Aspen Times Weekly: Aspen’s Dead Zone
If you go...
Aspen Grove Cemetery
Aspen Grove Road (off McSkimming Road)
Red Butte Cemetery
Aspen Historical Society
Aspen Walking Tours
City records show that a man named Colonel Kirby, suffering from “mountain fever” after a trip across the Red Mountain trail in 1880, was the first prospector to die in Aspen. He was buried at what would become Ute Cemetery, a plot of land that has seen Civil War heroes and other Aspen pioneers laid to rest.
Kirby’s tale, along with many others, can be heard Saturday during the final cemetery tour of the year led by Dean Weiler, an expert of Aspen haunts, horrors and tragedies. Whether it’s an 1890s suicide drawing attention from traveling Spiritualists claiming connections to the beyond or a mail carrier on skis killed in an avalanche, Weiler narrates the story of early Aspen with his graveyard stroll.
“All these stories, although I tell the life and the death of that person there, there’s something within that story that tells the larger part of history, of Aspen and our country at that time,” said Weiler, who also provides year-round walking tours that detail tales of ghosts, murder and mayhem in the downtown core.
There are 200 graves located at the Ute, and despite the name, there are no known Native Americans buried at the site. It does, however, include many miners. For example, Weiler tells the story of two miners buried side-by-side, who were killed in an avalanche on Aspen Mountain, where Spar Gulch meets Copper.
“That taps into some of those dangers from early mining that you don’t really think about,” Weiler said. “Sure you get blown up by dynamite, you fall down a mine shaft and all these other things, but there’s these avalanches too.”
Following the decline of prospecting in Aspen, by 1935, the population plummeted to around 700, according to city records. Even with the emergence of Aspen since then, only three know burials have taken place at the Ute. Aspenites have since looked to two other sites to bury their loved ones — Aspen Grove and Red Butte cemeteries — which tell stories of other eras in Aspen.
Located east of Aspen near McSkimming Road is Aspen Grove, a wild — and at times unkempt — graveyard frequented by bears who live in the area. Sitting in an aspen grove sprinkled with wildflowers, it was established in 1890. Well-known local names like Twining, Herron, Marolt, Sardy, Cerise, Vagneur and Gerbaz can been found at the grave site. There’s also Elizabeth and Walter Paepcke, Fritz and Fabi Benedict, Herbert Bayer, Ferenc Berko and Friedl Pfeifer, trailblazers who helped usher Aspen into the modern era.
But according to Nina Gabianelli, vice president of programming and education at the Aspen Historical Society, the graveyard’s wildness alienated many local residents connected to Aspen’s fraternal organizations. So in 1900, the Masons, the Woodmen of the World, the Elks, the Swedish Lodge and the Columbine Circle purchased land that would become Red Butte Cemetery, for which Aspen’s Cemetery Lane is named. Though it is no longer associated with any of the lodges, the Elks and Eagles still hold plots for their members. In recent years, a portion of the cemetery has been committed to Aspen’s Jewish community.
Compared to the other two cemeteries, Red Butte is more manicured and maintained, with roads and a dedicated grid for gravestones. Both Red Butte and Aspen Grove are still active, but the number of burials at Red Butte in the 20th century far exceeds the other two.
“I don’t want to minimize Aspen Grove,” said John Thorpe, former president of the Red Butte Cemetery Association board of directors. “They are clearly the favorite of some portions of the town, although … I would say we are the most active right now.”
Former Colorado Gov. Davis H. Waite is buried at Red Butte along with many miners-turned-tradespeople. Thorpe said that includes the early Slavic community, people who came as miners and stayed as ranchers and workmen. Other occupants include Aspenites who lived through the Quiet Years, the beginning of Aspen’s ski industry and the modern era.
“The generations that pulled Aspen through the very, very slow times, from the ’20s to the ’40s,” Thorpe said. “This is clearly the strongest current generation tied to Aspen.”
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