- Associated Press - Saturday, August 22, 2015

ASPEN, Colo. (AP) - With the recent sale of the historic Smuggler Mine, there are still four friends keeping the site’s mining history alive, continuing the age-old Aspen tradition of exploring underground. Chris Preusch, Shane Stevenson, Fred Wilson and Jay Parker couldn’t be happier underground, burrowing into the side of the mountain that seems to have been forgotten since the mining boom ended over a century ago.

Mining is their hobby and passion. They volunteer to lead tours so they can continue to open up new parts of the mine. As they stride down the dark tunnels each one excitedly points out different things they have discovered in their 40-plus years of exploration.

“Clear! Watch for dribbles,” Stevenson bellows from the hole above our heads as dirt and pebbles tumble by. We are in cavern deep in the mine, at least 100 feet above the entrance. Above us a ladder disappears into a hole in the ceiling and ascends into the darkness toward a section of the mine known as the Number Three, which hasn’t been accessed since 1938.

Wilson pulls pieces of pyrite off the overhang above him; a vein of the fool’s gold sparkles across the distance as his headlamp follows it to the edge of the wall. “I’m coming back with a backpack!” exclaims Parker as he sits on the ground, sifting through the loose rubble, “I’m like a kid in the sand box playing with rocks.”

The deeper in we climb the more incessantly the air monitor chirps, as oxygen percentage gets lower and fresh air gets farther away. There are ladders leading to dead ends, passages so small we have to slide on our bellies and rocks with nicknames like “The Widow Maker.” This underground labyrinth has become home to these four.

“There are 2,800 vertical feet of workings - 1,000 above Aspen and 1,800 below Aspen,” Preusch said. But much of it flooded, backfilled or collapsed when different operators closed sections.

They are also the history keepers of this legacy property, which originally put Aspen on the map, and they pass down the stories to visitors. “In its heyday, it grossed $98 million for the Hymans,” recalled Parker, referencing the mine’s original owners. Until 1918 the mine was still under their direct supervision, after that it was leased to various people.

“McCullough Oil was here when I got here in the ‘60s,” said Parker, recalling his early days in the Aspen.

“Before that it was Anaconda,” Preusch said. “In ‘49 and ‘50 they were reopening old tunnels, driving new tunnels, and locating 860,000 tons of known ore, which is still in place.”

Wilson added, “When silver got back up a couple years ago, we figured we were sitting on about $1.2 billion dollars of ore.”

Preusch said that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, everything went dormant around the mine. As kids they used to play there, exploring and being chased out by the tenant; they even built a shooting range and used to race their motorcycles around the dumps.

“Those were quite the years,” Preusch said, adding that he and Stefan Albouy grew up together exploring the mine for hours at a time. “I first started coming in here in 1972, I was 13 years old. The portal was bulldozed shut so we went over the top and dug down to the gate, and crawled in backwards. We would bring our Coleman lanterns and candles and pads of papers and we started mapping.”

When they graduated from high school in 1978, Albouy went to California and met with David Hyman’s great granddaughter, who was still the president of Smuggler-Durant Mining Company, and he secured a 90-year lease for $2 a year. When they later bought the mine, it made them the second owners since 1878.

“I’ll never forget when Stefan came home with that lease,” Preusch said. “He was shouting ‘We got it! We got it!’”

So in 1978 Smuggler Mine started reopening with the help of all Albouy’s friends. “We started reopening the portals, putting in new gates, re-laying rail, and it turned into a boys’ club where you paid to be a part of it,” Preusch said. “I think that’s why Mary Hays called us the Lost Boys.”

“We gladly paid him that $35 bucks, it was cheaper than the health clubs downtown,” Parker said with a chuckle.

“The best thing when Stephen got the lease up here was that we could shoot the cannon,” Preusch said with a smile. They first fired the cannon in 1976 but they weren’t on the property. This past Fourth of July was 39th year for the “wake up call for Aspen” - next year will be 40th anniversary of their tradition.

In addition to the canon, over the years there have been steam whistles, fireworks and other shenanigans. “And then there was the year we stole all the ski company’s fuses for the (Winterskol) torchlight (descent),” Preusch recalled. “I think it was 1985.”

According to Preusch, that year the SkiCo decided to no longer have locals in the torchlight descent, “due to liability and attorneys and all that.” The winter tradition was for employees only.

“I think it was Stefan who procured all the fuses and brought them over here. I will never forget that Winterskol. Sitting up there, big old bonfire, we had hundreds of people, we were hauling them all up by snowmobile. We’re watching, we’re watching, we watched the fireworks, and after that all these fuses light up on Smuggler Mountain and the whole road was one big chain of red,” said Preusch as they all laugh.

He continued, “In those days people could laugh about that kind of stuff, there was far less litigation. I mean if you got outplayed on your own deal you could just laugh about it. It’s too bad Aspen doesn’t still posses that charm.” But it doesn’t stop them from still having fun every day.

Their big discovery recently has been accessing the Number Three, a level high on the mountain above the public tour on Number Two. “We got up into the Number Three and its like stepping through time,” Preusch said with excitement. “No one has been in here for 70 or 80 years, and then you work into areas where people haven’t been for 100 years.”

There are at least 30 miles of tunnels in Smuggler, and over 100 throughout Aspen. There are three tunnels side to side, at the 800, 1,000 and 1,400-foot levels, plus all the works in the other major mines - the Molly Gibson and the Argenta-Juanita.

“Day to day it’s fun - it’s exploring and maintenance,” Preusch said, adding that they want to expand into new areas for tours. From 1918 to 1950 operators were backfilling existing workings, so today some of that is accessible and other parts are completely inaccessible because of the backfill, sometimes with 100,000 tons of dirt. They say it took clearing nearly 300 ore cars of backfill to access the Number Three.

“Since the sale we have formed a new company that runs the tours, Smuggler Consolidated LLC,” Preusch said. The mine re-opened for tours last Friday and they hope they will be there for a few more years. For tours, the volunteers lead groups through a portion of the Clark level and the Number Two, but in a one-hour tour it’s barely enough time to see just that small bit.

The new owner wants them to clean the property up, and might possibly want to have more events up there, according to Preusch. “But they are taking their time and really thinking through it,” said Parker. “No rush to do anything.”

“Every time the thing has changed hands I get to come with it,” Parker said. “The four of us are the only people working on it, and it’s been fun.”

For them it is also an important part of history so they provide a school tour program, and each year 600-700 students from as far as Eagle, Rifle and Cedaredge come visit. “It’s shocking,” Preusch said. “Some kids had no idea mining existed in Aspen, had no idea it founded the town, and thought it was just a ski town.”

They don’t know that the first boat tow on the ski slopes came from salvaged mining equipment. There are many remnants like this from the mine’s long history strewn throughout the property, which still has a permit for extraction, but the last shipment of ore went out in 1984. It’s no longer profitable to mine the 860,000 tons of high-grade ore from the mountain. So the four would-be miners plan on continuing to explore and unearth the forgotten depths of the history-rich mine.

“To be young again, that age when anything goes,” Preusch said with a sigh. “I guess we are still doing that, and hopefully it stays just as rambunctious.”

“I’m still gonna grow up here,” Parker said with a look at Preusch, “Nah.”

___

Information from: Aspen Daily News, https://www.aspendailynews.com

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