Willoughby: The purest of pure silver


Portrait of Franklin mine miners circa 1890. Aspen Historical Society / Courtesy photo

My father was captivated by mining and miners from high school. Unlike most young people his age who took little interest in the stories of their elders, Father clung to their every word, if it was the Aspen mines.

One of his neighbors was Bill Brown. Most people called him “Big Bill” because of his extraordinary size and strength. Brown, born in the Shetland Islands, came to Aspen from Leadville at the age of 21 in 1892. He worked in a number of Aspen mines, mainly the Smuggler and Durant, but for a short time in the Franklin mine on Aspen Mountain near the end of its 15 year history.

What excited my father was the story of an unusual silver ore. Brown told him that at the bottom of the mine, and by that time the shaft had dropped to about 1,000 feet, a black substance was seeping in the downhole. When analyzed, the mine discovered that it was an unusual form of silver known as argentite that contained 3,000 ounces of silver per tonne.

At the time, Brown was making $ 2.50 for a ten-hour day. Mines, when they found such a high-grade ore, would often select a trusted miner to mine it. They paid him 50 cents more an hour to remove the precious black mud.

Argentite, also known as silver gaze, comes in many different forms but its main characteristics are that it is usually 87% silver and the rest is sulfur. Its quality is very similar to that of native silver that Aspen sometimes shipped directly to the Mint.

The Franklin claim was filed in 1879 at the very beginning of Aspen by Maurice Hayes. It reached payable ore early and was sold to DRC Brown who was consolidating claims around its Aspen mine. In 1888, a wealthy section produced nine tons of ore which brought in $ 6,000 ($ 182,000 in today’s dollars). He was one of the first to explore at greater depth, but that meant he was one of the first to experience water issues.

The Franklin well has been flooded several times, the first in 1889 when the pumping equipment failed and 75 feet of water accumulated at the bottom of the well. After pumping out the water, the mine encountered an extraordinary ore with a 90 ton cargo grossing $ 106,000 ($ 2,800,000). That would mean everything was in the 80% to 90% pure silver category.

DRC Brown placed a specimen of this mineral in his office for people to see. The Aspen Times featured the Franklin as the world’s best silver mine at the time. He described the specimen as “so nearly pure that it looks a lot like a piece of ingot.”

A shipment of 175 tons in 1890 was similar to the quality extracted by Brown with 3,000 ounces of silver per ton. At that time, it was the deepest mine in Aspen. But the water, once again, wreaked havoc, shutting down the mine for nearly six months.

The photo above is somewhat rare, as mines didn’t often suspend work for something as frivolous as a photo shoot with this photo apparently including the entire workforce, at least the day shift.

Tim Willoughby’s family history parallels that of Aspen. He began to share folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his hometown, he considers it from a historical perspective. Contact him at [email protected].


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