The Silver Mineshaft at Captain Zipline

Silver Mine entrance at Captain Zipline in Salida, Colorado

The canyon floor at Captain Zipline is strewn with rocks and boulders that have been carried down the ragged bottom by the rare torrential rains or perhaps fallen from the surrounding cliffs as the tectonic plates move in one direction or another. If you take a closer look at this lower section of the canyon, however, you will see more than just rocks. There are limekiln ruins from the 1800s and not far away from these deteriorating chimney structures are the remnants of a prospector’s dream, an entrance to a silver mine.

Silver was always in the shadows of its more lustrous relative, gold. But this was purely for practical reasons. Many mines could not turn a profit if they simply focused on silver mining.

The first discovery of silver in the state of Colorado occurred in a region about 1 mile south of Montezuma in the year 1864. Ten years later, in 1874, the largest silver lode in the state of Colorado was discovered, in the town of Leadville. Once this place was identified as a location of silver deposits, mining commenced with a fury. Within 5 years, the area was a boomtown, chock full of mine operators and miners who had come to make their fortune. During this boom period, more than $80 million of silver was mined. This “rush” was second only to the gold rush from two decades earlier in terms of prosperity. Into the next century and through 1963, this region produced 240 million troy ounces of silver.

But, silver was not the only claim-to-fame of this high mountain mining town. As much as 3 million troy ounces of gold, 987 million metric tons of lead, 712 million metric tons of zinc, and 48 million metric tons of copper have been mined from Leadville since the late 1800s.

This silver frenzy did not materialize of its own accord. Rather, the U.S. government had a heavy hand in the push to discover such riches that came from places like Leadville, Colorado and from other mining regions, for that matter. It was in 1878 when the “fate” of silver changed–Congress authorized the purchase of millions of ounces of silver through its Bland-Allison Act. Essentialy this Act authorized the free coinage of silver. Government demand pushed the prices of this metal to the point where it now became profitable to mine silver ore. The paths that had seen many gold rushers in years past now became the trails of those seeking their fortunes in silver.

The silver frenzy continued through the 1880s, leading to mining towns popping up all over the Colorado mountainous region. Moreover, Leadville became infused with silver-mining riches to the point where its citizens briefly entertained the notion of moving the state capital to their nouveaux rich town from its current location in Denver.

But, it all came crashing down in 1893 when the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed… silver prices plummeted and many boom towns became ghost towns. This decline did not happen in a vacuum. Rather, it’s been suggested that overbuilding of railroads in conjunction with risky bank lending practices combined with plummeting silver prices to produce the 1893 panic. A cascade of events transpired, including a run on back deposits and the failure of as many as 500 banks and 15,000 companies. Some estimates placed unemployment at 17% to 19% of the workforce during those trying times. Consequently, droves of people in the middle class could no longer pay their mortgages and ended up walking away from their homes altogether.

This was yet one more example of an economic “bubble,” albeit a bubble that preceeded modern time meltdowns by more than a century. To make matters worse, this silver meltdown was met with a run on the gold supplies. (At that time, the value of the U.S. dollar was pegged to the value of both silver and gold metals in a ratio of 16:1.) This economic depression of 1893 was thought to be the worst depression the United States had ever experiened…

…until the Great Depression.

Nevertheless, the flow of riches had been such that many of today’s historic structures were built on the fortunes of the mining industry and exist to this day. The boom also encouraged many of the railways to extend their rails into regions once thought of as far away towns, inaccessible to such transportation. It is said that these railway inroads to now-popular tourist towns like Aspen actually saved these places from extinction during those hard times.

Evidence of Old Silver Mines in Colorado

Today in Colorado, a major area from which precious metals are mined can be found in the Cripple Creek region, at the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mine. Yes, a gold mine—silver is a byproduct of gold mining operations. The vestiges of this way of life can be found beyond this area, however, scattered across many mountainsides in the Colorado region and including areas in Chaffee County and around Captain Zipline. Oftentimes, the entry to such mines—the shaft—is visible from the ground surface. This is in fact what our zipline guests at Captain Zipline can view during their eco-tour.

This shaft, or portal, at one time allowed entry to the almost-vertical tunnel leading to mining operations—in this case silver mining. (Its underground counterpart, which connects the lower regions or sections of a mine, is referred to as a winze.) Typically, a shaft is sunk into the ground surface for situations in which the metal is beyond the reaches of surface mining techniques.

But what meets the eye is not as simple as it may seem.  Usual mining operations require that a vertical manshaft lead away from the entrance, providing a space in which the miners use an elevator to travel up and down the vertical lengths of the shaft. Equipment is also moved along this passageway. Short segments of tunnel are dug from the manshaft to the ore.  In addition to this manshaft, there often is an airshaft to provide ventilation for the workers. The moving currents of air take away the gases, which would otherwise build up underground, risking the lives of the miners with catastrophic explosions. Since we can only see the shaft entrance at the zipline, it is anyone’s guess as to the extent and complexity—or more likely, simplicity—of the abandoned silver mine operation.

So when does this process of adding shafts to a mining operation stop? Well, it occurs when there simply isn’t any more ore to be had or when it becomes too expensive to go after what ore may be there. And thus it can be surmised that the shaft to the silver mine at Captain Zipline was abandoned for these reasons. Once the mining operations cease, most mines are filled with filler or some sort of cement. This method averts sinking of the land in the mining area once the underground beams rot away.

Silver Mining Today

Because of its storied history—silver mining operations dating back to the 1860s—Colorado has at times referred to itself as the “Silver state.” But it is not alone in this self-designation for its neighbor two states away, the state of Nevada, also anointed itself with this title. In reality, though, the state responsible for the most silver production in the U.S.A. is Idaho! Silver runs in veins, or lodes, that extend underground to great depths in many cases. Miners are able to identify a silver vein by the visual aspects—the rocky outcroppings—of these caches of ore. After the crash of silver mining in the late 1800s, the industry was able to get back on firmer footing by 1911. From this year onward through the next several years, silver mining reached its peak production. After 1920, Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene district became the major silver ore producer in the USA. And by 1970, the state of Idaho was producing a bit more than 40 percent of the 45,00,000+ fine ounces of silver mined in the country. The remainder of silver in the USA came from mines in the states of Arizona, Montana, and Utah.

We hope that you enjoy this glimpse of our region’s mining history when you visit our zip line. But even more importantly, we hope that you enjoy your “Captain Zipline” experience. Thanks for choosing us!