Willoughby: Part III — Economic calamities tarnished Aspen’s silver era – Aspen Times


The economics of Aspen’s silver era, complicated by ups downs in prices, compares to that of the modern oil industry. Profits in each industry resembled the temperament of the little girl in the nursery rhyme: when prices were good, profits were very, very good. When prices were bad, they were horrid.

When I traveled between Aspen Gr Junction as a child, signs along the highway advertised a future “oil shale city.” The words meant little to me, but eventually such a city, Parachute, developed. Oil shale contains countless barrels of oil. For years as a national defense strategy, oil was extracted from Colorado shale to produce jet fuel. An oil embargo that began in October 1973 sent the price of oil higher, extraction produced profits. Later, the price dropped profits shrank.

Silver mining in Aspen faced similar challenges. Before the Panic of 1893, miners left low-grade ore underground processed only the plentiful, high-grade ore. Before the railroads came to town, it cost too much to haul low-grade ore by wagon or pack train to smelters in Leadville.

Whenever a mine’s ore quality dropped, it had to either increase production or cut production costs. Miners’ unions held strong in Aspen, wages could not be cut except in the panics or recessions. But, as in many industries, technology provided
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