
rivet worked loose. Rock drills vibrated like present-day jackhammers, expanding
any metal weakness into fissures. Any metal part fractures under constant use
and the extreme weights that mining imposes.

Blacksmiths turned out everything from hinges to intricate fixtures.
Even today in former mining locations you can find locally forged square nails.
In a few places you may see metal pipe that was made by curling longs strips of
thick metal and riveting it every half-foot to hold the edges together.

Until about 1890, San Francisco foundries were the major manufacturers
of mining equipment. With the advent of the continental railroad, eastern
companies began shipping equipment westward. Closer to western mines, Denver,
Salt Lake City and Butte, Mont., dominated the business. After trains reached
Aspen in 1887, and in 1888 when standard-gauge trains could haul heavy loads,
most equipment came from out of town. Cheap shipping methods, and the
development of steel for building, shifted many Aspen mine structures, like
hoisting head frames, from wood to steel.

Aspen was the first mining
town to replace steam power with electricity. One consequence was that there was
less boiler repair, but electric motors became the new shop activity. Aspen
Novelty Works, operated by the Blackburn brothers, on the corner of Hyman Avenue
and Mill Street, offered rewinding for dynamos and motors and other electrical
repairs. At another location they sold and repaired traditional mining

The 1890s were the height of American machinery. There seemed
to be no end to how powerful an engine could be or how huge a drive wheel could
be forged. Aspen used the biggest and best and manufactured some of its

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels
Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School
and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it
with historical perspective. He can be contacted at