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Tim Willoughby: Independence Pass — ocean to ocean highway

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Independence Pass in 1920.
Courtesy of Aspen Historical Society

There are few Aspen goals that took as long as converting Independence Pass to car use. Building support, lobbying for funding and seasonal construction spanned over a decade.

Soon after automobiles plied the network of Colorado roads, Aspen recognized the value of opening Independence for cars. The Aspen Boosters Club, working on expanding the small summer tourist business, allied with other communities in 1911 to lobby the State Highway Commission. It was not just a “local” dream, it was tied to a movement nationally to have an “ocean to ocean” highway.

Aspen worked with Glenwood, Twin Lakes and Leadville to push for the route to go over Independence, instead of other state proposals. They convinced the Highway Commission and thought they could begin work with funding in 1912. That fell through, but the county started some work and the Forest Service provided some funding for 1913 and 1914.



State funding initiated more work in 1915. Two of my extended family members, Al Frost and Jerry Sheehan, operated two four-horse teams on the road that summer. A contractor, T.E. McDuff, fought over contract details and it was not clear the county would pay its share of funding, causing the community to rally. “We need the road worse than anything else in the world unless it is a gold mine,” as one local complained. Another said, “It’s a long way to Tipperary but it’s a short way to Denver if we have the Independence Pass road.”

Highway building for cars was something new. The state even created uniform rules for road signs. For the pass they wrote rules that included honking before going into a one-lane section where you could not see the end. It was all so new that the first time two cars met on a section near the Punch Bowl (road not opened much above that point but locals were driving the road to check progress frequently) it was reported as news — “one car backed up, only a three minute delay.”




The wagon road connecting the area and mining was still in use, but Judge Deane, a major proponent and lobbyist for the road, owned land on the road known as Deane’s granite quarry. It was not an operating quarry, but with a better road locals recognized that a new business might open.

Work had to revolve around snow with construction starting in June and extending, when possible, into November. In 1916, construction was stalled due to a shortage of labor. The contractor advertised openings for “25 husky men” and would pay $2 a day with board, less than miner’s wages so few responded. It was hoped that the Aspen side could be completed in 1916 and the east side in 1917. Work stopped early in 1916, in October, and it did not start up again until July the next year.

In 1918 the community began planning a completion celebration. The road had two names, Ocean to Ocean, and the Pershing Route because the military was pushing for a cross-continental highway. Work stopped that year due to WWI.

Work resumed in 1920 with state funding and the road was completed to within 1,000 feet from the top. 1921 did not advance the road very far, but 9,000 yards of rock were excavated on the east side. Everyone thought it would be completed in 1922 as cars could navigate around work and make the trip. The first complete trip was accomplished by Ted Cooper on Oct. 16. A week later my grandfather, Fred Willoughby, drove back from Denver and he recorded the mileage reporting that it saved 108 miles. The next week snow closed the pass for the year.

Work progressed, slowly, in 1923. In 1924 a volunteer group wanting to facilitate the end of the project shoveled six tons of rock and convicts were used for similar rock work. The pass opened officially July 17. In September, 200 people from both sides of the pass celebrated with a picnic. Word spread quickly that it was the “most scenic route in the country.” It took over 10 years, $318,658 ($4.6 million in today’s dollars) and countless community hours to create what we now take for granted.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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