Castle Creek ghost Ophir

Tim WilloughbyAspen Times Weekly
Willoughby CollectionThe town of Ophir was located in an aspen grove, middle of photo, in the lower Castle Creek Valley.

If you are going to live in Aspen, live among the aspens. In winter, the suns rays penetrate deciduous aspen groves unlike the shadowed land beneath the pine canopies. In spring, shimmering leaves burst with spring green over a ground cover of ferns speckled with an artists palette of wildflowers. An aspen grove is cool in summer, especially if a small spring flows through it. The scent of fall aspens, short-lived and crisp, satisfies every sniffer. When fall colors the aspens, I am reminded of the early pioneers who lived in Pitkin Countys least known town, Ophir.Early prospectors settled along the full length of the Castle Creek Valley. Coopers Camp grew at the upper end, above the Pine Creek Cookhouse. Ashcroft blossomed at the entry of Express Creek. Highland began but never developed, near the confluence of Conundrum Creek. Ophir took root at the bottom of the gulch that bears its name, a short distance up the road from the Aspen Music School/Aspen Country Day School campus. In the early 1880s, mineral outcrops were found wherever erosion cut gulches deep enough into Aspen Mountain to reveal its geology. Prospectors could not tell which claims would yield a profit without tunneling into the mountain. Tunneling required so much time that prospectors abandoned their isolated tents to move to small communities of winterproof cabins.Valley bottoms offered advantages to towns: the stagecoach route ran there, fishing was close at hand, and snow depths were shallower. In the earliest days, prospectors built cabins near lumber (trees) rather than hauling the lumber from a distant wood. Choice lumber was less important than location. An aspen grove was as viable for a community as a pine forest. When I was about 12, a friend of mine and I tried to build our own cabin from aspen trees. When you are 12, you cut the trees with small diameter trunks. After stacking up to child height, leveling about 60 trees, and leaving gaps between logs as big as the their diameters, we abandoned the project. Ophirs aspen grove contained original growth trees with more buildable trunk diameters.Ophir was a popular mining town name in the 1880s. The Bible refers to Ophir as a location of African gold that scholars believe was in Zimbabwe. The popular King Solomons Mine of 1885 spirited using Ophir as a name for towns and mining claims. There is a more famous Ophir in the San Juans between Telluride and Rico and one in nearly every western state.Ophir was a small settlement, and like other early towns it did not hold its prospectors long. The most productive mines accessed ore bodies at much higher elevations. Once the more successful mines began shipping ore, their companies built boarding houses at the mine entrances, attracting the early settlers to move from their cabins. Two contiguous gulches, New York downstream and Queens upstream, were big producers, but not Ophir.You cannot find the cabins of Castle Creeks Ophir today. Although living in aspens is good for your soul, even the ghosts moved on long ago because aspen is not great building material. Less accessible than other Aspen ghost towns, and known only to a few, Ophir offered nails, bottles and other abandoned objects to serious collectors until the 1970s. I have always thought the Ophir would have been the best of all the Castle Creek mining camps for 19th-century living. Built on glacier-cut rather than river-eroded bottom, it is high enough above the valley to avoid the cold air drain. It was the closest to Aspen for a night on the town. And when fall color comes

Tim Willoughbys family story parallels Aspens. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at’s Yore Aspen is a feature of the Aspen Times Weekly.