Crazy county lines
October 23, 2009
Puerto Ricans periodically debate statehood, perhaps just to remind the continent that they indeed are Americans. With similar frequency Redstone residents talk about seceding from Pitkin County. Their debate reminds residents of the Roaring Fork Valley that Redstone, too, is part of Pitkin. Colorado’s county lines escape and cross geographic confines.
Aspen’s side of the Elk Mountains was Indian Territory when prospectors and settlers took up residency here. In 1880, after Gov Frederick Pitkin expelled the Utes, the State Legislature placed the area under the jurisdiction of Gunnison County. That same year, Ashcroft was the fastest growing town in the area. A journey from there to the town of Gunnison, the county seat, could be accomplished in a tolerable amount of time. The trek from rapidly growing Crystal in the Yule Creek valley, to Gunnison was also acceptable.
County governments provided law and order, access to judicial systems, and basic services. For prospectors and land developers, the county seat centralized the vital functions of recording mining and town site claims as well as managing sales of federal property. The Aspen area comprised hundreds of claims, all on the wrong side of a one-day (summer’s best) horseback ride to Gunnison.
Dissatisfied with that distance, pioneers of Aspen lobbied the Legislature to create new counties in the former Indian Territory. The Legislature created Pitkin County in 1881, and residents designated Aspen as their county seat.
The county lines, as drawn then, made business sense. The mining camps around Marble and Crystal remained in Gunnison County. As the eagle flies, Aspen is situated about the same distance from those towns as is Gunnison. A few hardy miners hiked from those towns to Maroon Valley, but the established route over Schofield Pass to Crested Butte and Gunnisonwas easier and faster.
Pitkin residents, considering their county a mining mecca, lobbied the legislature to draw county lines accordingly. Even though the Redstone area remained sparsely populated, Pitkin residents included it in their county due to the discovery of its coal seams. Just as today’s towns prosper in relation to their distance from freeways, railroad lines of the 1880s dictated profitable resource production. It did not take an engineer to realize that rail lines would run from the Roaring Fork Valley to Redstone for coal rather than over Schofield Pass to Gunnison.
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For decades Redstone and Marble prospered in spite of the distance to their respective county seats.
James Downing, Aspen’s representative to the State Legislature, embarked upon county land theft in 1917. Downing joined forces with State Senator Barnette Napier of Glenwood Springs and pushed a bill to redraw county lines. They would have created a new county, Aspen County, by combining the Marble/Crystal area with the existing Pitkin County.
Residents of Marble were unpleasantly surprised by the plan, but were equally displeased with Gunnison County’s second-class service and did not oppose the scheme. The plan roused the ire of Gunnison officials who wanted to hold their tax base, even though the Colorado-Yule Marble Company owed significant back taxes.
Other state representatives felt wary of the proposal because they recognized the chaos that could ensue with counties callously raiding other counties’ tax bases. Their wisdom prevails today, preventing the logical creation of Glenwood as the seat of a county that would comprise the areas of Marble, Crystal and Redstone united by a common transportation system. Marble continues as a second-class citizen of Gunnison County, and citizens of Redstone still question why they must drive through another county to reach their own county seat.