Willoughby: Getting cold feet pays off, depending on where you are

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Water floods Denver in 1864.
Photo by George Wikely/Library of Congress

The price of gold topped $2,000 an ounce in August 2020. You have seen photos of prospectors and movies that depict gold seekers with their bags of treasure. For an idea of what a pocket’s accumulation of hard-won pebbles might be worth, consider that a bag the weight and size of a 12-ounce soda can would bring in $27,500.

E.A. Willoughby, my great grandfather, fit in with 100,000 Colorado gold rush dreamers in 1858. The slogan “Pike’s Peak or Bust” was coined as they trekked across Colorado’s plains. When they could see the peak they knew they had almost reached their destination. Placer gold found along the Platte River added up to over a million ounces by 1865. The rush slowed by 1863 with the depletion of placer gold, and when hard rock mines required more investment to access gold veins in the mountains.

Willoughby was just 22 years old when he arrived in the Denver area in 1858. The riverbanks were overcrowded where he tried to pan for gold, so he turned to a more profitable business, construction, and became one of the pioneer settlers of Denver.

The price of gold all the way through the 1890s hovered around $20 an ounce. In today’s dollars that would be around $500. Silver ran about $.90 an ounce, or $24 in today’s dollars — the price it brings in now.

Aspen, the “Silver Queen,” was not known for gold. Unlike the ore from a number of other mining towns, Aspen’s was mostly silver, lead and zinc. In 1897, at a lower level of the Free Silver Shaft, the Smuggler Mine reported a vein of quartzite that they thought contained gold. They announced that this layer would be found below silver zones in other places. The excitement doubled the stock price in one day. But you can’t put stock in excitement, and reality squelched the dream within a few days.

Early prospectors found gold when they crossed the Continental Divide in 1879, and founded the town of Independence. They scoured streams that surround Aspen for placer gold, and had little success. Panners worked placer claims along the Roaring Fork, Hunter Creek, Difficult Creek, Castle Creek, and Conundrum Creek. Beginning in 1881 periodical reports circulated that someone had found gold. It had to come from uphill, prospectors figured, as they worked their way upstream toward the imagined source.

Prospectors investigated all rivers and gullies surrounding Aspen and Ashcroft during the 1880s. The most productive areas bounded Difficult Creek, upper Maroon Creek, and two areas alongside Conundrum Creek. The lower end near where Conundrum dumps into Castle Creek yielded placer gold. Investors dug a shaft through the accumulated sand and gravel and down to bedrock. At the top of Conundrum, above the hot springs and near timberline, quartzite veins gleamed with promise. Prospectors answered the call by tunneling, work that continued for decades. Some found enough silver to keep going, but the area gave up very little gold.

In the late 1890s gold found around the Devil’s Punch Bowl area started a mini-gold rush. Small amounts of placer gold had been found for nearly two decades in the Roaring Fork between there and Independence. A small quartz vein was found about 3 miles out of town that assayed at around $1 to$4 per ton. That would amount only to a tiny trace of processed gold. But the discovery excited the town. A similar discovery in the Basalt-Emma area ignited rumors.

The areas near iron ore deposits above Ashcroft and that extend along the ridges to Independence attracted attention during the 1890s with occasional discoveries.

In 1909, and for the following couple of years, the Punch Bowl area triggered yet another gold search. A a 4-inch vein assayed at $95 a ton ($2,500 in today’s dollars), but there was not enough of it to support a mine. Around the same time gold was found along Hunter Creek valued at between 2 and 3 ounces a ton, and the Montezuma Mine located a quartzite vein with gold.

Amateur gold panners still work hours along California’s steams. It’s now 170 years after the gold rush there, but those who understand where gold accumulates find enough to make the effort worthwhile. At $2,000 an ounce during these uncertain times, it might pay off to pan the upper Roaring Fork or Conundrum. One difference between California and Aspen is the freezing temperature of Aspen’s streams. The time required to amass an ounce of gold might not be worth countless hours of cold feet.

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