Partners and rivals
November 5, 2011
B. Clark Wheeler and “Three Fingered Jack” Atkinson, two of Aspen’s early pioneers, dominated the business community, owned and promoted mines, and anchored the social scene.Wheeler, editor of The Aspen Times, opened the first law office. He sold lots, got into the water business, and had his hand in many business deals. He also served as Aspen’s mayor and was elected to the Colorado Senate. Atkinson opened the first freighting company that connected Aspen to the railroads on the other side of the Continental Divide. He was the county’s first sheriff and a county commissioner. Both were deeply involved in promoting The National Silver Party in 1896 and throughout the years of the silver demonetization debate.Wheeler and Atkinson became partners when they invested in mining claims in the Highland district, principally the Midnight and Little Annie claims. From the late 1880s well into the mid-1900s, the two took turns heading companies that worked the Little Annie group of claims. Often Wheeler acted as corporate head while Atkinson was the on-site manager. Sometimes they switched roles.Wheeler also held interest in Smuggler Mountain mines and devoted much of his energy in other business pursuits. Even after the arrival of the railroads, Atkinson’s freighting company kept him busy away from the mine.The Little Annie was one of the first mines in the Aspen-Ashcroft area to reach rich ore. Atkinson bragged to my father in the 1920s that one week’s profits from his share of the Little Annie paid for his house, the Sardy House.Ore was extracted from a shaft that worked its way down about 400 feet. Only the best was hauled to the surface and hand-sorted. For five years there was no wagon road to the Little Annie, when a fair amount accumulated, Atkinson’s mule teams hauled it to town. After a road was built, Atkinson or Wheeler would take a buggy to the mine and return with sacks of silver.A wonderful rivalry between Wheeler and Atkinson played out in The Aspen Times and promoted stock sales. On one occasion in 1893, Atkinson sent a ton of ore down by sled and then wagon. He bet Wheeler that the load would have 1,000 ounces of silver or more. Atkinson won.On another occasion Atkinson, after pulling out what he thought was about $1,000 worth of ore, called his wife to tell her to go buy a new Easter hat. He passed the story on to Wheeler for the paper.Their wives were good friends and all social events involved both of them in some capacity. When the Atkinsons left Aspen for the Alaska gold rush, the Wheelers moved into their house. Atkinson was also a good friend of D.R.C. Brown, a major owner of Aspen’s downtown buildings and major shareholder in many mines. The two went on annual hunting and fishing trips. Wheeler was often a competitor of Brown’s in business deals, however, Wheeler managed to find a way to profit from any deal in town whether he was a buyer or a seller or just a middleman.It was not always a positive partnership. Wheeler tried to buy enough shares to control the board of the Little Annie, and did so in a less than civil way. They each, at different times, had to take out large loans that left them vulnerable. After silver prices dropped they separately and jointly, leased areas of the mine from the parent company in a complicated system that left outsiders wondering if there was a form of insider trading. Confusion reigned when Wheeler was sued by a shareholder of a different mine for selling shares that didn’t exist.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for 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.