John Jack Atkinson, Aspen pioneer |

John Jack Atkinson, Aspen pioneer

Little Annie Mine certificate signed by Aspen Times founder and mining promoter B. Clark Wheeler.

Jack Atkinson was one of the first to prospect in the Aspen area in 1879 and served as an early Aspen sheriff. In partnership with B. Clark Wheeler, mining promoter, sometimes huckster and founder of The Aspen Times, Atkinson located and owned one third of the Little Annie and Midnight mines in the Highland Mining District. Those mines were located in the basin below Richmond Hill. Unlike most of the early stake a claim and sell out prospectors, Atkinson held and operated his mines, making a fortune from his claims.My father enjoyed repeating Jacks stories about the early years that he first heard when he when he worked for him in 1924. At that time Atkinson had recently returned to Aspen after promoting gold mining ventures in the Yukon and property management in California. Atkinson hired my father and John Stafford to drive an 80-foot long tunnel, 50 feet below the fourth-level tunnel of the Little Annie, that had its adit where the mill and boarding house were located near the bottom of the Little Annie basin. As they found no profitable ore during that summer, Atkinson abandoned the tunnel. The riches of the project turned out to be the tales told to pass the evenings in the boarding house, followed by the challenges of keeping up with the aging but rock-hard Atkinson during the day.Three Fingered Jack, who had lost two fingers of one hand in a mining accident, had reached his mid-70s otherwise intact. He spent part of each week with his wife in town and the rest of his time at the mine, walking quickly in long strides between locations.Favored nighttime tales featured the tremendous snow depths in Little Annie Basin during the 1880s and the fortunes made in the upper levels of the Little Annie Mine. Jack bragged that B. Clark Wheeler had hauled $3,000 (in 1880s dollars) of silver ore to town in one trip with his horse-drawn buggy. That was either extremely high grade silver or one impossibly strong horse.Atkinsons easy earnings from the Little Annie built the Sardy House. Just one weeks profit resulted in one of Aspens grandest houses. He told my father that the fence alone cost $1,800. That wrought-iron fence, supported in a sandstone block foundation, stands today. Rumors arose that because he sold the house in one of the panics because he had lost his fortune. Even so, in the 1920s he maintained another house on Francis Street in Aspen and a home in San Jose, Calif. For most of its history, the Sardy house only had three owners: Atkinson sold to realtor Manford Smith, Dr. Twining bought it in the 1920s, and then it was the home of Tom and Rachael Sardy, who used the ground floor for a mortuary.Maude Twining planted the towering trees surrounding the house in the 1920s when she was first married to Dr. Twining. Maude, an Aspen High School teacher and later school secretary until she retired in the 1960s, consented to marry Twining under the condition that she would not have any domestic duties. Even though they owned the grandest Aspen house, they lived in the Hotel Jerome with maid service and meals.The Atkinsons were important society members during Aspens best mining years, and their home was the location of many social events. Jack told his boarding house audience about carving a goose for a grand dinner at his home. As he cut with his knife, the greasy fowl slipped off the platter and landed in the lap of a dignified woman who sat near him at the head of the table. Atkinson calmly requested, Fair lady, may I trouble you for that goose?Atkinson held his Little Annie ownership even though he had been approached to sell a number of times. Believing that ore riches would be found there, he eventually was proven correct when silver was uncovered at much lower levels by the Midnight. In 1925 Atkinson returned to California, where he died in 1927.

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 Aspen is a regular feature of the Aspen Times Weekly.

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