Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
December 11, 2009
I get it all the time from people who haven’t visited Aspen in a long while, the question that asks, “Geezus, when did the big money take over? It’s changed from the ’60s, or ’70s,” or whenever. Stick with me, there is an answer.
How would you have liked to have spent this past week camped at a place in the wilderness called Ute Spring Camp? In 1879, two prospectors, Phillip Pratt and Smith Steele, did just that, in the wake of the Meeker massacre on the White River. The Ute Indians were on the warpath, and about 20 other settlers had bailed out of the Roaring Fork Valley, bound for more secure locations. Even Pratt and Steele, two of the original Aspen settlers, struck their camp and hid out for a while somewhere on the side of Aspen Mountain.
Those ol’ boys, visionaries like you and me, were well on their way to realizing lifelong dreams of prospecting wealth when some guys with a few bucks came to town. In 1879, for $25,000, Henry Gillespie bought the Spar and Galena claims from Pratt and Steele, which no doubt seemed like an impossibly high sum to them, but paled in comparison to the millions Gillespie would eventually make off the Spar.
Gillespie was a decent guy, and since he held the biggest wad around, proposed that Ute Spring Camp, colloquially named for its location near a spring alongside the Roaring Fork River, be given a proper designation. Thus, Ute City, an almost perfect jewel in the Rocky Mountains, was born in November 1879. A town site was roughly surveyed and a preliminary plat drawn up. By way of a written agreement, each settler present at the time would receive two lots in the newly formed town.
One of the men afraid to stay around during the Ute uprising was William Hopkins, who instead traveled to Denver in search of money to develop the claims of him and his partners. Enter the sorry caricature of a man, B. Clark Wheeler (no relation to the Wheeler Opera House), who before he even left Denver, had gained government permission to plat the Ute City townsite, and rename it if he so chose. B. Clark knew of the previous agreement between the settlers, but he also knew that Hopkins had, behind everyone’s back, filed a homestead claim on the Ute City town site. B. Clark decided it was open territory for skullduggery.
In the flash of an eye, even for those times, Wheeler changed the name of Ute City to Aspen, refused to honor the “two lots per man” agreement signed earlier, and to “legitimize” his underhanded dealings with the men of Ute City, filed his plat of the now-named Aspen with the Gunnison County clerk. If you’re a prospector, this is called “jumping Gillespie’s claim,” a crime known to sometimes be punishable by death without benefit of jury.
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Wheeler and Charles Hallam, pawns for capitalist David Hyman (aren’t these names starting to sound familiar?), ended up paying Hopkins, et al., more than $160,000 for the claims they’d filed on. What did Brutus earn for slaying Caesar? Did Judas gain financially for betraying Jesus? Was $160,000 worth it, in the end, to William Hopkins for betraying the rest of the early settlers? Hard to say. He got a street named after himself.
Gillespie and his followers eventually sued B. Clark Wheeler, Hallam and Hyman in a court of law, but just as can happen today, the suit got lost somewhere in the myriad halls of justice, and Gillespie and his boys basically ended up with a sharp stick in the eye. Maybe they managed to wangle a new “town” buggy or a weekend of debauchery at a whore’s crib on Deane Street, or a soak in the Glenwood Hot Springs. Typically, there is no record of the outcome.
When did big money take over Aspen? Officially, with B. Clark Wheeler, February 1880. It’s not a new idea.