Paul E. Anna: High Points
July 2, 2009
It was 130 years ago today. OK, tomorrow.
On July 4, 1879, prospectors high in the mountains of the Roaring Fork Valley discovered gold. The Independence Lode, they called it, and it marked the first significant event in the history of non-natives in the Valley. Ironic that it all began with gold.
Today, 130 years on, the Valley is still about money. True, the gold gave way to silver, which eventually gave way to skiing which eventually gave way to real estate, but the modern history of the Roaring Fork is all about the Benjamins. As we celebrate this Independence Day, it is good to look back on the past and there is no better way to do that than by driving, riding, or, if you’re up for it, hiking up the Pass and walking through the ghost town of Independence. There you can experience up close and personal the first “subdivision” this area ever knew.
During that July in 1879, a tent city sprung up as prospectors began digging for their piece of the rock. The gold rock. Before the snows fell in the high country that fall, there were 300 folks, nearly all men, who came over the Pass from Leadville and set up camp for the winter. It had to be harsh, what with Gore-tex, down filling, waterproof tents and such still close to a century away.
But the lure of profit was strong and by 1881, less than two years later, the Farewell Mining Company had constructed a facility to process the gold and the town hosted 500 people. From 1881 (the year, by the way, that this newspaper was founded down the hill in the soon-to-be silver town of Aspen), $190,000 in gold was processed in Independence.
It was a boom of epic proportions and soon other miners wanted to get in on the opportunity. By the summer of 1882, the town was home to 1,500 residents. The surrounding forests had been cut for wood to build saloons and post offices and homes. There were four saloons where a hard-working man could buy a drink and three post offices. And no, there was no WiFi.
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By 1882, the whole thing was done. The mines were played out, and the take that year was about 1 percent of what it had been the year before. So the miners did what we do now: They moved downvalley.
Aspen began to boom as the quest for silver exceeded the quest for gold. Independence was a harsh place and, while Aspen was no picnic initially, it soon began to take shape as a town. By 1888, less than a decade after the first cry of “Gold!!” was heard, Independence’s population hovered at around the century mark. And Aspen’s was heading for what would eventually top out around 15,000 people.
In the 1930s, the Colorado Women’s Club, using a Civilian Conservation Corps grant from the Roosevelt administration, led a revegetation and restoration project to preserve the town. Today it is operated under the auspices of the Aspen Historical Society. There is a requested donation of $3 for entry and there are docents on hand to provide additional information.
It is beautiful up there this July and worth taking the trip.
A trip back in time.