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1800's through mid 1900's

Miners and the Cycles of Boom and Bust

An incomplete bridge to Aspen, circa 1890. Credit: New York Public Library Digital Collection

Cycles of boom and bust are common both in the natural world and in the economic one. Prospectors flooded the Roaring Fork Valley after the discovery of silver in the area, bringing with them changes to the landscape. Although the high flying silver market did not last, the impacts of the settlers who arrived as a consequence of it still remain.

Geology, Economies, and Population Trends

Credit: Detroit Publishing Company, New York Library Digital Collection

Although other rumors of ore preceded them, the first prospectors for silver in the Aspen area arrived in 1879. In 1881 the U.S. government broke treaty with the Utes and the native people were removed from the entire Roaring Fork Valley and displaced to a reservation. Settlement by prospectors then began in earnest in a town dubbed Ute City. Later renamed Aspen, the town's population grew rapidly. By 1893, the local peak of silver mining, the population of Aspen had jumped to over 10,000 residents. Meanwhile, Carbondale, Basalt, and Glenwood Springs and other smaller towns were being established down valley. These towns experienced parallel growth (although on a smaller scale) to the booming silver town of Aspen. Miners near modern day Basalt, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs built coke ovens or dug out coal to heat homes and feed the ore-carrying trains. Hunters capitalized on the area's abundant game, joining with farms and ranches to provide food for the region's growing towns. Entrepreneurs established hotels near the hot springs and sent out advertisements to draw in recreators and health-seekers. The success of the towns established during this time depended on two primary but independent factors: (1) the natural richness of the land for either ore production or agriculture and (2) the demand of the national economy to purchase the goods produced. In Aspen, the economic demand gave out before the ore ran out in Aspen. Silver had provided the critical draw for the prospectors who composed the town’s population, and after the repeal of the Sherman Silver Act in 1893 Aspen underwent a rapid decline in population and prosperity.

Credit: Detroit Publishing Company, New York Public Library Digital Collection

Down valley in Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, the economy was less drastically impacted by the Sherman Act. In Carbondale and Basalt, coal was being mined more successfully than silver and was supported by a steady market. Both Carbondale and Glenwood Springs were cultivating non-mineral trade as well. Carbondale was known for its ranching and agriculture, particularly potatoes, and Glenwood Springs was already making a name for itself as a resort town famous for hot springs, caves, and hiking.

Global Connection

Many species experience boom and bust cycles in their populations. However, for many populations, such as the passenger pigeon, these cycles are dependent upon food availability. Because of their complex social dynamics, human population boom and bust cycles are sometimes tied to mobility rather than mortality--with large populations moving to new locations in order to survive or succeed. These shifts in human population demographics can be caused by cultural, political, or economic dynamics as well as by natural disasters or naturally driven changes in food availability.

Brain Bug

In what ways are mining, ranching, and recreation each tied to the natural landscapes? Consider either environmental changes or man-made changes in our local geography. What types of changes could cause each one of these to collapse as a source of income for the local communities? What types of changes could lead to an economic growth in the area? Of these changes, which are sustainable over a long term and which might be temporary changes?