Winter In Ashcroft |

Winter In Ashcroft

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Fritz Kaeser/Willoughby CollectionToklat's Stuart Mace driving his sled-dog team through Ashcroft.

When I was in grade school I spent a few winter weekends at Toklat with classmate Alan Mace. The eerie nighttime howling of the sled dogs made me think I was sleeping in the Yukon. What also caught my attention was that winter in Ashcroft registers on a different scale than Aspen – more snow and far lower temperatures.

People ventured to Ashcroft in the 1950s only to visit Toklat. The ghost town stood in silent solitude. It was not difficult to envision how challenging life must have been for those who lived there during the previous century.

In the late 1890s, Ashcroft was populated with a few miners who still scratched out a living from several surrounding mines. Winter slowed life there to survival mode. February was the most challenging month with the coldest temperatures, the apex of snow depth and, for a few, the onslaught of cabin fever.

Valentine’s Day most likely reminded miners of their solitary existence. No Valentine’s cards arrived in February 1899 because no mail had been delivered since the first of the month. The Aspen Tribune decried the condition as “The Wail For Mail.” Miners may not have expected cards from sweethearts, but mail, especially newspapers, lifted morale in that isolated valley.

News of mail delays was common in the 1880s Ashcroft Herald. In one issue the paper noted, “Mail is expected via snowshoe express.”

Miners of the Montezuma Mine, a few thousand feet higher and quite a few degrees colder, journeyed to Ashcroft in February 1899, making their first visit in more than four weeks. Although the trip was only a few miles long, it was challenging in winter. Nevertheless, the reward of seeing faces different from those of the bunkhouse crowd, at Dan McArthur’s Ashcroft saloon, was worth wading through deep snow.

The thermometer on Feb. 6 dipped to 28 below. Snow depths, checked on the 15th, showed an average of 30 inches in the Castle Creek Valley. An informal survey of food supplies showed residents had one to three months’ supply on hand. The population of Ashcroft had dwindled to an experienced and resilient few who were tough enough to withstand winter’s worrisome dangers.

Ashcroft community members did more than just endure February; they attacked winter’s aggravations with an animal-trapping contest. Miners ventured out of their cabins to check their traps each day, protecting the secrets of their locations from competitors and guarding their special baiting and trap-springing methods. The winner, C. S. Armstrong, trapped nine martens, one lynx and an eagle. Dan McArthur, saloon proprietor, caught five foxes, two martens, one magpie and 11 snowshoe rabbits. Way down the list was the catch of W.S. Dickenson: seven mice.

When winter became unbearable, Ashcroft miners snowshoed to Aspen for entertainment, a few warmer days, and fresh faces. There they told their tales of survival in the high altitude of Ashcroft.

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