The grandest Fourth of July, almost |

The grandest Fourth of July, almost

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Willoughby collectionImagine a horse-drawn carriage with circus lions negotiating steep, rocky Taylor Pass.

What might have been the grandest Fourth of July celebration in Ashcroft’s history was spoiled by the same thing that attracted miners: inflated profits.

In the 1880s, when Ashcroft was at the peak of its boom, miners extracted silver as easily as if they were gathering rocks from a streambed. Such quick wealth resulted in an insatiable desire for luxuries. Miners in predominantly male communities spent their earnings on local vices: alcohol and women. Prices inflated. Money flowed like water caught by the dams of enterprising proprietors. Entertainment of a more civilized nature appeared when families settled mining towns. Well-planned social and civic events and holidays aroused anticipations of a tamer sort.

One summer, Ashcroft’s officials decided to put on a big Fourth of July celebration. One can imagine the suggested activities: contests, music, a parade, and plenty of drinking. During the discussion of what might be arranged, someone reported that a circus was coming to Leadville.

The founding fathers immediately voted to bring the circus to Ashcroft. They delegated council member Jim Leahy to travel to Leadville and to negotiate with the circus owners. Leahy and his brother, Jack, were early Ashcroft pioneers and founders of the Columbia Mining Lode above town. Jack, later known as the “Mayor of Ashcroft,” was the last person to live there. The council pledged $80,000, a phenomenal sum in the 1880s, to satisfy the extravagant cravings of isolated miners and their families.

P.T. Barnum and his partner W.C. Coup discovered in the 1870s that larger circuses transported by train could dominate the popular circus market. By the early 1880s, nearly all circuses traveled exclusively by rail. Leadville’s tracks linked it to the rest of the country and attracted the large, 3-ring circuses like W.W. Cole’s and John Robinson’s. Accessing Ashcroft from Leadville required traversing the steep and dangerous 13,000-foot Taylor Pass toll road. Three stagecoach lines traveled that pass each day, a full day’s journey from Leadville.

Leahy began negotiations with the circus owners at a low bid. Upon hearing Ashcroft’s location and how difficult it would be to get there, the owners demanded an inflated reward.

As Leahy approached his authorized $80,000 limit, he pointed out that the circus would make additional money on their various concessions. The circus owners would not budge. They would not incur the risk associated with hauling their circus over the mountains for less than $90,000.

During his long trip back to Aspen, Leahy thought of how he would explain his failure to disappointed children. He began to polish the adventure story that he retold over and over in his senior years.

Some of us find the image of circus wagons and elephants creeping up Taylor Pass even more entertaining than a loud and colorful Wagner Park fireworks display.

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