A railroad to Ashcroft?
Some of the more interesting stories from Aspen’s past are not about what happened ” they’re what didn’t happen. Several of these stories involve Ashcroft.
For example, there was one about the attempt around 1880 to bring a circus over Taylor Pass from Leadville to celebrate the Fourth of July. Or consider the first ski lifts planned in the 1930s to rise above Ashcroft, a plan that fell as a casualty of World War II. And there is the story of how, a century ago, entrepreneurs envisioned a railroad line that would connect Aspen to Ashcroft.
In 1907 The Colorado Fuel and Iron Company owned mining claims on Taylor Peak above Ashcroft. The upper elevations of the ridge that leads to the peak contained high-grade iron ore. At that time the closest alternate source for iron ore was in Wyoming. There was just one problem: how to move the iron?
J.C. Osgood created Colorado Fuel and Iron in the 1880s and ’90s. He created a conglomerate of railroads, coal mines and a steel mill in Pueblo. He also built the town of Redstone. In 1903 Osgood resigned from the company because of conflicts with partner John D. Rockefeller. This coincided with a major coal miners’ strike. A decade later another strike against Rockefeller involving the same coal mines resulted in the infamous Ludlow Massacre.
Redstone’s coal mines had been producing some of America’s finest coking coal. Coal plus iron equals steel, but each element of this equation requires cheap transportation. The Colorado Midland and the Denver and Rio Grande railroads already linked Redstone, Aspen and Pueblo. The Colorado Midland ran a spur line from Aspen up alongside Castle Creek to the present site of the Aspen Music School, the Newman Mine. The current road from Highway 82 to the music campus was built on that abandoned railroad bed. The original wagon road, and later car road, for Castle Creek was on the opposite side of the river, hugging the avalanche-prone base of Aspen Mountain.
Vast quantities of iron ore were located along the ride to Taylor Peak, and all that was needed to begin production was about 10 miles of track, a road from Taylor Peak to the end of the railroad line, plus some wagons and miners to blast the ore and shovel it into wagons.
By August 1907 Colorado Fuel and Iron’s promoters, led by local George Gould, advertised for bids to begin grading the line from the end of the Newman spur to a few miles above Ashcroft.
This was an exciting time for Aspen. Beginning in 1905 there were many mining and tourist promotions tied to railroad infrastructure, including a copper mine in the Capitol Creek area, a marble quarry up Conundrum Creek and even a few oil-drilling schemes.
The spur line up Castle Creek rallied locals’ interest because it coincided with the reopening of the Montezuma and Tam O’Shanter silver mines near the end of the Castle Creek Valley. Most of the early silver mines of the Aspen area were in the Castle Creek Valley, but only high-grade ore had been profitable because of the prohibitive cost of hauling ore by mule train or wagon to the nearest smelter in Leadville. A railroad would have boosted the value of lower-grade ore. Mines up Taylor Pass above Ashcroft as well as mines on Richmond Hill, like the Little Annie, could have expanded operations, thereby attracting capital to explore deeper for new ore bodies.
The railroad project perished in the Panic of 1907. As mineral prices dropped, Colorado Fuel and Iron relinquished the dream.
Taylor Peak’s iron remained undisturbed until the early 1960s, when Pitkin Iron began mining the ore. They trucked the ore down the valley to Woody Creek, where it was transferred to railroad cars and shipped to smelters in Texas, Utah and Montana. That operation resulted in the paving of Castle Creek road, a half-century after the demise of the railroad that didn’t happen.
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City of Aspen officials are trying to figure out what the downtown core looks like this winter as COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the state and in some parts of the country.