Willoughby: A walk through time in the Ute Cemetery

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
A burial plot in Ute Cemetery as it looked in 1898.
Aspen Historical Society/Courtesy photo

The most interesting historian of Aspen’s past is the Ute Cemetery. It is there that, while wandering among headstones and decorative fences, one can begin to sense that people have inhabited this town for far more than a century.

Cemetery records tell us much more about those pioneers of the valley than just their names, dates of birth, and when they died. A quick look through burial records or a stroll through Ute Cemetery reveals much of the character of Aspen, as well as some interesting tragic events.

Those who might think Aspen was a typical Western, male-dominated, rough-and-tumble mining camp will be quickly dissuaded by the many infant graves. Infant mortality was very high then, accounted for around one-third of all deaths in the first two decades of Aspen’s existence. However, the number of child deaths cannot be attributed to any shortage of medical attention since lists of attending doctors from those deaths shows that there were nearly as many doctors here in the late 1880s as there are now.

Another myth dispelled by cemetery records is that of mining being a frequent widow maker. There were few mining disasters in Aspen. In checking through over 200 deaths of miners, only one death due to a cave-in can be found.

Miners did die on the job, however, often from their own carelessness or the accidental mistake of a fellow miner. Miners fell down shafts, were killed when rocks set loose by miners above fell on them, and they fell prey to the industrial machinery designed to save labor.

Most miners escaped accidental death on the job, but those careful miners could not escape the premature deaths from disease related to their profession. Deaths of miners in their late 30s and 40s were common. They often died of respiratory ailments that would now be traced to silicosis — but in those days were just listed as pneumonia, congestion of the lungs, or consumption, which was the term for tuberculosis in those days.

Accidental death was as common then as it is now, but the major killer was not the automobile, but the railroad. Trains frequently collided or derailed, killing and maiming people at least once a month. In fact, it would appear that your chances of dying on the job were greater working for the railroad than in a mine.

Stagecoaches and wagons often broke loose, or the horses pulling them took off, resulting in injury and occasional death.

It was not even safe for bicycle riders. One cyclist was killed at the intersection of Main and Aspen in 1899.

There were more people killed in snowslides because many of the roads passed through avalanche areas on the way to the mines.

In the early days before bridges were built, there were a number of deaths from drowning as people attempted to cross streams during the high-water periods.

The records tell us more than the reason why people died. They also tell us about the ethnic makeup of the city and even the racial attitudes of the times. Surnames are interesting, especially if you are attempting to discern who dominated the upper class.

Those families who could afford tributes to their departed, and even those who had just enough to immortalize their deaths with a stone marker, stand out in the Ute Cemetery. The less fortunate have become nameless because souvenir seekers carried away the wooden grave markers that were still there into the early 1950s. Wood fences like the one in the photo are also long gone.

Aspen had a Black population in the mining days, but it is difficult to learn much about them. But they were assigned the same status as in other Western cities. They were buried only by their own Black undertaker, and in the records, their anonymity comes out such as in the listing of one deceased simply as “colored Lady Allen,” who died at the age of 65 in 1898.

Some who wander through Ute Cemetery think there was a major military battle because of the high number of veteran headstones. They do not notice that the death dates are not the same. The many headstones that are all similar shows there were many Civil War veterans who died in Aspen.

Take a stroll through Ute Cemetery, examine the evidence that it offers, and let your imagination take you back in time.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at


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