Two amateur historians bring ghost town of Ashcroft to life with stories of its people
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Peter Starck started the “Finding Ashcroft” page on Facebook. He regularly posts photos and explains their significance and context. It’s a must for Aspen-area history geeks. Starck can be contacted using the “Send Message” link on the Facebook page.
Rob Fedor created the “Reconstructing Ashcroft” Facebook page to highlight his work building a replica model of some of the buildings on Ashcroft’s Castle Avenue, circa 1882. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rob Fedor and Peter Starck have been happily haunted by the ghosts of Ashcroft for more than four decades. This pair of amateur historians — through a mutual curiosity about an abandoned 1880s building — discovered two bold, risk-taking mining-era characters, unearthed new material on the ghost town’s heyday and forged a friendship in the process.
They separately visited Ashcroft for the first time in 1976, Fedor when he was 21 and Starck when he was 11.
Fedor’s trained eye as a photographer captured details of Ashcroft’s signature building and helped unravel a mystery of its origin. Board by board, he has built a replica of the hotel that had a commanding presence in Ashcroft starting in 1882 and was rebuilt in 1975 after it collapsed from the weight of snowfalls over nearly a century of winters. (See factbox on page 15.)
Fedor, 65, is painstakingly building a model that will, when finished, re-create in exact detail between 20 and 30 buildings that were on Castle Avenue during the boomtown’s heyday.
“It isn’t just Ashcroft,” Fedor said of the significance of the project. “It’s the people that came to Ashcroft. It’s the environment of the time.”
Starck, 55, set a goal on Aug. 30, 2015, to piece together as much of Ashcroft’s history as he could. The town, 11 miles southwest of Aspen, boomed in the early 1880s with silver strikes but went bust just as quickly later that decade. Starck uses old newspapers, memoirs, historic archives, land title transfer records and any other sources he can find. The Aspen Historic Society’s archives have been a godsend, he said.
“I thought, ‘It will probably take me 10 years, but what the hell?’” Starck recalled recently in a telephone interview from his home in Wisconsin. He soon realized he had embarked on what will be a lifelong pursuit.
He’s accumulated so many fascinating tidbits on the people and places that he started a “Finding Ashcroft” page on Facebook in 2016. Nearly 400 followers share the discoveries as Starck makes them, often through old photos and detailed descriptions that put them in context.
“If it was just Ashcroft, maybe it wouldn’t be so popular,” Starck said. “But there’s a lot of bleedover between Ashcroft and Aspen. Everybody went back and forth.”
His interest extends beyond finding the exact sites of the post office, saloons, boarding houses, stables, jail and cemeteries. They are just a conduit to digging up the stories of the people buried in the graves of Ashcroft and Aspen. Those people shouldn’t be forgotten, he said.
“That’s where Aspen is rooted,” Starck said.
Two strangers, one interest
The interest in the people of Ashcroft led Starck and Fedor to Nellie Bird and Edmund Hawkins. Starck said a person needs to hear their stories — tales of gambles and risks, successes and failures — to really understand Ashcroft.
“There’s a lot more to Aspen and a lot more to Ashcroft than people realize,” Starck said.
Fedor and Starck were strangers until shortly after The Aspen Times published a story in July 2016 about Starck’s dogged pursuit of determining if the old hotel in the ghost town was named Hotel View, as it is now known, or whether it had different origins.
By the time he read the article, Fedor had already turned his fascination with the hotel into action. Starting in 2013, he began studying historic photos of the original structure in preparation of creating a replica.
Fedor had landed in Aspen on a lark in the mid-1970s.
“I had just missed out on being in the draft,” he said. “I wanted to travel. I was a lost young man at the time.”
He fell in love with Aspen. Fedor worked at Aspen Valley Hospital for a while and later started his own photography business. Although he left after a few years, he always remembered his visit to Ashcroft and specifically the old hotel.
“I guess what caught my interest was a love of old buildings,” he said. “I wanted to know more about it.”
Particularly intriguing were the corbels, woodcarvings on the upper two front corners. Fedor noticed they were in the shape of birdcages with bird stands inside. On top are birds set free and standing on the cages.
Fedor worked for 10 to 15 years as a framer earlier in his life so he appreciates stick-built construction, particularly when everything was done by hand. When he decided to build a replica of the hotel, he started with the front door — the structure’s visual focal point. He went on to build it using 1 inch in the model for 1 foot, so it is 29 inches high and 19 inches wide.
“I built it board by board to see what it was like,” he said, referring to the real construction.
Any part of the walls can be removed to expose the interior. “It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” Fedor said.
The model has the same wood floors, desk, shelving, lamps and even hats on the lobby desk that he saw in a historic photo of the interior of the operating hotel.
The construction took about two years. Fedor took no shortcuts: “I wanted it to be the way it was.”
