Willoughby: The dance of 1885 — one step forward and two steps back, all on Mountain Time
Legends & Legacies
For Aspen, 1885 represented a year of flux. On one hand, townspeople felt encouraged by many developments. On the national front, newspapers touted the success of John L. Sullivan, who became the first world heavyweight champion that year. On the other hand, unresolved issues would plague the town for two years.
Although the city claimed to have 5,000 residents, that public relations figure had not been confirmed by an actual count. Nonetheless, Aspen’s burgeoning population never heard a quiet moment. Construction of new buildings resounded everywhere. The Aspen Smelter produced $10,000 — $225,000 in today’s dollars — in silver bullion each day, from dozens of small mines. Miners sent additional ore over Independence Pass to be smelted in Leadville.
The first Dow Jones Industrial Average posted in 1885. Aspen’s economic base, real estate appreciation, resembled that of today. A city lot that had originally sold for $75 — $1,600 in today’s dollars — sold for $2,800, equivalent to $64,000 today.
In February 1885, President Chester Arthur dedicated the Washington Monument. In June, the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York. Perhaps Aspen residents felt more interested in the construction of the first mine tram, which J.D. Hooper, the mayor, was building. The tram would transport ore 2,800 feet down Aspen Mountain from the Vallejo Mine to the railroad in town.
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The Aspen Light and Power Co. wired the downtown businesses to its generator at the Aspen Smelter. The following year, electricity lit the city’s streets.
Despite such progress, Aspen’s residents sometimes felt depressed by a gap in federal mining law. More than a dozen lawsuits over mine ownership lingered, unsettled. Two of the biggest owners, David Hyman and Jerome Wheeler, took to court a dispute that involved a large lode. The “apex” mining law declared that if a mineral vein surfaced on your claim, you could harvest ore from that vein to its end, even if the vein crossed a neighboring claim. But the geology of Aspen and Leadville encompassed complications. Faults crossed and moved the veins. In Colorado, a movement developed to get the federal law changed to a so-called sideline system. That system determined that all ore below the property lines belonged to the claim’s owner.
Each side realized they would have to show in court that the geology and ore veins fit their argument. The litigants invested great sums of money and work into exploration. During this time, the owners did not mine and sell the ore in question to support the exploration, because if they lost they would have to relinquish all they had earned to the other side. As they mapped out vast deposits, the quest for a favorable verdict grew in importance.
Throughout the district, ore bodies resembled one another, with most dipping at 40 degrees. Some other mine owners felt reluctant to do much work in fear that they also might tangle in litigation. During the two unsettled years, production slowed and it appears that Aspen lost 1,500 residents. Mines of Ashcroft and Independence experienced improved competitiveness, attributed to geology that differed from Aspen’s.
The arrival of railroads in 1887 hailed cheaper transportation. By then, the litigants were out millions in today’s dollars with no resolution in sight. They closed their lawsuits and combined their claims in a compromise. No one ever settled the apex vs. sideline question locally, but Colorado relied mainly on the sideline system.
Railroads brought additional confusion in 1885. In 1883, railroad companies had created standard time throughout America and Canada so the trains could run on time. Americans adapted slowly to the plea for everyone to set their watches to the same time. But before trains reached Aspen, the town cajoled its residents to adopt the railroad’s new “mountain standard time.” Decades later, in 1918, Congress passed the act that made the time official.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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