New mystery in the old ghost town of Ashcroft
Like many people, Ashcroft mesmerized Peter Starck when he first visited the ghost town in the Castle Creek Valley as a boy on a family vacation from Wisconsin in 1975.
He revisited the site 10 miles south of Aspen every winter through 1982, but then college, marriage, children, a career and 904 miles of separation kept him away from Ashcroft for a few decades. Absence only made his heart grow fonder. In recent years, Starck has immersed himself in the town’s lightning-fast boom-and-bust existence, even to the point where he’s compared an original plat of the town in its infancy with current Google Earth images of the ruins and surrounding woods.
Starck is working on a theory that could unsettle old souls of the mining town or put them to rest. He thinks a core assumption about Ashcroft is flawed.
The signature structure of the town is a hotel that collapsed in the winter of 1973-74 and stirred emotions so severely among Aspenites that it led to the salvage and reconstruction of a handful of old structures the following year.
The structure has been known as “Hotel View.” Starck thinks that somehow, somewhere along the line, the name got messed up. He makes a compelling case that the structure was actually, and simply, called Ashcroft Hotel.
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Starck treads carefully. He doesn’t want to offend anyone or mess with tradition. He compliments Aspen for salvaging as much of its history as it has and gives kudos to the Aspen Historical Society for its trove of pictures and information. And he loves the old hotel.
“It’s such an iconic building in its architecture,” said Starck, an engineer in Waukesha, Wisconsin. “It really is a jewel to be cherished.”
But he always found the name odd and slightly suspect. The view from the hotel, while nice, isn’t outstanding, he said. It certainly doesn’t match the view from the current Pine Creek Cookhouse, the renowned restaurant a short ways away.
So Starck, adept at internet research from his work on family genealogy, started purchasing photos of Ashcroft’s early years from the Aspen Historical Society and reading whatever resources he could find. He wanted to determine when that particular hotel was built and — more importantly — what it was named.
He believes a photo taken on Independence Day in 1882 possibly shows the hotel under construction. Another photo, identified by the historical society as having been taken between 1881 and 1890, clearly shows the hotel.
Among the resources he mined were the Colorado Business Directories, a census of businesses in the state, from 1881 to 1913.
“Hotel View is never listed, but Ashcroft Hotel is, and the only remaining hotel after the decline,” Starck said. By about 1900, Ashcroft already had one foot in the grave. In 1913, the post office closed. That was the final year Ashcroft businesses were included in the business directory.
Anna Scott, archivist at the Aspen Historical Society, has conversed regularly with Starck via email, sent him information and listened to his theory.
“I don’t know where the Hotel View name came from,” she said.
Stuart Mace moved to the Castle Creek Valley with his family in 1949 and operated a wilderness lodge and dog-sled operation. He befriended the old-timers around Ashcroft and referred to the hotel as Hotel View, Scott noted.
Mace led the effort to restore the old Ashcroft buildings along with Ramona Markalunas.
Presumably, Mace learned of the name Hotel View from some of the old-timers he met, but oral history isn’t always accurate, Scott said. In other cases, locals assign nicknames to a favored site, like Ajax for Aspen Mountain, she said.
Scott hasn’t seen any conclusive evidence about Hotel View.
“We’ll never know if that’s the name,” she said.
Lynne Mace, Stuart Mace’s daughter, was 3 years old when the family moved to the Castle Creek Valley and built Toklat. She recalls exploring the ghost town as a child. Her family always called the iconic structure Hotel View, though she doesn’t know the source.
Mace suggested that Trevor Washko, a former resident naturalist for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and the “ghost” at Ashcroft from 1997 to 2005, might have the definitive word.
Like Starck, he has observed that the business directory referred to Hotel Ashcroft but not to Hotel View. But he’s also seen photos where Hotel View is visible in fading letters on the structure’s facade. Washko noted that two different women were listed in the business directories as the proprietors at different times in the 1880s, showing that the business changed hands.
If the business changed hands, it’s possible it changed names. Maybe Hotel Ashcroft and Hotel View are one and the same, with different names in different eras.
Does it matter? It does to Starck, and he speaks with passion about his interest.
“It matters because somebody came and tried to eke out a living there,” he said. “That name meant something to somebody.”
It’s also important, he said, because the hotel is Ashcroft’s “calling card.” Starck said he will continue his research to try to unravel the mystery.
“I live 904 miles away from Ashcroft,” he said. “I can’t go there every day. (But) I think about it.”
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