Michael Cleverly, VIle's Aspen Bureau Chief
Submitted by: Editor
Company Town - Part 1
The Lost Battle For The Soul of Aspen
In the last decades of the nineteenth century Colorado’s upper Roaring Fork valley was home to a series of mining camps whose residents moiled in the rocky earth for silver and gold.
One of those was the town of Ashcroft, ten miles up Castle Creek from where it converged with the Roaring Fork River. A short three years after silver deposits were first discovered there in 1880 the camp boasted a population of two thousand with a school; two newspapers and twenty saloons… miners had priorities. While the deposits were rich and briefly produced and enormous amount of silver, they were shallow, and the town went bust. By 1885 there were less than 100 residents. Historian Jon Coleman called the men who remained “prospectors with dismal prospects, boosters with nothing to promote, and town fathers with no children.” The rest, who abandoned Ashcroft, migrated ten miles to Ute City. Named for the native population of Ute Indians who were booted out the instant something valuable was discovered on their land. That camp, Ute City, later became Aspen. The refugee miners and their families were welcomed there and might have passed the Utes on their way out. This could have been Aspen’s first brush with elitism.
In 1879 gold was discovered thirteen miles east of Ute City near the summit of Independence Pass. By 1882 the town of Independence had a population of 1500 with forty businesses including three post offices and numerous saloons and brothels. Independence was a fun place, except in the winter. Winters at 11,000 ft. were brutal.
In the span of three years gold production went from $190,000 to $2000 per year and by 1888 the population was reduced to 100 men. The winter of 1889 was the harshest in Colorado history, all supply routes to Independence were cut and the remaining miners were faced with starvation. They pulled boards off their cabins, fashioned them into skis, and organized a race to Aspen, which had been officially renamed in 1879. There the early alpinists were welcomed as heroes and absorbed into the community. Aspen hadn’t yet discovered elitism and had never heard of the “last one in” syndrome. However, there were no Utes to be seen.
One by one the surrounding mining camps played out, Aspen became the county seat and attracted immigrants from across the country and Europe. For the Europeans the landscape in the high Rockies reminded them of home, and the Americans came seeking riches in the earth. Aspen’s business was mining and it was a company town in every sense.
In 1893 the United States repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and returned to the gold standard, bringing to a close the silver boom. Towns that were born, grew and became rich in just a few short years disappeared even faster. Not Aspen. The people’s love of the place had them digging in and scraping by.