Willoughby: Triangulation, a look at Colorado through eyes of the 1870s | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Triangulation, a look at Colorado through eyes of the 1870s

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

To climb Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks has turned into a competition to climb all of them in the least amount of time. For competitive climbing I suggest a new venue — the promontories used as triangulation points in the 1873 Hayden Survey.

Members of the Hayden Survey recorded their first climbs of the state’s peaks. In an effort similar to those of John Wesley Powell, Clarence King and other stars of the U.S. Geological Survey, Ferdinand Hayden mapped and inventoried the West. Hayden had served as the first geologist to explore the Yellowstone region. Photographs and paintings from that trip had led to creation of the nation’s first national park, an area that spans parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Hayden Valley in the park bears his name at the center of controversy, due to uncertainty about who advocated, in the initial report, to exterminate Native Americans who would not follow federal dictates.

In 1873 Hayden turned his attention to Colorado. The geologic mapping of the Aspen area, published in 1878, attracted miners into Indian territory. The same geologic formations that held silver in Leadville also occurred in Aspen.

Accurate maps, a precursor to opening up homesteads and mineral claims for sale, depended on setting triangulation points around the state. Due to the mountains, many of those points had to be established at high elevation points, such as Mount Harvard. But adequate, long unobstructed views could be found without scaling the highest peaks. Surveyors may have favored lower peaks as they lugged transits and other equipment to those locations in the absence of roads and developed trails. In the Aspen area, the survey marked three triangulation points lower than 14,000 feet: Snowmass Peak, West Elk Peak and Mount Sopris.

To emulate surveyor’s efforts, competitors could carry a tripod and a heavy camera and pack. Although the summit views would not be the highest in the state, they afford the most expansive views. Climbers could truly claim to have seen all of Colorado.

Based on those higher triangulations, others established local survey points. The Aspen area’s valleys and ridges complicated the process. One of the most important positions in government during the early years was County Surveyor. Wading through old mining claim details attests to the value of these public servants. Each claim corner is located relative to a nearby visible triangulation point, and those points all connected to the original Hayden points.

Today we orient through GPS. The Hayden points were checked using modern technology beyond that of an 1870s transit and, amazingly, only a tiny difference was found.

Frank Willoughby, my uncle and a licensed surveyor, was elected County Surveyor after he graduated from the Colorado School of Mines. Over decades of surveying that included many of Aspen’s lift lines, he used many of the triangulation points. One of his greatest challenges was to find mining claim corners. I remember going with him when he located claims in the Ashcroft area. The triangulation points had names assigned when they were first established, most in the early 1880s. To survey several claims, he needed a point on the ridge on the north side of Taylor Pass. But that point had a name, no one knew its location and reverse triangulation had not pinpointed it.

A copy of the Hayden Colorado Atlas in the Pitkin County Library holds the Hayden triangulation map. You also can access it online at the Library of Congress — bit.ly/3iaXpAq. For a 3D view, see bit.ly/3eRwYy1. This project combines the triangulation points with a 3D map that shows peaks and valleys. Even if you don’t intend to take these climbs, you will gain respect for why the locations were selected, and the challenges to survey a mountainous state during the 1870s.

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 redmtn2@comcast.net.