Watch tells of a time 130 years ago |

Watch tells of a time 130 years ago

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times
Brendan Fenn stands at the exact spot where he found the 130-year-old Hampden watch sitting in the open at nearly 13,000 feet elevation near the ghost town of Ashcroft.
Brendan Fenn/Special to the Aspen Times |

Aspen and Ashcroft historians know the towns came to be during the local silver-mining boom in the 1880s.

With the recent advent of television shows like “Prospectors” and “Gold Prospecting,” there’s a new wave of popularity to discover precious metals in the mountains of Colorado.

Brendan Fenn is one of the lucky ones to find something precious: A silver pocket watch that dates back to the days leading up to the height of the Ashcroft and Aspen silver-mining days.

The watch represents a real connection to life 130 years ago, long before the first pair of skies touched any mountain in this area.

Fenn grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and lived in Aspen for eight years before moving to Boston in August 2012.

Just a few weeks before moving back East, Fenn and three buddies decided to attempt to climb two 14,000-foot peaks, Castle and Conundrum, in one day.

During the climb, the group was navigating Pearl Pass, just below the snowfields at 13,000-feet, scrambling through a scree field lined with large, loose boulders. The climb became so steep that Fenn compared it to climbing a ladder on all fours, and he needed to take a quick breather. As he caught his breath, he saw something silver glimmering near his hands.

As his eyes focused, there sitting among the thousand-pound boulders was a silver pocket watch that appeared undisturbed since Chester A. Arthur was president of the United States.

“I never found anything like that in all the hikes I’ve taken,” Fenn said. “I showed my buddies, and we all looked around the same area for about 20 minutes but we didn’t find anything else.”

The watch had a small piece of hard leather looped through the handle, but the leather cracked and fell off as Fenn picked up the watch. He saved the leather piece and tried to open the watch as much as possible, but because of its fragile state, Fenn didn’t want to risk damaging the timepiece, so he took it back home.

It wasn’t until recently that Fenn remembered the watch and had time to do some research. What he discovered would make for a good reality television show.

The clues on the watch paint a clear picture of what it is, where it came from and how much it was worth. With the help of a horologist, here’s what Fenn discovered.

On the inside of the watch, it’s stamped, “Warranted Silver 81.” The term “warranted” was meant to assure customers they were buying silver ware that was melted down from silver coins, rather than a base metal that was silver-plated. The term “warranted” later was replaced by the term “sterling.”

“The horologist suggested this timepiece likely was owned by someone who was doing well financially,” said Fenn.

“Kent Bros” was stamped on the watch face and on the inside of the watch. Andrew and Benjamin Kent operated a fine jewelry business in Toronto from 1867 to around 1900. The business included the manufacturing of gold and silver watches, as well as an extensive trade clientele. They sold the best American and foreign watches at the time, and also had a reputation for diamond setting that was unrivaled in design and workmanship.

The horologist identified the watch as a Hampden Watch, and by the serial number could identify that it was manufactured in 1879 and likely retailed for around $75, which translates to around $1750 today.

The watch is an 18-size, 15-jewel Rail Way grade, considered a top-of-the-line Hampden watch. The watch also is unique in that the winding mechanism is located at 3 o’clock and not in the traditional 12 o’clock position. This type of watch is called a sidewinder.

“I didn’t think it was a normal watch,” Fenn said. “After talking with the horologist, his first guess is that the watch wasn’t owned by just any miner, but more likely a foreman or the actual mine owner. It wasn’t a common watch by any means. It was more like the iPod 5 of its time.”

Fenn has his own ideas, but the watch likely will hold onto its secrets for the time being.

“Ashcroft was a bustling mining area from 1880 to 1885,” Fenn said. “There was plenty of activity and exploring going on until Aspen blew Ashcroft out of the water when silver was discovered there as well. Maybe someone who took the Canadian railway out west to strike it rich owned the watch, or maybe someone who won it in a bet owned it. I can only guess, like anyone else at this point. In fact, maybe the owner of the watch was buried a few feet under the watch itself, maybe the victim of a rock slide.”

Because the interior of the watch is still mostly filled with clay and rust, the horologist recommended that the watch wasn’t worth restoring.

“I didn’t clean it out,” Fenn said. “I didn’t want to ruin any potential historic value that might be hidden in there. Maybe someday I’ll have it totally cleaned and maybe we’ll find more clues, but for now, the watch will represent another piece of time and mystery, as well as my own connection to Ashcroft.”

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