Tale of a transit | AspenTimes.com

Tale of a transit

Janet UrquhartAspen Times Staff Writer

Who was W. R. Wheeler?Two unrelated men who played prominent roles in Aspen’s rise as a booming silver-mining town more than a century ago shared the Wheeler name – Jerome B. Wheeler and B. Clark Wheeler. Both receive considerable mention in historical accounts of early Aspen.But it’s something that once belonged to W. R. Wheeler that has local history buffs scratching their heads.It’s a small transit – a combination compass and surveying device – that has apparently been passed from owner to owner in Aspen for who knows how long. It recently changed hands again, and with it came the intriguing tale of its history. As the story goes, it was the transit that B. Clark Wheeler used to lay out the townsite of Aspen back in the spring of 1880.Or not.”Right now it makes a great story, and I love it,” said local historian Larry Fredrick. “I don’t know how we’re ever going to prove it.”More likely, Fredrick will prove the legend false – but read on.These days the transit belongs to Jay Parker, foreman of Aspen’s Smuggler Mine and a longtime friend of a true Aspen old-timer, Russell Holmes.Holmes, now 80 and residing in a Veteran’s Administration facility in Rifle, was born in the Owl Creek Valley near Aspen in 1922 and spent much of his life working area mines, sometimes alongside his father, Harry. He recently passed the transit, and its story, to Parker.”I think it’s a pretty incredible thing Russ had,” said Parker, clearly touched by the gift. “I’m not going to part with it. I’m going to put it on display somewhere, probably here at the mine.”Parker is among a small band of mining enthusiasts who continue to work the Smuggler, just as Holmes did many years before. Holmes remembers acquiring the transit from Bill Herron back in the early 1950s. “Bill Herron ran the No. 2 tunnel at the Smuggler. He kept borrowing five dollars from my dad for booze,” he recalled.When Herron, already into the elder Holmes for $5, hit Russell up for another fiver, Russell took the transit/compass as collateral, though he didn’t intend to sell it back.”I gave him the five dollars and kept the compass. It was valuable and I knew it. That was the compass that surveyed the town of Aspen,” declared Holmes, feisty despite the frailties of old age and a lifetime of hard work.”It would be cool if that was the one, but I’m a skeptic,” Parker admits.He has asked Fredrick to research the tale. Fredrick has tracked down a W. A. Wheeler in a turn-of-the-century city directory, but the name written in ink on the leather case for the transit clearly reads “W. R. Wheeler.” Could W. R. Wheeler be some relation to B. Clark Wheeler?Fredrick’s next step is a trip to the Denver Public Library, to research its extensive collection on the history of the West for clues as to the identity of W. R. Wheeler.The transit almost certainly has no link to Jerome B. Wheeler, the wealthy investor who built the Wheeler Opera House and Hotel Jerome, according to Fredrick.”Jerome wouldn’t know a mining compass from a two-by-four,” he said.Platting Ute CityIt was actually Henry B. Gillespie, not B. Clark Wheeler, who first laid out a townsite to supplant the tent-filled mining camp along the Roaring Fork River in 1879. A bookkeeper for a Cincinnati capitalist who had mining interests in Colorado, Gillespie headed for the already booming Leadville, where he saw the first prospecting parties return from the Roaring Fork Valley, according to Malcolm Rohrbough’s “Aspen – The History of a Silver Mining Town 1879-1893.”Gillespie purchased options on a couple of mining claims on Aspen Mountain, established a townsite plan for what he called Ute City and then headed east to secure official status for the new town and seek out capital partners, according to Rohrbough’s account.While he was away, B. Clark Wheeler, a promoter who also recognized the potential of the camp on the Roaring Fork, skied from Leadville to Aspen with three companions in February 1880 and jumped Gillespie’s claim to the townsite. He came with an order to survey the site, signed by the surveyor general of Colorado, according to Rohrbough. Foundering in 3 feet of snow, he made a line-of-site survey to establish the boundaries of the camp, which he named Aspen.He returned in May 1880 with a lawyer, J. W. Deane, representing the legal interests of the Aspen Town and Land Co., backed by the investors Wheeler had lined up. He did a finished survey of the campsite; the final plat named the now-familiar streets for company officials, including Hallam, Hyman and Cooper, according to Rohrbough.The town wasn’t laid out as a square. Rather, there were nine corners, giving the original townsite sort of a multi-trapezoidal shape, Fredrick noted. The platted street grid is also off-kilter. Aspen’s streets don’t run directly east-west or north-south.”What happens is, B. Clark’s surveyor didn’t calculate for magnetic deviation. He reads his compass true and all the town is off by 15 percent,” Fredrick explained.Or, as Holmes put it: “Damn right it’s tilted.”A transit and a tall tale?Was Clark or his surveyor using the compass dial inside the brass transit now in Parker’s possession?”The fact that it has the name `Wheeler’ on it lends credence to the story,” said Fredrick, who has not yet examined the instrument. Even if the transit has no connection to B. Clark Wheeler, it would be of historical significance if it is a Brunton Pocket Transit, invented by one of the many men who flocked to Aspen to capitalize on its silver boom, Fredrick noted.Parker’s transit, however, doesn’t appear to be a Brunton. It contains both a compass and a dial for making survey measurements, but it was designed for use on a staff, unlike the pocket transit that became the standard for geologists, miners, the military and anyone else who needed an accurate, hand-held device for light survey work.An inventor with various mining implements to his credit, David W. Brunton patented his pocket transit in 1894, according to several sources. He was also part-owner of Aspen’s Taylor-Brunton concentrator, where raw silver ore was sampled, crushed and mixed with other ore for smelting, according to Fredrick.An Internet reference site indicates Brunton brought his newly patented transit to William Ainsworth Co. in Denver in 1894 or ’95 for manufacture. The company, which later became Ainsworth & Sons, was the sole manufacturer of the device, according to “Instrument Makers: Ainsworth and Brunton,” by Dale R. Beeks. The company continued to make the Brunton Pocket Transit until 1938, according to Beeks.The transit now in Parker’s possession, however, does not carry the Brunton trademark and was not manufactured by Ainsworth. Rather, it bears the name of Keuffel & Esser Co. of New York, an early maker of slide rules and other instruments. Keuffel & Esser Co. was established in 1867 and began manufacturing surveying instruments in 1885, according to an Internet reference to “The Makers of Surveying Instruments in America Since 1700″ by Charles E. Smart.Since B. Clark Wheeler platted the townsite in 1880, before Brunton invented his pocket transit and before Keuffel & Esser presumably manufactured W. R. Wheeler’s transit, it’s unlikely Wheeler could have used such a device to plat out the streets of Aspen.”Who knows?” Fredrick said. “It’s a great story.”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com