Willoughby: Difficult Creek lived up to its name

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Winter storms disoriented those who traveled Aspen’s mountains, and caused wrong turns.
Willoughby collection

My father passed on a story that may be true, about how Difficult Creek got its name. The name dates back 140 years, and the valley lived up to the choice.

During the early 1940s, Jim Leahey returned from California to Aspen. He came to visit his brother Jack, the last resident of Ashcroft. The brothers had pioneered mining in the town, where they owned and also worked the mines. Jack served the county as a justice of the peace for many years and developed a reputation as quite a character.

Jim told my father about his first expedition to Ashcroft, in 1880. During a snowstorm, he and several other prospectors, with their pack animals, had attempted to cross over Taylor Pass. When they descended the wrong gulch, they lost their way.

Once they discovered their mistake, they bogged down trying to get out of the gulch. Hence they named it Difficult Creek.

In 1886, Andy McFarlane, a sheriff of Pitkin County, operated a sawmill with 18 workers there. Late at night he discovered a fire had broken out. Although all hands worked to put out the flames, the conflagration wiped out the whole operation. Cords of wood, slabs of lumber and the mill itself was lost in smoke.

A murder attempt marked Difficult Creek that same year. Two partners had been working on a claim and had not been getting along well together. One man went to town and drank too much. When he returned late at night, his partner was sleeping. The man knew where his partner stored his cash, and he started to take it. But his partner awoke and caught him. The thief pulled a gun and tried to kill his partner. But another miner intervened in time to stop the loss of life.

Difficult Creek figured in a water scheme during 1893, when Aspen’s customers felt ripped off. D.R.C. Brown and H.P. Cowenhoven owned the franchise for Aspen’s water, and customers complained about prices set by the single provider.

Newman had dammed Castle Creek and transported water to his mine to make electricity. He proposed that city council give him a competing franchise.

He planned to build a dam at the lower end of Difficult Creek and send water via pipeline into town. He posited that the more reliable system would lower fire insurance rates, and everyone would benefit.

Unconvinced, the council delayed their decision for a couple of meetings. Eventually, Newman removed his request, “since there was so much dilly dallying.” Too much time had been lost on the whole dam idea.

Same year, same place, lightning struck Henry Cunningham. Some thought it killed him. But Cunningham survived to tell his difficult story.

Four years later, John Manning, a claim owner known in Aspen for his work along Difficult Creek, let out that he had hit a bonanza. A story circulated that in four and a half days of sluicing, he had amassed 7 pounds of gold, worth $144,000 at today’s gold price. The Aspen Times reported that the story didn’t appear “to have any existence in fact — only a hallucination indulged in by the reporter of an unreliable contemporary.”

Nevertheless, prospectors and the Difficult Creek Gold Mining Co. spent years searching and panning the creek for gold. But as history tells us, more was lost than found in Difficult Creek.

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


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