Stagecoaches over Independence

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby CollectionJohn Sheehan, right, on a horse-drawn rig he used to haul lumber.

Before railroads reached Aspen there were five different freight and stagecoach routes to railheads on the other side of the Continental Divide. Each route had its proponents, depending on the size of the load being transported, the railroad company you wanted to connect with, the distance, and whether you were traveling by horse or by wagon. Many freighters went to Ashcroft and then over Taylor Pass because the gentler grades (compared to other passes, but still steep) allowed for heavier loads.

Freighters hauled silver ore and merchandise for 10 cents a pound, mostly from and to the railroad stops in Granite and Buena Vista, but also over Pearl Pass to Crested Butte. Independence was favored if Leadville or Granite were the chosen destinations. Independence was also preferred for horse and stagecoach travel because, though the grade was steep, the distance was shorter.

Independence Pass was jammed with traffic year-round after the completion of the toll road in 1882. Six horses pulled the familiar Concord brand stagecoaches, carrying nine passengers inside and another outside sitting with the driver, as they dodged mule trains and dozens of cargo wagons.

You could catch a late-afternoon train in Denver to arrive in St. Elmo in the morning. There you ate breakfast and caught the stagecoach. By the end of the day, after four horse changes and a meal stop, you arrived in Aspen.

Independence Pass may have been preferred by stagecoach passengers, but for several years it was not a favorite of freight and stage operators. Hundreds of horses were lost due to a hoof disease. During the muddy season, on the east side of the pass, horses came in contact with chemicals in the mud that caused their hooves to turn blue, then swell, and finally to rot. No cure was found, but eventually the cause apparently dissipated.

Chroniclers of mining towns focus on the miners and often neglect the larger population of men employed in the transportation of ore. A survey from 1885 showed more than 500 pack animals and 800 draft animals shipping freight into and out of Aspen. After their arrival in 1887, railroads eliminated the jobs of many of Aspen’s teamsters, but well into the 1900s there were jobs to haul freight and passengers, even over the passes.

Several of us who grew up in Aspen had relatives who made their living in the horse-drawn transportation business. John Sheehan, my grandfather, drove stagecoaches from Boulder to Blackhawk before he moved to Aspen. In Aspen, he was one of many teamsters who hauled timber from the surrounding mountains to the sawmill, and then delivered the sawn lumber to builders and mines.

I remember Phil Hemann telling me about Marvin Sloss, his uncle, while pointing out the cabin on Independence Pass he thought his uncle had occupied. Sloss had one of the less glamorous, but more interesting transportation jobs: he was one of the station chiefs on Independence Pass. Freighters and stagecoaches would stop at the station for fresh horses. His station was high up the pass. Imagine living in a small cabin, caring for and feeding horses throughout the long high-altitude winters.

The first automobiles drove into Aspen in 1906. The transformation from horse-drawn transportation to horsepower under the hood was rapid, eliminating hundreds of Aspen’s jobs. Independence Pass was converted from a wagon road to a state highway almost as soon as there was a car that could climb over it.