Willoughby: Getting from point A to point B in mining era Aspen
Legends & Legacies
When you fly into or out of Aspen, you realize that as the eagle flies, distances are a fraction of the reality of negotiating through and around the mountains by vehicle. Winter exacerbates that gap. Driving from Aspen to Crested Butte in the winter is a long journey, by plane only a few minutes. In the mining era, when travel was slower and more arduous, travelers improvised.
In the early years of Aspen’s history, there were few roads and bridges, and some of them were toll roads. That was limiting for wagon and stagecoach use, but there was a solution — trails. This was especially the case above the valley floors. Travel and moving materials used foot travel, horses and mules. Steep grades did not limit mule trains. It was easier to cut a narrow trail through the forest and brush than a wagon road.
River crossings were one of the greatest challenges. The larger rivers, especially during spring runoff, offered limited places for safe crossings. Even small creeks created problems because of the extremely cold water at high elevations. Winter presented even more problems. Most mines, not close to town, stockpiled their ore production and moved it to town or to a railroad location after the snow melted and mud dried.
The backside of Aspen Mountain offers a few examples. Mines like the Little Annie were accessed from a steep trail, and later a wagon road, via Queens Gulch. But they also moved supplies and ore by going to the top of Richmond Hill and then descended into town on the trails and roads that went up the town side of Aspen Mountain. The Aspen side had very steep roads, ones where accidents were common, including one involving my great-grandfather who was a teamster. But the town side of the mountain, was not as steep or dangerous, especially in winter, as the very steep avalanche-prone Queens Gulch route.
If you have ever Jeeped/biked/hiked the Richmond Hill Road from the Sundeck south to where it joins Taylor Pass, you understand the next example. At the top of that miles-long ridge some of the road is above timberline and, generally, the whole route is on the flat top of the ridge.
From the early days, those heading to or from Aspen, in the few summer months when the snow on the route had melted, found those miles easier to travel than the Ashcroft to Aspen road along Castle Creek. Before the railroads reached Aspen in 1887, Crested Butte was one of the closest railheads with roads connecting it using Taylor (and Pearl) Pass.
The Richmond Hill route had no stream crossings and was not a toll road, and while maybe it may not have been important to travelers then, it offers the most spectacular of views. At the southern end, they could descend west to Ashcroft or east down the backside of Taylor Pass. The Castle Creek road was the stagecoach route, but it was an expensive road to build and maintain with three or four river crossings. There was little to maintain along the Richmond ridge route and there was really no construction of it since it wound through the few tree sections and otherwise was on fairly level land. The worst problem was slogging through a few muddy bogs.
Over time, but before the railroads arrived, the county took over building and maintaining the roads and ceased taking tolls. The Castle Creek road and Independence Pass became dominant, especially for stagecoaches. Stagecoaches continued using Taylor Pass too.
Imagine taking a stagecoach over those roads negotiating steep grades, especially going downhill, crossing rivers and streams, and bouncing over every rock and chuckhole. Stages at that time seated eleven with nine inside on three benches and two on top. The good news is that the team of horses could not last the whole journey so there were stations along the way to change horses and let passengers get out to stretch their legs.
The next transportation generation of early cars used the same roads but traveled a little faster. There were stops to stretch legs too, flat tires had to be changed often on those rocky roads.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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