After he read about Starck in The Aspen Times, he eventually contacted him to discuss their shared interest in Ashcroft. Both men said they immediately hit it off and periodically exchanged emails for the next couple of years. They would converse in intense spurts about Ashcroft, exchanging theories and building off each other’s knowledge.
“Peter is a whiz on research. I couldn’t do anything I do without him,” Fedor said.
Starck was impressed with Fedor’s interest in the hotel and painstaking construction of a replica. It re-energized his search to find the name. Something didn’t ring right about the name Hotel View, he said. Through his exhaustive research, he made a convincing case that the name was linked to the structure well after it stopped operating in 1913.
While tossing around ideas, the two men believe they struck gold on figuring out the hotel’s origins. Fedor kept coming back to the corbels.
“Rob said, ‘It’s almost like I’m looking at birdcages,’” Starck recalled.
That got Starck thinking of the name Nellie Bird, which he ran into a time or two during his research. He focused his efforts and learned through old land records that a lien had once been placed on an Ashcroft property owned by Bird for lack of payment for work. He was able to determine from the property description that it was the site of the famed hotel.
He also saw a reference in an old newspaper article to the “Nellie Bird house.” “House,” in the 1880s, typically referred to a small, unspectacular boarding house, Starck said. A state business directory confirmed that Mrs. H.C. Bird was the owner of a boarding house in Ashcroft.
Nellie and Edmund
Through additional research, Starck learned Nellie Bird had moved to Aspen from Leadville, possibly in 1880 but more likely in 1881, after her husband, Henry Bird, apparently left her. It was the second time she had been spurned, Starck said.
Bird had the foresight to buy a 176-acre ranch east of Aspen in the current North Star Nature Preserve area in 1881. She somehow also got interested in the promising mining camp of Ashcroft and set up a humble lodging that probably consisted of three walls and canvas for the entry and roof.
Starck also looked into the lienholder who claimed Bird hadn’t paid him for work. He learned the lienholder, Edmund Hawkins, had also lived in Leadville into the 1880s as a carpenter. Starck found a picture from the 1920s of the house that Hawkins built in the late 1870s or 1880.
“Edmund’s house in Leadville was distinct,” he said. “His work might have been noticed by Nellie.”
For reasons unknown, Hawkins was also living in Ashcroft in 1882 — when Bird decided to upgrade her lodging tent to meet growing demand in the prospering camp.
“Ashcroft was spectacular,” Starck said. “It was known as the Mining Wonder of the West.”
She hired Hawkins to undertake the job. Starck and Fedor aren’t sure if the open birdcages were Bird’s idea or Hawkins’ or a collaboration.
“The more I learned about Nellie, the more I could see it all had meaning,” Fedor said. “Nellie’s whole place was a statement, I believe. The more you look into her life the more you see this.”
Business directories indicate that Nellie Bird’s hotel was operated by three different people from the late 1800s until Bird died in 1913, according to Starck’s research. While it was, in fact, the Bird house, there is no record that it displayed a sign proclaiming such.
Her ranch obviously had the potential to grow in value as Aspen prospered, at least until silver was de-monetized in 1893. Records indicate she sold or donated land for what became the Ute and Aspen Grove cemeteries.
Bird was also listed as a potential investor in a railroad that was planned but never built between Aspen and Ashcroft. The Salvation Ditch originates on what was her property.
Hawkins launched numerous business ventures with his sons in Aspen. He had an icehouse on the northwest corner of the confluence of Hunter Creek and the Roaring Fork River.
“He became known in Aspen as ‘the Ice Man,’” Starck said.
Neither Hawkins nor Bird would have viewed himself or herself as “remarkable,” Starck said. But they are among the many inventive, entrepreneurial folks who made a young mining camp like Aspen thrive.
“They were kind of similar in that they always moved forward,” Starck said. “I think she was smarter than many of the bigwigs in town.”
Nellie and Edmund appeared to patch up their differences after the lien dispute. Bird had Hawkins called as a witness in her favor in a dispute with other people involving her ranch, Starck said.
Alas, history hasn’t been kind to Nellie and Edmund. Hawkins died in Aspen in 1895 and is buried in Denver in a grave that is apparently no longer marked, according to Starck.
Nellie Bird is buried in Aspen Grove Cemetery. Her grave is unmarked and a fire in the sexton’s shed in the 1920s destroyed many of the old records of gravesites. Starck aims to determine her eternal resting place.
“We would very much like a marker placed on her grave,” he said.
Fedor said learning about Nellie and Edmund has energized his determination to complete the replica of what was the bustling downtown of Ashcroft, circa 1882. After that much research and work, he feels a connection to the place and people.
“Edmund and Nellie — they’re like family now,” Fedor said.
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