Over the edge on Independence Pass

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Willoughby collectionFor decades, locals and visitors have dared Independence Pass to get in and out of Aspen. Here, the Frost family and teamster Emil Erving (far right) prepare for a harrowing descent at the top of the pass.

Driving over Independence Pass is unnerving, especially for flatlanders as they negotiate sharp curves and perilous-looking drop-offs for the first time. As scary as the trip can be now, today’s trips are not as scary as those before the road was paved and widened and guard rails installed.

I remember Aspenites of the 1950s who would drive through Glenwood to get to Leadville rather than take the shortcut over Independence.

A 1954 movie, The Long Trailer (still available through Netflix), that I saw as a child at the Isis gave me nightmares about mountain pass crossings. In that comedy, starring Desi Arnaz and Lucile Ball, trailer wheels drift over a cliff when they negotiate a hairpin turn. Items in the trailer roll back and forth on the steep grade as a petrified Lucy in the passenger seat stares at the stream far below them. The movie was filmed on the road to Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada, but it looked like Independence Pass to me.

In the 1950s, Independence pass was a narrow, rutted, washboard dirt road. Its rough surface slowed most drivers to a crawl; an alternative method to eliminate the jarring was to go fast enough to bounce over the tops of rivulets rather than descend into them. The uninitiated crawled over the pass, quivering over precipitous drop-offs. Locals, convinced that only they drove the pass, assumed that no one else was on the road at the same time so they would speed around blind corners with only an occasional horn toot to forewarn anyone coming from the opposite direction. Encountering others on the one-lane sections was tense. It’s a miracle there were no fatalities from collisions or road rage.

The most interesting sections of the pass, then as well as now, are near the top. In either direction, as you start your descent from the top, the grade increases and the road makes a sharp turn to traverse the side of the mountain. Since you are above timberline as you make that turn you have an unimpeded view of seemingly thousands of feet of drop-off. I doubt anyone who has ever driven or ridden over the pass has not imagined the terror of not making the turn, plummeting over the edge.

It was no different in the 1880s when stagecoaches rounded those same curves, especially since it remained the preferred route in winter. A Rocky Mountain News story from 1886 reported, “This afternoon at 4 o’clock one of those painful, startling and distressing accidents which will occur in traveling by stage over the defiles of the mountains occurred.” It described what we have all imagined: a coach going over the edge.

Two coaches traveled west through freshly fallen November snow. One, driven by Elmer Squires, a veteran driver, was on wheels; the other was a sled on runners. The ascent posed no problems, but soon after crossing the top they approached that right hand curve where the road is steep, the turn tight, and there is nothing to prevent precipitous falls. “The driver held the coach as near the embankment as possible, but he was unable, with all his dexterity, to prevent it from slewing, despite the rough-locks, and the hind wheels went over, taking with them the covered box and the nine passengers over the cliff four hundred feet.”

Two men who were thrown out were OK. A woman, Lillie Murphy, was thrown into the snow and presumed dead. It took half an hour for those who were not injured to pull Miss Murphy, who was alive but badly injured, out of the snow. They placed her on a blanket and carried her to the toll station.

The sled rushed to Aspen and sent back doctors who tended the other injured passengers. Had it been summer with no snow to cushion the tumbling bodies, the result could have been much worse. Five men were hurt, but all passengers survived to tell their tale of going over the edge on Independence.