Silver was discovered in Colorado in the 1860s, and the first mining was performed in Clear Creek Canyon at Georgetown during 1864. However, the price of the metal was not high enough to attract serious exploration until the United States Congress passed the Bland-Allison Act in 1878. This legislation authorized the free coinage of silver.
The suddenly huge government demand raised the price of the mineral substantially. 1879, the very next year, saw the start of the Colorado Silver boom when a lode of silver was discovered at Leadville. The boom endured throughout the 1880s, resulting in an intense increase in both the population and wealth of Colorado. The government purchases of silver were later nearly doubled by the 1890 Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which further extended the boom into the early 1890s. It came to a cataclysmic end in 1893 in the wake of the collapse of silver prices caused by the repeal of Sherman Silver Purchase Act.
The Discovery of the Largest Silver Nugget in the USA
Ironically, in 1894, just one year after Colorado’s silver mining crashed with this massive thud, the largest silver nugget ever found was discovered in the Smuggler Mine near Aspen, CO. And I do mean large. The original nugget was believed to weigh about 2,340 pounds, but this was too large to be brought from the mine intact. It was broken into three pieces, the largest weighing 1,840 pounds.
The nugget was 93 percent pure silver. The price of silver in early 2018 is around $16 per troy ounce. Using some basic math, that would make this nugget worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000 at todays prices. And that is just the bullion value; surely a mineral collector would pay many times that amount in today’s market.
The Smuggler Mine
Although the Smuggler Mine is used mostly for tours today, limited operations still go on. The mountain isn’t close to running out of silver – an estimated 890,000 tons of ore remain unrecovered. In 1987, primarily due to the recovery of this monster nugget, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Although many towns grew up with the silver boom in Colorado, the one best known today is Aspen. When one thinks about Aspen, CO, visions of great skiing and a playground for the rich and famous come to mind. But, for most of the area’s history, its great value could be found not on but under the ski slopes in some of North America’s most valuable silver mines.
The world-famous Smuggler Mine near Aspen once produced 1/5 of all the silver recovered in the entire world. The Smuggler Mine was named after its location on the slopes of Smuggler Mountain, so this wasn’t some creative name. It is the oldest operating silver mine in the Aspen mining district, and one of the few still operating from Aspen’s early boom years.
The First Discovery of Silver
The origins of the Smuggler Mine remain shrouded by mystery. According to legend, the first prospectors to find silver there were Edward Fuller and Con Albright in 1879. They allegedly sold the claim shortly after discovering it due to one of those weird stories that seem too strange to be true. Supposedly they sold their claim for $50 in exchange for a mule and some supplies which were needed. Actually “selling” the claim would have been rather difficult since they never officially filed one. But, it makes a good story.
How Charles Bennett, who filed the initial claim, came into possession of the claim that would become Smuggler is equally obscure. One report says his party came across the claim around that same time, June 1879, and allegedly found it abandoned. After acquiring some more nearby land, Bennett sold his interest in 1880. The purchasers were several partners who formed the Aspen Town and Land Company to survey and plat the 282-acre site. They subdivided it, named the streets after themselves and sold the lots for $10 each, which created the city of Aspen.
Plummeting Silver Prices Cause Troubles at the Mine
During the ensuing silver boom, Smuggler became the most productive silver mine in the area. Like most of the mining interests, Smuggler suffered badly after the silver price collapsed in 1893. Despite this, Smuggler was one of the few mines in the Aspen area to reopen after the disaster. It continued producing silver until Smuggler reached the bottom of the vein that had been the mine’s main source of ore.
While there might have been other sources in the area that could have been worked, the mine was shut down the mine in 1918. This was due as much to a dispute over rates with the owner of the local electric utility as because of the shortage of ore.
The effect of the mine’s closure was economically disastrous for the community. During the 1920s, when much of the rest of the company became prosperous, the area continued to deteriorate. By 1930, less than a thousand people were living in Aspen. This was down from a previous high of 10,000 during the Silver boom, which was then the largest city in Colorado.
A Rebirth in Aspen
Although some mining resumed at Smuggler after World War II, city’s renaissance had nothing to do with the mines. In 1947, Aspen’s first ski resort was opened. And the rest, as they say, was history. Instead of the dark, dank silver mines deep below ground, Aspen is now justly famous for the beauty on its surface.
The Smuggler Mine will always be known for being one of the world’s most productive silver mines, but the largest chunk of silver ever found is definitely what it will be remembered for.
One has to wonder if there is another chunk, possible even larger, hidden somewhere in the mountains surrounding Aspen, Colorado.