Willoughby: The silver rush 1878 and Aspen’s birth pangs eclipsed news of solar events
August 19, 2017
The booms and busts of Aspen's history remind me of Donovan's mystical lyrics, "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." Long ago, there was a mountain and then there was Aspen.
But Aspen did not suddenly materialize in 1879-80, when founders laid out and named the city. In 1876 these early settlers celebrated Colorado's statehood. Later, they were caught up in the events of 1878 described in the book "American Eclipse" (2017) by David Baron.
Some Coloradans experienced a total solar eclipse that year, if they lived along the path of visibility that passed through Denver and Pikes Peak. My grandfather, 7 years old at the time, lived in Denver. If the shadow darkened his and his parents' lives, they left no record of its passing.
As had others of his time, great grandfather Edmund Willoughby came to Colorado in 1858 for the gold rush. Rather than pan for his fortune, Willoughby manufactured brick and constructed buildings in Denver. Twenty years later, an onslaught of newcomers arrived. Some, including Thomas Edison, traveled to Colorado to observe the eclipse. At the time, Edison promoted his phonograph and promised to have developed an incandescent light bulb. But most newcomers came for the silver rush that centered in Leadville and spread to surrounding areas.
In 1878 an artificial line along the Continental Divide marked east and west, and the western side belonged to Ute Indians. Those who dreamed of silver wanted to challenge that line. But B. Clark Wheeler, Aspen's most influential pioneer, found sufficient prospects to keep him on the eastern side of the line. He wintered in Leadville, took a position as school principal, and managed life as a single father of a toddler. Wheeler's wife had died after childbirth in South Dakota, site of the most recent gold rush.
The following summer, armed with investment funding from Chicago investors, Wheeler returned to his mining interests. He filed paperwork for a townsite near Silver Cliff, constructed a toll road and — with the self-proclaimed title of Professor — advised prospectors on how to turn their silver claims into profitable mines. He looked into starting a newspaper, and, if his investors could come up with the money, he intended to purchase the best mining claims. Silver Cliff rivaled Leadville for attention, and each new discovery fueled further speculation. As prospectors pushed forward into Silver Cliff and the San Juan Mountains, the Utes withdrew from their territory.
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Eventually, the Utes lost patience with the growing number of settlers and Governor Pitkin lost his patience with the Utes. He saw them as an unnecessary block to his version of Manifest Destiny: The settlement of the entire state by European and American ranchers, farmers and miners.
When Wheeler heard rumors of silver in the Roaring Fork Valley, he manifested his own destiny. Concessions from the Utes in the San Juans emboldened him and others to compete with Utes for territory along the Roaring Fork.
You can follow the Colorado silver rush, which began in 1874, as it slowly crept along the Rocky Mountain spine. In 1878 there was a mountain, but no Aspen. That portion of Colorado, by treaty, belonged to the Utes. In 1879 the Utes lost their battle for land, their line on the map disappeared and then there is an Aspen. Wheeler served as editor and owner of the Aspen Times for three decades.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.