Monday, July 2, 2012

Aspen and Ashcroft, Colorado--Old West Mining Towns

Mining in the Old West was a profitable business. It was also a risky, heartbreaking business. In fact, according to The History Channel's The Real West "Boom Town to Ghost Towns," over 90% of Western mining enterprises failed, and the remains of these failed enterprises can still be seen on the mountainsides and along the winding rivers in the deep valleys of Colorado's Rocky Mountains.

In most Western ghost towns only a few structures have survived, and for those unfamiliar with the Old West the contemporary appearance of these ghost towns may give the mistaken impression that the visitor is standing on ground once occupied by a small number of people, when in truth, as soon as the word "gold" was mentioned a thriving metropolis seemed to appear overnight. The average boom town quadrupled its population within a month's time, then quadrupled that expanded number the next month. The "rush" to gold was an important part of the potential success of the miners. The first miners who arrived could pluck nuggets off the ground, but those who arrived late might hit the town in time to see a line of wagons rolling down the road, headed for the next town where someone once again shouted the word "gold."

The words "boom town" meant "profit" to many people. Miners rushed madly to the area where gold or silver was found and they were often unprepared to feed or shelter themselves, or perform the tasks needed to find the gold! This created opportunities for others who followed close behind with wagons full of shovels, tents, clothing, liquor, newspaper printing equipment--the supplies necessary to sustain a town filled with people.

Women arrived behind the miners, often providing some form of service. Mining towns attracted the best entertainers, and men literally threw nuggets of gold on the stage for these young, attractive women. The miners also had a healthy appetite after digging in the mines or panning in the rivers all day and women brought wagon loads of cooking supplies along with their cooking expertise to meet this need. Wagons filled with women also arrived to offer prostitution services.

These early mining towns often had fun, playful names, such as Rough and Ready, Hell's Delight, and Gauge Eye. Sometimes the names of these towns changed a few times before the townsfolk settled on one they liked. For instance, the mining town that started as Ute City, Colorado became Aspen, and the nearby Castle Forks City was soon changed to Chloride, and finally, Ashcroft.

Although one might wonder about the origins of some of these odd-sounding names, such as Gauge Eye, the naming of Ute City did have a logical explanation. In the winter of 1879 the local miners refused to abandon their camps and mining claims in spite of a dangerous Ute uprising nearby and pleas from Colorado's governor of the time, Frederick Pitkin, who urged the miners to return across the Continental Divide to safer grounds.

The town was renamed Aspen in 1880, which is also an appropriate name as the town is filled with quaking aspen trees, and when visitors first view these wonders of nature, it is easy to understand why the miners were reluctant to leave. In addition to the great wealth coming from the mines in this area, the men were surrounded by a natural beauty that still leaves tourists in awe. In fact, the nearby Maroon Bells, southwest of the town of Aspen, is believed to be one of the most photographed mountains in North America due to its magnificent display of colorful aspen leaves in the fall.

As for the money coming from Aspen's mines, at its peak, from 1891 to 1892, Aspen surpassed the famous town of Leadville for silver production. The value of silver exploded with the passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, which doubled the government's purchase of silver. By 1893, Aspen was more than a boom town, it was a bona fide city with numerous banks, a state-of-the-art hospital, theaters, opera houses, and electric lights!

The silver market crashed in 1893 when President Cleveland repealed the act. When the Panic of 1893 hit Aspen, the town crumbled. Within days, most of the mines were closed and the miners were unemployed, broke, and homeless. They had no choice, they had to leave. Within months, the population of Aspen dropped to 705 residents. Aspen seemed to be moving toward ghost town status until the 1930s when investors recognized its value as a ski resort. It is now one of the most popular tourist towns in Colorado, particularly to wealthy vacationers, due to its thriving ski industry, though it still only has a resident population of 6700.

Unfortunately, the nearby mining town of Ashcroft did not fare as well as Aspen, though it started out surprisingly strong. Silver was first discovered in the area in 1879 by wandering miners Charles B. Culver and W.F. Coxhead who had left the town of Leadville, which was nearly over-run with miners by this time, in search of a new silver supply in the Castle Creek Valley. By 1880, Colorado was actually the number one mining state in the country due to the mining production in Leadville, but there were so many men and women moving into the area that those who arrived late on the scene had little hope of success.

When Culver and Coxhead decided to try their luck in Castle Creek Valley, the gamble paid off. In fact, their initial claim produced 14,000 ounces of silver to the ton. Coxhead returned to Leadville to announce their success. When he returned he discovered that 23 men had already joined Culver and were busy establishing their claims. These early miners were surprisingly organized. Within weeks they had formed a Miners Protective Association, establishing a benefit fund for sick and injured miners and their families, collecting dues from what had grown to 97 miners within a matter of weeks. They built a courthouse and platted the streets for their town.

In 1882, a rich strike was announced in the Montezuma and Tam O'Shanter mines and the town was renamed Ashcroft, though my research did not uncover why this particular name was chosen. By this time, Ashcroft had a population of 2000. It also had two newspapers, which were considered vital to the success of Old West towns, six motels, 17 saloons with top-notch entertainment, a brothel, a doctor, a jail, and...a bowling alley! The town was graced with a visit from Horace and Baby Doe Tabor. Horace Tabor was famous for establishing the town of Leadville. The town of Ashcroft decided to honor Tabor's generosity to miners because he often grubstaked miners who did not have the money to stake their own claim, so the people of Ashcroft held an extravagant dinner and dance during the Tabor's visit.

In spite of its popularity and initial success, the town of Ashcroft eventually dwindled to a few hundred people. When it was discovered that the silver vein was shallow, the miners began to drift over to nearby Aspen. Within a few years, over 1900 of Ashcroft's residents had moved to Aspen. The remaining residents spent most of their time relaxing in the saloons or fishing in the nearby streams. However, like Aspen, Ashcroft was also given a second chance around the turn of the century. According to a 2010 article in National Geographic, "Volunteering in the Ghost Town," a World War II veteran, Stuart Mace, moved his family to what remained of Ashcroft in the early 1900s and offered dogsled tours of the ghost town and became the model for the 1950s television series Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. Unfortunately, the dogsled tours were not enough to sustain the town and Ashcroft became yet another Colorado ghost town.

Those few buildings that remain in Ashcroft are in surprisingly good shape as they were recently restored to attract tourism. The town still has ten restored buildings and three buildings that remain in their original condition and are open to tourists for a small fee. One of these buildings contains Mace's dogsled. Although there are no reports of lost souls wandering the streets of Ashcroft, one can still sense the ghost of a dream in the buildings that still stand in what was once a booming town in the Colorado Rockies.


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Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...