Legends & Legacies: When Tourtolotte Park was a town

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
United States Geological Survey photo

Today we think of Tourtolotte Park as a comfortable cruise after a ski down Buckhorn. But for 40 years Aspen’s closest neighboring town thrived there.

In the absence of good roads and cars, miners lived close to where they worked. Some holed up in cabins within feet of a mine entrance. In places where several mines clustered together, miners created small communities. Ashcroft, Highland, Carey’s Camp and Crystal City grew along the Castle Creek Valley. The more substantial communities of Lenado and Independence formed to the north and east of Aspen. Although Tourtolotte Park developed within walking distance of town, the community maintained its identity.

Aspen’s great ore body is contained in a geologic slope called a syncline that begins its dip just above Tourtolotte Park. From there the syncline dips steeply northward at a pitch similar to that of Spar Gulch. Two faults, where minerals penetrated from below, cross east to west at the Park. Mines near the top of Aspen Mountain such as the Silver Bell, Morning and Evening Star produced silver early on. They shipped out ore before most mines at Aspen’s level became productive.

Since Tourtolotte Park was not an official town, we can only guess the population. As one indication of numbers, the precinct registered 173 votes during the election of 1889.

Life there, a high-altitude version of that in the big city below, was not dull. Residents did not envy their neighbors in more populous Aspen. The community centered at Weamer’s Hall in Tourtolotte Park.

As in Aspen, miners thronged to dances with live music and masquerade balls, which elevated moods near timberline. The Tourtolotte Park Literary Society met at the hall, and the park had an athletic club. In addition, the Tourtolotte Park Lyceum sponsored debates, such as one in 1891 that posited, “Silver has done more for Colorado than all other industries combined.” I think we can safely assume that those who argued the affirmative won handily.

At that elevation snow is deeper, and in 1893 the Weamer’s Hall roof collapsed.

Travel between Tourtolotte and Aspen presented a challenge in winter. But a well-maintained road facilitated summer trips. During the 1890s, The Aspen Stable advertised horse rentals for $1.25 per round trip. They claimed to offer horses just right for women. A freight tram serviced the Park and also carried passengers, as do today’s ski lifts

The park’s namesake, Henry “Hank” Tourtolotte, is not as well-known as the settlement. He was one of the first prospectors to stake claims in 1879 and build the first cabins. It appears that he later moved to town, or at least Josie, his wife, did. The Aspen Times rarely mentioned Henry, but it listed Josie’s activities in social circles and as a close friend of Mrs. Atkinson. Before the tram was constructed, Jack Atkinson and his partner John Holbrook hauled most of the ore from the park.

The town’s population declined until Tourtolotte Park was mostly empty by 1920. The drop had less to do with a plunge in silver prices than with tunnels that allowed miners to tap the ore from below. The Newman Mine at the Music School campus ran an incline from below the Park, and the New York Tunnel from the Aspen side of the mountain. Miners moved to work from those tunnels rather than in the shafts of the park.

William “Billy” Zaug, the Park’s last resident, lived in Tourtolotte Park long enough to greet some of the first skiers who trekked through the ghost town.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at